Whether you love him or you loathe him, there is little doubt that photographer Helmut Newton’s work leaves a lasting impression. Slammed by critics for its misogyny and celebrated for innovation by others, the central question of his photography still remains: is it empowering or is it exploitative? Gero von Boehm’s intriguing documentary, Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful, doesn’t attempt to provide an answer, opting instead for dialogue.
Interestingly, the primary conversation occurs between the audience and Helmut Newton’s subjects. Director von Boehm engages with Newton’s models, giving voice to these previously objectified women. He mixes in archival and home movie footage of the photographer so that the women’s voices are in essence informing our view of the artist even as he presents a view of himself. The result is a fabulously layered deconstruction of the man, the myth and the art, which, in fact, transforms the film into an effervescent study of image making itself.
Helmut Newton was a key figure in twentieth century photography. As a high fashion photographer, he was an artist of choice for many magazines, including French Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. In the 1960s he spearheaded a visual sexual revolution of sorts in magazines such as Playboy, being among the first and most creative men to investigate the liberated female form. Editors loved him, but otherwise reactions were mixed. Feminists hated him. The film marvelously includes a famous public exchange in which Susan Sontag criticized him right to his face. Helmut’s reaction? A bemused smile.
Rather than denounce Newton, the film opts to build a more in-depth portrait of this incongruous genius. The film dives into his upbringing in pre- WWII Germany, connecting the influence of Weimar art and propaganda on his photography. In particular, we see the origins of the idea of the “Helmut Newton woman,” the type of model he preferred to feature. This is most revealing considering that his work frequently referenced sadomasochism and fetishism and featured physically strong looking women with sculpted bodies.
With so much dialogue, Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful provides a refreshingly complicated and richly rewarding vision of the photographer and his body of work. Thankfully, there’s also plenty of room to engage with the photos themselves.
With its engagingly lively pace, this film is as vivid and highly charged as Newton’s work itself. Persuasive without being overly earnest, Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful makes it hard to hate an artist who is spoken of with such affection by the likes of Grace Jones, Isabella Rossellini, Charlotte Rampling, Marianne Faithfull, and Claudia Schiffer.
Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful screens in virtual cinemas across Canada beginning July 23.