Fittingly, Newton’s story is narrated by the women frequently captured behind his camera with candid interviews from Grace Jones, Isabella Rossellini, Charlotte Rampling, Nadja Auermann, Marianne Faithfull, Claudia Schiffer and importantly his wife June Newton (known as photographer Alice Springs within the industry). Newton’s highly erotic photographs expertly placed high fashion amongst subversive mise en scène plucked from the photographers own mind. However perverse, according to his models and collaborators, Newton always worked with a twinkle in his eye. Due to Newton’s provocative art it is surprising that early on he was accepted amongst the fashion industry with long-standing relationships with Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle along with legendary designers such as Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent. Many of these collaborations lasted up until his death at age 83 following a fatal car crash exiting the infamous Chateau Marmont in 2004.
Weaving within recollections of Newton’s most iconic shoots, director Gero von Boehm also sheds light on the photographer’s extraordinary life story starting with a young Newton fleeing Nazi occupied Berlin in 1938. Newton lived many lives and von Boehm expertly draws connections between the young Jewish boy growing up in Nazi occupied Berlin, his admiration of Leni Riefenstahl’s work and his own iconic style. Over the course of Newton’s prolific career his work has often come under scrutiny due to his controversial and some argue exploitative representation of women. Throughout the documentary he expresses his adulation of women and discusses the importance of the perfect ‘look’ which results in the atypical Newton woman —tall, thin, white, blonde and nude. His treatment of women on set is at times jovial but scenes of Newton jokingly offering extra payment if the male model has a ‘hard on’ whilst shooting with a model dressed in swimwear is disturbing to watch and highlights the greater issues of power within the fashion industry. He further reflects on the perfect subject, stating someone with power— be it financial, political or sexual will always make the best image.
The women represented within The Bad and the Beautiful share similar feelings to Newton’s ability to draw out their inner self or create alter-egos in the presence of the camera. Isabella Rossellini describes herself as a vehicle for Newton’s work, allowing him to express the complex power dynamics between himself and women. Grace Jones fondly recalls her working relationship with Newton calling him ‘a little bittle of a pervert but so am I’ but adds ‘never vulgar’. German supermodel Nadja Auermann who featured in some of Newton’s most controversial work, eloquently discusses complexities of Newton’s work and the reality of being one of his muses. Auermann argues that whilst Newton’s work is initially perceived as commodifying women it can also be viewed as a ‘mirror of society’. A self proclaimed ‘professional voyeur’ Newton was not interested in capturing the subject’s soul, instead he was an image maker, with no interest in emoting the subject.
Newton’s impact on photography and fashion is undeniable thanks to his highly stylised, erotically charged subversive lens. The Bad and the Beautiful elegantly charts the photographer’s legacy, offering insider knowledge into some of the world’s most influential images whilst giving his Newton women a voice. Did Newton weaponise women’s sexuality at their expense? Thankfully, his muses question the intent behind Newton’s voyeuristic lens with a critical eye which is much needed within the context of his work. Ultimately Gero von Boehm leaves that decision to the viewer.
Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful is available in virtual cinemas through Kino Marquee now
by Casci Ritchie