During his life, Helmut Newton was as revered as he was reviled for his provocative, in-your-face photographs of women. Now, sixteen years after the photographer’s untimely death, director Gero von Boehm explores the complicated legacy that the German-Australian photographer left behind in a retrospective documentary entitled Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful.
An archival clip in the film shows Helmut Newton on a talk show explaining himself to a woman who believes his work to be both unpleasant and humiliating. Although Newton seems to shrug off her assertion that he is a misogynist, claiming that he “loves women,” his dissenter argues that she’s heard it all before and that his professed love for women is comparable to the love a master may have for his slave or an executioner may have for his victim. The clip is one of a handful of negative portrayals we see of Newton throughout the documentary, which play in stark contrast to the numerous talking heads of models and actresses who worked with Newton professing their love for his work. Time and time again, the women in his images speak of him being good-humored and assert that they were always comfortable working on set with him, with model Sylvia Gobbel saying that as a tall 20 year old blonde she often felt like a hunted deer, but Newton’s photos of her made her feel stronger. “I controlled the situation, I wasn’t a deer,” she remarked, “I was equal to the hunter. I could decide what I wanted to do.”
Gero von Boehm’s documentary often leans towards praise of the photographer in this way, with the film’s ultimate take away being that Newton was more of an innovator than he was an unrelenting chauvinist. This concept is supported not only through testimonial with those who worked for and with Newton, but with analysis of some of his most famous photographs – asserting that his work was not just comprised of empty imagery of naked women, but of stories. They were imagined, fantastical moments in time captured on film. As an example, model Nadja Auermann calls to mind a photo taken of her and a swan for Vogue in 1994. Although it was criticized at the time as being vulgar, and even thought to be suggesting beastiality, Nadja Auermann recalls that the photo was meant to be a reference to the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan. Although Newton’s work could oftentimes be provocative and rebellious there was, more often than not, a method to the madness.
In an effort to add visual interest to the continued showcase of still photographs in a documentary film, Gero von Boehm inserts sheets of negatives of Newton’s work with simplistic animations circling, x-ing out, and adding notes to the tiny rectangular images. It’s a playful nod to the photographer’s process, made while simultaneously showcasing some genuine outtakes of a few of Newton’s acclaimed images. The editing of the documentary has a similar approach, always carefully balancing its engagement with the viewer with the reality of its subject.
As someone who was largely unfamiliar with Helmut Newton’s work prior to watching Gero von Boehm’s documentary, Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful was an enlightening look at photography’s self-described “naughty boy.” In addition to its aforementioned talking heads with glowing first hand accounts of its subject, the film briefly delves into Newton’s Germain background, exploring how some of his early inspirations influenced the work he produced throughout his life. As much as it can, the film attempts to paint a complete picture of the equally influential and infamous man, and does so in a way that is never boring or cliché.