The new documentary “Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful” explores the famous fashion photographer’s life through a series of interviews with the women he helped make famous. Some feminists, of course, have argued that he exploited them and put them into objectified situations. But there’s no denying that when you see one of his photographs, you know he took it, as Vogue editor Anna Wintour says.
Isabella Rossellini, one of the women photographed most provocatively by Newton, talks about the way Newton used his subjects to project an idea. And when Newton had ideas, they almost always involved women, either clothed or not, in unusual situations, some seeming rather misogynistic or perverse.
The most famous Newton image is probably the one showing director David Lynch holding Rossellini’s face, as if he’s the artist and she’s a canvas to be manipulated. The black-and-white image, however, raises more questions that it answers. Is Rossellini submitting to Lynch? Or does her face betray a sense of power?
Rossellini doesn’t have a problem with such questions. Instead, she says that Newton is exploring the idea of a man being attracted to a woman, but then becoming angered by that attraction, mainly because it makers him vulnerable.
And that’s why the Newton photo is so striking, in a way. Lynch’s movies explore this same dynamic, over and over, from “Blue Velvet,” in which Rossellini starred, to “Mulholland Drive.” And that was part of the genius of Newton. He wanted his photographs to convey an idea, or as the actress Charlotte Rampling puts it, “an image.”
Indeed, Rampling became one of Newton’s biggest fascinations when he put her in a hotel room and had her strike various poses expressing power and danger, sometimes in the nude. Rampling points out that she didn’t fully understand at the time what Newton was up to, but then she realized that he was creating an “image” for her — and that this image complemented her role in the sadomasochistic 1974 film “The Night Porter.”
The basis of “The Night Porter,” is a woman, Lucia, who’s a Holocaust survivor. And she happens to resume a relationship with a Nazi who tortured her after meeting him by chance in a hotel after the war.
In his documentary director Gero von Boehm doesn’t explore this connection nearly enough, but he does eventually talk about Newton’s aesthetic, which was honed during the rise of the Third Reich, under the influence of Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl.
As a German Jew, Newton marveled at Riefenstahl’s obsession with the male body — and the idea of a perfect race. And in later life, after fleeing Germany and ending up in Australia, he used his camera to obsess over the female body — and put it in situations that were perverse, not perfect. In other words, Newton’s aesthetic was subversive as well as reflecting a male version of the Riefenstahl gaze.
In most cases, the female body was paired with something not at all expected, and sometimes those bodies appeared dangerous, as with Grace Jones wielding a knife while lying naked on her back, a shadow covering her private parts.
Jones says that Newton was lighthearted and creative — but also a pervert. Then she adds, “So am I.”
When Newton shot a photo of a naked Jones with chains around her legs, uproar followed. But in reality, Newton was just doing what he always did, regardless of notions about sensitivity. He provoked and stimulated conversation and held a mirror up to society.
Such mirrors, however, did not sit well with some folks. In particular, cultural critic Susan Sontag attacks Newton on a French TV talk show, about halfway through the film, calling his photographs misogynistic. Newton replies that he loves women. But Sontag says she’s not impressed with his declaration.
Interestingly, the documentary gives much credit to Newton’s wife June, whom he met in Australia before becoming a world-renowned fashion photographer. Several of the interviewees note that June was the brains of the family business, and that she had enormous sway over Newton’s aesthetic choices when editing photos. Sadly, her life story gets a bit lost in the details. But there’s no doubt that her love and support were crucial to Newton’s success.
And that makes you wonder: What would a Helmut Newton documentary look like if a woman directed it? Maybe someday.
“Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful” begins streaming on the Violet Crown website, austin.violetcrown.com on July 24.