Helmut Newton was the fashion photographer whose most famous pictures were of women without clothes. Early in this documentary on his life and career (he died in a car crash aged 83 in 2004) we see Newton directing a model from behind his camera. ‘There’s a kindness in your look,’ he says. ‘That’s the last thing I want.’
Newton’s work is a glorious reflection of the hedonistic, high-octane 1970s and the high-gloss ’80s. Many of his most famous subjects (Isabella Rossellini, Charlotte Rampling, Claudia Schiffer, Marianne Faithful) appear in the film singing his praises – he was charming and clever, he made them feel safe. But he also made them look like objects. ‘He was a little bit of a pervert,’ says the iconic Grace Jones, ‘But then, so am I.’ He was a little bit of a misogynist too.
Jones was memorably photographed in a naked clinch with her then beau Dolph Lundgren and when she appeared on the cover of the German magazine Stern Newton had her crouching naked with chains on her ankles. It caused an uproar. He photographed a non-disabled model with crutches and in a wheelchair. It caused outrage. In a shot for American Vogue, a model in spike heels was seen lying with her legs popping out of a bin bag like she was a dead body. It caused outrage.
With no sense of irony Vogue editor, Anna Wintour calls Newton’s work, ‘witty’.
His favourite type was the supermodel ‘glamazon’: tall, porn-deluxe blondes with big shoulders, mean eyes and lipsticked sneers. His full-frontal nudes have been likened to shop-window dummies – beautiful and belligerent. One picture has a woman on all-fours with a horse saddle on her back. ‘Make it look more natural,’ he commands a model crouching naked and awkward on the ground. His Monte Carlo apartment is seen stuffed with Barbie dolls and mannequins (one suspended upside down, its face to the wall). He sure liked his women compliant.
Born in Berlin, by his teens the Nazis were on the rise. He was Jewish and narrowly escaped the gas chambers. His work reflects Weimar cabarets as much as the perfect specimens that so entranced Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl.
Photography meets hagiography in this doc. How much better it would have been with some dissenters. In archive footage, Susan Sontag is a lone voice who talks of: ‘the executioner who loves his victim’. Like Newton’s body of work, the film is often repetitive. If only we had heard more from the intelligent and incisive Isabella Rossellini rather than the women who insist on calling his photographs witty.
Available on Curzon Home Cinema and On-demand Fri 23 Oct 2020