A documentary by Gero von Boehm. Streams starting Thursday (July 23) via Vancity Theatre’s virtual cinema, with proceeds to support the venue's reopening
In German director Gero von Boehm’s new documentary about Helmut Newton, the controversial photographer calls himself “a professional voyeur”. And that seems like an apt description when you think of iconic fashion shots from the ’80s and ’90s—typified by black-and-white photos of blond supermodel Nadja Auermann, all fishnet legs, sky-high heels, and soulless stare.
But as this spirited biopic reveals, the reality of the man and his work is infinitely more complex. Like sex itself, it’s complicated.
Let’s start with the strong, intelligent women who praise him here—Marianne Faithfull, Charlotte Rampling, and Isabella Rossellini, all of whom posed for Newton. His muse Grace Jones makes frequent appearances, laughing, “He was a little bit pervert, but so am I, so it’s okay,” then adding he was “Never vulgar! Never vulgar!”
In an industry where #MeToo has outed more than its share of creepy photographers, Newton stood out as someone who made his subjects feel safe; Auermann and Claudia Schiffer are among the models who sing his praises in the doc. On the other hand, we have opponents like Susan Sontag, seen giving Newton a withering takedown on a French TV panel.
Newton’s personal history further complicates the picture. You can see the influence of Weimar Republic Berlin, where he grew up, in his style. But consider that Newton was a Jew whose family was forced to flee Nazi Germany—and that he was a huge admirer of propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. His images tend to represent women in the same sculptural, athletic, and inescapably Aryan way she depicted men and women. Note the German braids on so many of his fetishized subjects—or should that be objects?
Newton’s wartime flight took him to China, Singapore, and finally Australia, where the ladies’ man settled down with his life partner, actor-model-artist June Newton (known as photographer Alice Springs)—another strong woman who had a big hand in his business and art. June is at his side from their move to a big Paris studio in 1961 to Newton's death in an L.A. car accident in 2004. Their relationship is depicted in loving, intimate photographs throughout the film.
In the end, did Newton celebrate the power of women or turn them into gorgeously posed objects? That’s for you decide from the lively stream of evidence here.
As you’ll see in widescreen, gelatin-silver-print detail, Newton was prolific as hell—as acclaimed for definitive portraits of Margaret Thatcher, Dennis Hopper, and Jean-Marie Le Pen as he was for images of naked women splayed in sleazy hotels. “The photos were frightening, but there was always a sense of humour,” Rossellini observes, her comment never ringing more true than in Newton’s image of a raw roasting chicken in high heels.
You are sure to cringe at some of his output; a depiction of a woman on all fours on a bed, sporting a finely crafted Hermès saddle in Vogue Hommes probably wouldn’t fly today. Ditto for a woman’s long legs and ass sprouting out from within the mouth of a crocodile. But many interview subjects point to the ways he turned the stereotype of submissive women on its head, playing with sexual power dynamics and gender roles in subversive ways.
No matter what your final judgment, Newton led a life that was never boring, artfully reflecting through his lens some of the biggest shifts and zeitgeists in the world. He’s a funny, likable, self-effacing guy in the archival clips here—even if, underneath, “he’s a little bit pervert.”