Before I moved to Miami, I had never set foot in Florida. Coming from a small town in South Carolina, Miami was mythical. My understanding of the city had been cultivated from the cultural imagery of cinema, fashion magazines, and postcards. One image in particular that captured my attention was a photograph Helmut Newton shot at the pool at the University of Miami, my reason for moving.
In the foreground: a young blond woman with a milkmaid braid, wearing a modest, white one-piece that clung to her body. In the background: a man in mid-twirl of a complicated dive, suspended upside-down. His frozen motion makes the woman’s pose even more intriguingly static. She is frozen, statuesque, resolute.
The image had a power to it, from its lighting and composition to its stark architectural lines. It was a new, sexy, humid, and dangerously glamorous space that I soon would occupy.
One can get a greater sense of the depth of Newton’s oeuvre by looking through some of his Miami photographs over the years. There’s the humor of Lauren Hutton wrestling an alligator and the mystery of a model, Celia, standing on a Miami Beach hotel balcony talking on a telephone while wearing nothing but high heels. And there is a kind of violence to images of models Jerry Hall and Lisa Taylor ‘exercising’ together on Miami Beach, and a danger to a lingerie-clad woman hiding in a hotel room while a man lurks outside the window.
All of these photos demonstrate power and are concerned with power, which is the central focus of the new documentary, Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful. The subtitle references the 1952 Vincente Minnelli film that examined the grotesque behind the façade of Hollywood glamour. Likewise, this documentary wants to get behind the image of Helmut Newton.
The film is alternately composed of interviews, exclusively with women who collaborated with Newton, and archival footage of him at work, briefly and casually responding to questions. In this age of pop-docs that seem more concerned with visual stimulation than with their subjects, the more traditional approach is refreshing. It delves into the iconography of Newton and how influential he was (and remains) and works to differentiate him from other fashion photographers of the time — though, sadly, without dwelling nearly long enough on the peak of glamour and decadence that came in the 1970s.
Photo by Helmut Newton/Courtesy Helmut Newton Foundation
The Bad and the Beautiful very much focuses on Newton and his photographs. It rarely drags, thanks to insights from the fascinating women who made such essential contributions to his work and are able to share a unique understanding of the man behind the lens. Provocative women — like Charlotte Rampling, Isabella Rossellini, Grace Jones, and Marianne Faithfull — share stories about Newton, their ideas about his intention and psychology, and rapturously pontificate on photography and the relationship between artist and subject.
Despite featuring so many women, the film only briefly touches on some of Newton’s more provocative work and his complicated, and often questioned, depictions of women. The film and its interviewees seem torn between two poles: not necessarily engaging with the kind of discourse oft associated with the #MeToo era by emphasizing the way consent factors into the relationship between model and photographer and attempting to bring up their own valid critiques of his work. If they seem more inclined to defend him and discuss their unique collaborations, it is because the film is as brief as it is exhaustive, never pausing to linger on any given moment.
The Bad and the Beautiful also devotes a lot of time interrogating Newton’s reputation as the “king of kink.” Many of the iconic women interviewed dispute the title by separating the artist from the art. Much of the provocation of his work is traced to his youth in Nazi Germany. The documentary touches upon his Jewish heritage and the dangers he faced, including an anecdote about a mentor who was killed in a concentration camp.
Director Gero von Boehm homes in on how strongly the visual iconography of the Nazi regime, including the work of Leni Riefenstahl, influenced Newton, but he doesn’t follow through on the political implications. Likewise, the documentary glosses over how Newton fetishized a certain kind of woman (mostly white — he went so far as to critique the size of Grace Jones’s breasts).
Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful has so many of these snippets of information and intrigue that it almost nudges you to seek out more information. His interview with Susan Sontag, for instance, offers an exciting counter-voice about the perceived and palatable misogyny of his work that the film lacks elsewhere. (Not an uncommon phenomenon in documentaries about “great men.”) But at a brisk 93 minutes, this exploration into an interesting — if at times controversial — photographer will be time well spent for anyone interested in art, photography, and fashion.
Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful. Starring Charlotte Rampling, Isabella Rossellini, Catherine Deneuve, Grace Jones, and Claudia Schiffer. Directed by Gero von Boehm. Not rated. 93 minutes. Available now for rental via Coral Gables Art Cinema; premieres Friday, July 31, via O Cinema’s virtual cinema.