Helmut Newton was unquestionably a talented photographer. He was also, shall we say, a little problematic, as we see in some early scenes of him lasciviously instructing his male model to fondle his female partner, who just happens to be wearing far fewer clothes than him.
There is a case to be made that at least some of Newton‘s muscled female nudes challenged contemporary beauty myths, though this film is rarely interested in engaging in serious discussion. Instead, a bevy of A-list actresses – Charlotte Rampling, Isabella Rossellini, Catherine Deneuve are wheeled on to explain how posing nude for Newton liberated them. Marianne Faithfull explains that she wouldn’t have got her tits out for anyone else.
It makes you feel that you are watching the witnesses for the defence in the trial of Pepe le Pew. Yes, the implied message is, some of Newton’s behaviour may not be seen appropriate by the MeToo generation, but he was avuncular and charming, so that must make it all ok.
We occasionally catch glimpses of some of Newton’s more problematic artwork – there is a photo of a topless woman with her head covered. Here’s the magazine front cover with a naked Grace Jones in chains, which created an uproar for its slave-porn chic (Jones is rolled on to explain how she thinks that it was no more of a problem than BDSM).
In the whole film, there is about 30 seconds of footage of anyone suggesting that Newton’s work may carry any negative connotations. This is part of a panel discussion in French where Susan Sonntag eviscerates Newton, telling him that although he’s a charming individual, the more she hears him defending his works, the less defensible she finds them.
After a first half of unapologetic hagiography, the film starts to raise some interesting questions. First someone, possibly Newton’s wife June, asks what’s the fuss about. Newton’s photos embodied the spirit of the liberated sixties. What he was doing was no different to the photos of male nudes being produced by Robert Mapplethorpe.
I think this comment misses exactly what was subversive about Mapplethorpe’s work. It was precisely because of the art world’s obsession with objectifying women that Mapplethorpe challenged conventional ideas of both form and content. In contrast, Newton replicated the old status quo. But to understand this would require a sense of viewing art in a social context which seems entirely missing from this film.
This inability to judge art as the product of a specific society is even more clear in a second comparison. Newton, a Jew, lived in Berlin between his birth in 1920 and 1938 when his family was forced to flee to Singapore. His growing interest in photography coincided with the Nazis’ use of Leni Riefenstahl films like “The Triumph of the Will” to promote a new aesthetic.
Newton explains how his artistic vision was affected by Riefenstahl. Isabella Rossellini perspicaciously notes the parallels between Riefenstahl’s photography of male athletes and Newton’s muscled female nudes. And yet while Newton acknowledges Riefenstahl’s greatness, no-one mentions that her work might also have other connotations. This attempt to wrest art from any social context or responsibility ends up diminishing the art.
Not that Newton saw what he did as art. He repeatedly says that he rejects the idea that he is an artist. In an early scene, the fashion editor Anna Wintour (wearing sunglasses indoors in case we weren’t sure how much of a superficial poseur she is) explains how Newton could always be relied on to produce an angry response when Vogue printed his photographs. This is presented as a sign of Newton’s daring, but it seems to show the opposite. With an eye on what would be most successful commercially, Newton’s work usually feels premeditated and thus inauthentic.
None of this stops Newton coming across as a charming man, as Sonntag’s interview acknowledges. Yet there are some aspects of his work which will remain potentially problematic. A more substantial film would have either addressed these problems head-on or offered a defence of why Newton should be still be considered of worth. Ultimately, the film’s unquestioning deference to Newton does him no favours, and presents his work as being a relic of less enlightened times.