The Bad and the Beautiful: Where Does Helmut Newton Fit Into Our New World?

Over the last few years, we've increasingly and very publicly questioned our behaviors, our politics, our history, our heroes, our statues, and our art. It's only reasonable that we question our photography idols. Where do Helmut Newton's hyper-erotic photography and his ruminations on power fit into our new world?

(A bit of a disclaimer, I am a long-time fan of Newton; in fact, I first fell in love with photography through his imposing images.)

Gero von Boehm's new documentary, Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful, has something for those who are interested in the cultural aspects of Newton's work and for those interested in his creative process.

Evaluating Newton's Ongoing Cultural Impact

Von Boehm takes no time in getting to the crux of the matter. While Newton's work certainly changed the very nature of editorial and fashion photography, he did so while pushing the bounds of how power dynamics and the erotic friction within those dynamics were represented in photography. For many in the mainstream, he often went too far. 

Chicken for Paris Vogue, Helmut Newton, 1994. Newton and Vogue received numerous complaints for the explicit positioning of the chicken legs. Courtesy of The Helmut Newton Foundation.

With most theaters still closed, you can find the film now streaming through a variety of local theaters. Check out the following link for more info.

Although von Boehm's work is too subtle to mention it, he seems to be asking how Newton's work might fare in light of the #metoo era. 

David Lynch and Isabelle Rossellini, Helmut Newton, 1988. Lynch and Rossellini were a couple at the time, often working together. Many criticized the image for the appearance of Lynch as a puppet master of an inanimate Rossellini. Courtesy of The Helmut Newton Foundation.

Early, and often, von Boehm sets up the ongoing debate. On the one side, Newton is a creative genius, a provocateur, as Isabella Rossellini calls him, responsible for bringing controversy and conversation to fashion and editorial photography. He elevated fashion and editorial photography to a form of cultural analysis. On the other, Susan Sontag calls him an outright misogynist to his face. Newton defends himself as a lover of women, a feminist even. Sontag holds her ground and retorts that all masters adore their slaves. Where, then, do Newton and his work fit?

Helmut at home in Monte Carlo, Alice Springs, 1987. Alice Springs is the pseudonym for June Newton, Helmut Newton's wife and creative partner. Courtesy of The Helmut Newton Foundation.

I'll leave you to von Boehm's film to watch the nuances of the debate for yourself. It's interesting to see that many of his female contemporaries view Newton as a genius and collaborator. Anna Wintour points out that women were the driving force in Newton's photography. And, more so, not just women, but strong women, women in charge. As Grace Jones calls them: unattainable women. When talking about Newton's images, it's mentioned again and again that the women he photographed are often looking down on the viewer or on the men present. When men are present, they are typically nothing more than accessories in the scene, not that much different than the handbags or jewelry he was paid to photograph.

The Arena, Miami, Helmut Newton, 1978. Powerful women typically dominate Newton's frames, dwarfing the men who never seem to measure up. Courtesy of The Helmut Newton Foundation.

Newton's work inspires debate. Did he do this intentionally? Asked by June Newton if he is nothing more than a naughty boy, Newton responds that he's also a bit of an anarchist. He was the provocateur that he set out to be. Newton himself claims the old saying "the more enemies, the more honor" as a kind of mantra. His goal was to shake up the system, to force his audience to rethink the roles, relationships, and power dynamics they took for granted. 

...the more enemies, the more honor.

Despite the inherent problems at the confluence of the male gaze and the female body, the film manages to tell a story of a photographer whose images have sparked wide-spread public debate about eroticism, power, sexuality, and gender relations unlike any other.

Grace Jones and Dolph Lundgren, Los Angeles, Helmut Newton, 1985. Newton and Jones would work together several times over the years. Her height and stature embodied Newton's amazon woman aesthetic. Courtesy of The Helmut Newton Foundation.

Later in the film, Wintour dismisses the criticism of Newton's work by pointing out that making thought-provoking work means that you're eventually going to upset someone. There is no way to push widely-accepted community boundaries without rubbing someone the wrong way. 

Thought-provoking means that you're going to sometimes upset people.

In the end, it's the conversation with Grace Jones that helps me understand not only my own appreciation of his work but why his work may never fall out of step with current culture. Jones explains that she got along well with Newton because "[h]e was a little bit perverted, but so am I." I can't help but think that Newton's popularity comes from the fact that we all are, at least a little.

Newton's Creative Process

Outside of the cultural conversation, von Boehm's film also provides a look behind the curtain of Newton's process. Having photographed long before the advent of the current BTS craze, this peeks into Newton's world is gold.

There are print evaluations and pages from notebooks that show just how detail-oriented Newton was, how dedicated he was to the worlds he created. Even more interesting is the use of Newton's contact sheets to introduce each photograph that the film focuses on. Here, we get to see what images made the cut and what didn't. Last, we're given a bit of true BTS when we get to see Newton interact with a few of his subjects. It's quite interesting to hear him provide direction. Not just the typical physical direction that you can find in any run of the mill BTS mind you; Newton provides emotional direction as well. My favorite might be:

There’s a kindness in your look… which is the last thing I want

Fitting for a photographer who was driven to explore his themes, regardless of the criticism.

What do you think of Newton? Is his work the product of the male gaze or, is it more than that, a rumination on power and the erotic?

Self Portrait, Monte Carlo, Helmut Newton, 1993. Courtesy of The Helmut Newton Foundation.

All images used with permission of Films We Like, courtesy of The Helmut Newton Foundation. 
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26 Comments

Fristen Lasten's picture

I thought of him as a provocateur and cultural impresario. I like his work. I have a signed print of his of Sigourney Weaver.

Charles J's picture

Which one? He took over 100 outstanding photographs of Sigourney Weaver.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

That would be a nice addition to any collection. I'm a big fan of the 'hose' set, the Alien 3 set and the 'door' set.

Charles J's picture

I like the celluloid film strip photos, especially the one where the shadow falls lengthwise down her face. Also, the series shot outside in the Warner Bros. studio lot. Like the hose set, I cannot tell if it was planned or spontaneous.

A portrait of Sigourney Weaver that I love is where shes by an open window, the sun on her face, and smiling. It's so simple. Helmut Newton had a great eye and he captured a moment where Sigourney was present and peaceful.

Charles J's picture

Here it is.

Though if I ever got a Helmut Newton print the first would be the woman and the child by the cliff. How he had the woman place her hands covering the girl's eyes and on her shoulder creates a tension easily missed at first. I like to think he intended that.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

That second image, very interesting. I hadn't seen it before. I can't find any info on it outside of a variety pinterest connected links attributing the shot of Murphy to Newton for Vogue Italia. Do you have any other info?

Charles J's picture

Sorry, I don't have much info on it. Saw it in a hardcopy magazine over a decade ago (further really) and it always stuck with me. One day I'll research and find a source to go ahead and get a print. Maybe of the set. Btw, when searching google for photos you can exclude words or sites with the minus sign, no space, and then the site name. e.g. Helmut Newton -pinterest

Here's a link from a 2018 article that has another photograph from the series.

https://www.vogue.fr/fashion-culture/fashion-exhibitions/diaporama/helmu...

J Cortes's picture

I love his work. His work is unique and he was the ultimate provocateur.

Les Sucettes's picture

Nothing wrong with the male gaze just as much as there’s nothing wrong with the female gaze — just as long as it is tasteful and everyone involved in the shoot was happy with the process and the result.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

It's interesting you use the term 'good taste.' Newton hated the idea of good taste. His intent seemed to be to push good taste out the window.
As for the male gaze, in an industry so long dominated by it, I'd argue that there is at least a need to evaluate it to see if it is doing damage. Again, I'd argue we should be regularly evaluating the status quo as well to make sure it's not causing damage to those members of our community who have been historical disenfranchised.

Les Sucettes's picture

I was thinking about the good taste bit too. I suppose if all involved in the shoot are happy and want to do what is happening on the shoot then really who am I / are we to judge.

Laissez-faire... I really don’t care.

Timothy Roper's picture

Sounds like a good documentary. But I would also recommend his autobiography book, simply titled "Helmut Newton." The way I see it (and I realize there are many ways to see him), he was doing his thing in a VERY dedicated and professional way. He didn't abuse models (that I've heard of), or walk around saying misogynistic things. He was a fetishist who shared his visions with the world, taking things much further and more mainstream than, say, Paula and Irving Klaw. Other people's opinions of him--like Anna Wintour's--are interesting, but to be blunt, why would I care what anyone else thinks of him?

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I agree. I did a bit of research before writing to confirm my memories and didn't find the same whispered stories you hear about those in the entertainment industry before something breaks in the news. He was VERY dedicated and professional.
I do care though about how other people view him, at least to help inform my opinion. I'm open to having my idols reassessed as long as it's done a fair way.

Scott McDonald's picture

I'm thankful for people like Newton and other artists with similar influence who push the boundaries of what we might call "normal" by today's standards. We need someone like this (regardless of whether you like his work or not) who can challenge us all to think outside the box and away from the PC conformity that we are driven ever closer to on a daily basis...our society is becoming too stale...led by those striving to tell us what and how to think of the world around us.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I'm also thankful for artists like Newton who push boundaries and explore the 'darker' side of our expressions.
What I find most interesting is that he was able to push his way into mainstream so far that he changed it. I always remember a quote from a new rock historian, Alan Cross, who said, to paraphrase, rebels just want to fight against whatever is mainstream for the sake of the fight, revolutionaries want to change what mainstream means.
I'm up for changing the mainstream, but, I'm not interested in crushing disenfranchised groups to do it though. For the record, I don't think that Newton did that. I think he did it while being thoughtful and respectful.

Deleted Account's picture

Meh

Adam Rubinstein's picture

An interesting question is whether culture drives attitudes or vice versa. In the era of #meetoo and Marxist revisionism, Helmut would be canceled.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I think there is certainly an interplay of some kind between culture and attitudes. I’d think that it’s the vanguard on the fringes that set changes in motion.
I’m not sure if Newton would be “cancelled” in light of #metoo. I think his images were a more subversive look at gendered power than they can often seem at first glance. Of course that requires a more nuanced examination than the mainstream public is often willing to engage in.
Not entirely sure what Marxist revisionism means to you and what that would mean for Newton. Historically it’s the right that looks to censor sexuality and changing sexual norms.

Adam Rubinstein's picture

Yes, the interplay of culture, attitude, and politics is fascinating. It's unlikely that the provacative nature of Newton's work would be celebrated in today's society which is witnessing a cultural contraction similar to the fictional novel "1984". Newton's work featured unapproachable people often portrayed in bourgeoisie circumstances.

With respect to political refrains, the right has no license on censorship or intolerance. Interestingly if you study culture and politics, you would find plenty of examples of Marxists from Mao, Lenin, Pol Pot, Castro, etc. who not only censored free speech, but any form of expression including art, sexuality, etc. Tyranny takes many forms and what we are witnessing today is the rise in intolerance cloaked in political correctness. Comedy has been canceled because it is offensive. Movies have been canceled other than recycled, bland superhero missives. Authors have been canceled because of language. Photographers have been canceled because of past work.

The author and columnist Charles Krauthammer once observed that it was only in tolerant societies that one sees advances in art, literature, music, science, etc. Historically, that is 100% correct. I am a wholesale proponent of free speech and expression (non-violent) even if it is deemed offensive by one party or another. If what is transpiring today doesn't scare you, what will?

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I can agree that extreme regimes on both sides of the political spectrum are voracious censors. But, in more centralist societies like Western Europe and North America, it has historical been the right that claims censorship of depravity as a corner stone of its platform. Families and morality etc.
I also agree that expression should be free. But, I think at some point we have to agree that words or art can be violent - or - buttress violent ideologies.
Thanks for the congenial and respectful conversation.

Lawrence S's picture

Calling the current movement "Marxism" just because it shares censorship, is a bit a bridge too far, borderline ridiculous.

Timothy Roper's picture

It's the anti-communists afraid of the depravity of Marxism and liberalism that never would have allowed Newton to exist in the first place. Don't forget, Hoover didn't just go after Reds, he went after homosexuals, perverts, etc, too. Back then, it was a crime to use the US Mail to ship dirty photos like Newton's. Maybe it's the Marxists who have a problem with it now. But it was the anti-Marxists who had a problem with it back when Newton was starting out. Then the libertine cultural revolution of the 60s hit, and Newton rode that wave.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Agreed.

As an aside, I was a lawyer in my previous life and always found the test for what constitutes illegal art based on the community standards to be a test that limited culture. If we want the fringes pushed, we need to allow some toes to be stepped on, so to speak. What’s perverted, as you pointed out in referencing Hoover can be far too subjective in certain societies. Especially, again, if we want culture to evolve and be more accepting.

Robert Grenader's picture

One day, we will wake up and find that political correctness has created a completely beige world. Newton's groundbreaking style paved the way for generations of photographers and set the fashion world on its head.

German Simonson's picture

I bothered to login to just say that this is an excellent article. Thank you.

Richard A. G. Lipscomb's picture

I like some of his photos but not all of them. Some are just not my cup of tea. He kept to his guns and created images he wanted. Some were thought provoking and shocking to a point. I think some of his photos are even banned from museums. I am saddened that once was art, now too Provocative for the sensitive generation. If I don’t like something I just move on in this case a photo!