Helmut Newton’s work has been variously described as erotic, voyeuristic, shocking, or even feminist. He was “the King of Kink.” Gero von Boehm’s new documentary Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful focuses on the sexually provocative photographer, who became famous in the ’70s for his innovative fashion campaigns and magazine spreads. The film features home videos and other never-before-seen footage of Newton’s life, along with interviews with the likes of Anna Wintour, Isabella Rossellini, Claudia Schiffer, Grace Jones, Charlotte Rampling, and his wife June Newton (who photographs under the name June Spring).
Newton once claimed, “If a photographer says he is not a voyeur, he is an idiot.” Though he is known for stark, dark, often erotic photographs of women, the documentary also highlights his sense of humor and playful energy. When asked to photograph a chicken for Vogue, he responded, “I’ve always wanted to photograph a chicken wearing high heels,” and did just that. Hyperallergic spoke to von Boehm over email about perusing Newton’s archives and what made his images so striking.
Hyperallergic: Can you describe your relationship with Helmut Newton and how you first saw his photographs?
Gero von Boehm: I met him in 1997 at dinner in Paris. We liked each other immediately, and over the years, a friendship developed. But it took years to convince him to be filmed. June also had to be convinced; she was very protective of him. But then they agreed that I could film him at shoots and in private situations in Monte Carlo, Paris, and Los Angeles. But the most important scenes were shot in Berlin. He loved the city where he was born, and he went back quite often — a great and generous gesture for someone who had to flee the Nazis.
I first saw his photos in the early 1970s, when I was 16 or 17. I was fascinated by the way they told fragments of stories, sometimes quite mysterious ones, and how they inspired my own fantasies. It was up to you to imagine what had happened before and after the moments the photos showed.
H: Can you explain why you put Newton’s upbringing in the middle of the movie instead of the beginning?
GvB: It came naturally. I always go with the flow, never work with a fixed script. In the first part of the film, Helmut unfolds his personality, and you learn about his way of working and seeing the world. And then you want to know the roots of all of that. This is why the film has this structure. I never intended to do a chronological biopic, because I think that’s rather boring.
H: What was it like going through his archives? Did you work with June or any other family members?
GvB: It was absolutely exciting to work with the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin, where the whole archive is now. There are hundreds of thousands of pictures, contact sheets, and notes. I had full access to all of that, and June let me use her own footage she took at shoots and in private situations. It was a great blessing.
H: In their time, Newton’s images were controversial. If he emerged today, do you think he would be widely accepted by the commercial fashion industry, or would he be limited to gallery shows?
GvB: It was extraordinary that Helmut was accepted by the industry, because he was much more dangerous and ambiguous than Richard Avedon or Irving Penn. One has to see the photographs, especially the nudes, in the context of the late ’60s and early ’70s. The Sexual Revolution had just happened, and the naked body was no longer a taboo. And everybody was waiting for a revolution in fashion photography. There were marvelous pictures by Avedon, Penn, and others, but they were icons of beauty and loveliness — what Anna Wintour calls “stoppers in the magazine.”
Then there was Helmut, who was a provocateur, even sometimes an anarchist. His way of showing women revolutionized fashion photography. There is this famous diptych series by him [Dressed and Naked]. In the first photograph of each piece, you see the model dressed in haute couture, and in the second photo, it’s the same girl in the same pose, but totally naked, as if a magician had taken off her clothes. What does this tell us? Strong women are strong even without haute couture. They don’t need it. And then there is the groundbreaking picture of a naked woman and one dressed in a Yves Saint Laurent tuxedo, on a deserted Paris street at night — there is a strange kind of sexual suspense there.
I think that today, no magazine would commission a photographer to take pictures like that. We live in rather prudish times. There’s a certain danger in the freedom of art and expression.
Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful will be available to stream via Kino Marquee starting July 24.