As the German photographer Helmut Newton once said: “I hate good taste. It’s the worst thing that can happen to a creative person.” He also frequently said “Warum nichts?” meaning “Why not?” And that seemed to be his approach to much of his photography, and his life.
Now, we get to see a side of the photographer that we haven’t always seen. In Helmut Newton: The Bad And The Beautiful, a new biopic directed by Gero von Boehm, premiering in Film Forum’s Virtual Cinema on July 24, rare interview footage is shown alongside interviews with some of the most important women in his life, from his wife June Newton to Grace Jones, Isabella Rossellini, Claudia Schiffer and Anna Wintour, among others. Only women are interviewed and that was the intention of the director – to put their voices center stage.
They speak about the quirky photographer, who always brought a sense of humor to his photo shoots, their friendship and his most controversial moments. It also includes French TV footage where Susan Sontag calls Newton a misogynist on air, that his photos “humiliate women,” which he denied. But in a fax to Anna Wintour, he wrote “More enemies, more honor,” a 1914 quote from Kaiser II.
Berlin-born Newton started out working as an assistant for a German photographer named Yva, a Berlin photographer who saw her rise during the Weimar Republic.
Newton, too, was Jewish, and photographer fled his hometown in 1938 after Nazis began to take power. After taking a boat to China, he wound up in Singapore and fled to Australia, where he met his wife, then-actress June Newton (who would later work under the pseudonym as a photographer, Alice Springs) and became an Australian citizen. They moved to Paris, France, where they lived on Rue Aubriot in the 4th arrondissement for over 25 years, but after tax hikes, Newton fled to Monte Carlo, Monaco, a popular tax haven, to continue his work.
Newton truly shone during his Paris years, as he saw his rise in fashion photography in the 1980s and 1990s, shooting covers for Vogue, Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar. Whether it was shooting fashion models walking with crutches, blindfolded celebrities in unlikely scenarios, or even using taxidermy swans as props, Newton always took risks and was often unapologetic. He shot Elizabeth Taylor in peak glamour, Faye Dunaway wearing a veil, a young Kevin Costner and Sylvester Stallone throughout the 1990s economic boom, defining a racy era of pop culture.
Though Newton passed away in 2004 in a car crash outside of the Chateau Montmartre in Los Angeles (which today, has a plaque in his honor), his legacy lives on in 2020, his centenary. In Berlin, the Helmut Newton Foundation is a museum that carries on his legacy, home to his photo prints, old cameras, glasses, letters and a reconstruction of his Monte Carlo office, among other things, like his photo props (wigs, high heels, fake guns), notebooks and videos of his photo shoots.
A new retrospective of his work is on view at the Ernst Barlach Museum in Wedel, Germany, too, until the fall. It taps into Newton’s vision, which he called vulgar. “My photos are stamped with vulgarity,” he said in an interview. “Creation comes from bad taste and vulgarity. “Would I make love with a girl dressed like that? That’s the first question that I ask myself when I do fashion photographs. Good taste is anti-fashion, anti-photo, anti-female, and anti-erotic! Vulgarity is life, amusement, desire, extreme reactions!”