Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jul 23, 2020 7:03 am 
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Elegant visual provocations

Something may be needed to make us look more closely at the photographs of Helmut Newton, and this may be just the right time (he died in 2004, at 84). Those photographs look provocative in an almost stereotypical way. But he may have invented the stereotype, and transcended it. And the stereotypes and the provocation may have kept us from noticing how exceptionally beautiful and also original these photographs are. They are mostly of women, very often naked, photographed with great elegance, always with a frisson of kink. This documentary is worthy of the work.

Newton hated working in the studio. He liked location shots. Those women are walking down the street, in a policeman's jacket with nothing on below the waist, or in a glamorous old world hotel, or overlooking a vast city. The black and white is contrasty, brilliant, immaculate. A photographer whose "look" and sometimes subject matter Newton's work resembles is Ralph Gibson. Both photographers are surrealists.



Sometimes the photographs are done for a fashion magazine. He was already so famous when young Anna Wintour was asked to work with him in England she was afraid, and called in sick. He is such a stylist that though his work is highly commercial, it never bows to fashion or commerce. When we look more closely, the images are works of art full of fantasy, mystery and humor, and above all celebrations of the art of photography. He would have been a master, whatever "look" or subject he had chosen.

This documentary is worthy because it's good looking, even chic. It's a celebration that's never ponderous, - important, because, we learn, the man, though obsessed, always kept his sense of humor. And it's populated by glamorous, handsomely photographed women (clothed, however) who talk about Newton: Isabella Rossellini, Charlotte Rampling, Anna Wintour, Marianne Faithful, Grace Jones, Claudia Schiffer. Anna Wintour worked with Newton, when she gathered the courage to do so, for Vogue. The other ladies posed for him. June Newton, whom we hear from but don't see, is his Australian wife, married to him for 56 years. To her we're indebted for some of the films of him at work, and speaking of his early life, as we are to actress Hanna Schygulla, who know him well. "A world without men," almost - his ideal. Schiffer says to him "Men are accessories - like shoes or hats."

Even Susan Sontag, who calls Helmut Newton a "misogynist", arguing with him in French on Barnard Pivot's famous TV show, is stylish and beautiful as she does so. Newton replies that he "adores women," and Sontag ripostes that misogynists often say that. Indirectly the film makes the point: Helmut Newton's work is confusing - provocative, but also chic, beautiful, but perhaps a debasement. Is Susan Sontag being humorless or is she right? Is he a misogynist? Don't his photographs use women as toys, dolls, slaves? Or are his images slyly calling attention to the fact that other men do this, to mock and critique men's ambivalent treatment of women, their way of wavering between worship and condescension, protection and abuse? This film sells to us, quite successfully, the idea that Helmut indeed loved women.

He was born in 1920 Berlin, which he always loved, and Marianne Faithful says he was always truly a creature of the free, brilliant Weimar Berlin of Bertolt Brecht and Georg Grosz, the expressionists (and the kinky cabaret gaiety). But his father, who owned a button factory, was Jewish. Their name was Neust├Ądter. And in the Thirties they had to flee Germany, when he by himself went to Singapore and then Australia. Helmut grew up in comfort, fond of his parents, and went to private schools, including an American school he was kicked out of at 12 because his grades were so poor. He went to work for the photographer Yva for two years. "I worshipped the ground she tread on," he says. She died in concentration camp, but he was much influenced. After the war he came back and changed is name to Newton. The rest is history.

He liked high heels, the higher the better, and he liked chickens, so the day came when he photographed a cooking chicken torn open, legs in the air, in high heels.(He signed a fax thanking Anna Wintour for publishing the image in Vogue "Your favorite old naughty boy.") He once photographed Grace Jones nude with chains on her ankles for the cover of the major German magazine, Stern. There was an uproar. Grace Jones is unalarmed. Claudia Schiffer too, who posed a lot for him when very young, describes his intentions as honorable and his manner as gentle. Important model Arja Toyrla says "I felt good. I felt safe." Charlotte Rampling insists that his themes are explorations of a style and not a reflection of his personality.

What we don't get so much from this film is technical and artistic notes like those found in an article about an assistant mentored by Newton, Mark Arbeit, who [url=""]tells us[/url]this: "Helmut mostly worked with one assistant at a time so everything was on you. He was extremely serious on set. Helmut had this beautiful Louis Vuitton hard suitcase he used as his camera case. The majority of the time he shot with a Nikon 35mm camera. For film, he would mainly shoot Tri-X 400 Black & White film and Kodak Ektachrome color transparency film. In the studio, Helmut also used a Hasselblad and Rolleiflex with electronic flash." Arbeit also worked for Irving Penn who liked to stay in the studio with highly controlled lighting, while Helmut worked on location and more freely; both, he says "sculpted" their models for a shot. One sould like to know how he developed his TriX! This film is not exactly for photographers. Be inspired by it anyway, then go look at his work.

Helmet Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful, 93 mins., was to be in Tribeca Apr. 2020, cancelled due to the coronavirus. It will be released by Kino Marquee July. 24, 2020 in Virtual Cinemas for New York with Film Forum, LA with Laemmle Theatres & Lumiere. Additional cities include Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Philadelphia, Portland, and more will come. Gero von Boehm is a cosmopolitan German journalist and documentary filmmaker for TV and film.


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