Our regular contributor. Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher.
PHOTOGRAPHY: The controversial cult status of Helmut Newton, one of the great masters of photography, continues long after his 2004 death.

For some, Helmut Newton was a feminist, for others, he was a woman-hater. Of course, the man is not his work. As Susan Sontag said in one of the TV shows we see in this documentary, it is not uncommon that masters adore their slaves, executioners love their victims, and a lot of misogynous men «say they love women but show them in a humiliating way». Newton did just that. But to say he was misogynous would be overly simplistic. The complexity of the work of this master of photography goes far beyond the simple dualism of man and work. Just take his historical significance as an example. Audiences of today might easily identify the positioning of women as objects in his celebrated works. Yet we, the generations who were partying to the music of The Cure and Grace Jones, will also remember how very liberating his photos were when we saw them for the first time. Just as with the music of Grace Jones and the Cure.

The triumph of visual culture

It is, of course, not by chance that their songs we hear in the film are about images and the gaze. They were, together with Newton and his photos, the agents of an important break within the cultures of the global north, a rebellion against the elites, their taste, and high culture. How fierce and colorful this rebellion was, we hear in the words of Newton himself, when he declares: «For me, in photography, there are two dirty words: the first one is ‘art’, the second is ‘good taste’. It brought to the forefront the field of vision and affirmed the images that were, until then, considered inferior to words. Simultaneously, it also empowered and liberated the women, who in some way embodied the traditional inferiority of the visual. Women were not only the universal object of the gaze but also, through their awareness of being looked at, the bearers of what was appropriate and in ‘good taste’. Newton’s photos of women in inappropriate contexts and positions are, just as chicken in high heels, or diamonds on the butchers’ table, a celebration of this newly won freedom of expression.

Audiences of today might easily identify the positioning of women as objects in his celebrated works.

The female gaze

Gero Von Boehm, the film’s director, has collected home videos and other never-before-seen footage of Newton’s work and life. But at its centre are the women who were the stars of his iconic portraits and fashion editorials, from Grace Jones and Charlotte Rampling to Isabella Rossellini and Nadja Auermann. Their interpretations of Newton’s work are elaborate, thorough, and illuminating. They jointly deny the presumed sexism of Newton’s work, but it is their competence, more than the denial, that testifies to the importance of the rupture they all took part in. The spotlight on the field of vision provided grounds for the acknowledgment that, like other practices, looking involves relationships of power. The subordination of women takes place through the field of vision. Men act and women appear. Or, translated for the visual field, men look and women are looked at. The history of European painting is full of representations of women, from Tintoretto’s Susanna and the Elders (1555) to Velazquez The Rokeby Venus (1649-51), who are aware of the gaze placed upon them, but they do not look back. Unlike in traditional European paintings, women on Newton’s photographic portraits do look back.

Self-portrait, Monte Carlo, 1993, (c)Foto Helmut Newton, Helmut Newton Estate, Courtesy Helmut Newton Foundation

The Helmut Newton woman

Even as passive, women might be perceived as dangerous – classical cinema developed a character of ‘femme fatale’ who incorporates this danger, a celebrated example is Gilda, played by Rita Hayworth, in the 1946 film by Charles Vidor. «The Helmut Newton Woman» is an elaboration of the cinematic ‘femme fatale’ and this, too, is skillfully presented in his portrait, by the excellent interpretation by Isabella Rossellini and by actual shootings: even in the most impossible, uncomfortable, sexist positions, the «Helmut Newton woman» will not forget to act and look back.

In this, Newton was a pioneer who paved the road for female photographers, who actually took the photographic camera and the representation of female sexuality in their own hands. Their work – from Nan Goldin’s heartbreaking slide show The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1985) to Natacha Merritt’s autoerotic pornographic Digital Diaries (2000) – introduced a completely different look at women. The representation of women by women. The women portrayed by Newton were empowered differently: his photographic portrayals enabled women to construct their own image.

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Crocodile, Wuppertal, 1983, (c)Foto Helmut Newton, Helmut Newton Estate, Courtesy Helmut Newton Foundation

The (lost) power of appearances

In times when Newton took the majority of his photographs, having control over how one is perceived by the others was available only to the lucky few. The pleasure of creating one’s own image was a great luxury. Today, we can constantly look at ourselves through smartphones. Constructing one’s own image through social media on a daily basis is as normal as the air we breathe. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why this film, full of superb, sexy, exciting, and provocative images, seems so very boring, almost turning Newton’s comment from the beginning of the film, that «the films of photographers that I’ve seen are terribly boring», into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

at its centre are the women who were the stars of his iconic portraits and fashion editorials

The main reason, however, is represented through the motive of the grid of contact prints that are shown throughout the film. That is, the systematic determination to show everything, the selected as well as other pictures taken within a photoshoot; the work but also the man; photographs of the models but also of the photographer. This complete transparency obliterated all the shades. First of all, there is no trace of the negative side of the fascination with the image. The power of appearances, namely, not only empowered pop culture, subcultures and people of various sexual, ethnic, and other identities, but also propelled the marketing, advertising, and PR industries and supplied the ideological basis for contemporary capitalism: the virtualisation of the value creation that caused the global economic crisis of 2008 and the present situation of huge social differences that seem to have lost all material ground.

Also, and very unfortunately, a part of Helmut Newton seems to be lost too. The efforts to re-create a perfect image produced a slightly out-of-ordinary look of super-people: young, beautiful, sexy. Rich, too, as we are reminded by the German actress Hanna Schygulla in one of the most outstanding moments of the film. It is she who also mentions the master photographer’s fear of death, but this, too, is not enough. Even the cheeky scene in which his wife June is joking about Newton’s incapacity to tell the difference between wool and cashmere by touching the fabric fails to make this challenging portrait fully alive. But it illustrates perfectly the master photographer’s total dedication to the look, dedication that is vividly described by the lyrics of one of the songs by The Cure. That is, «the pictures are all I can feel.»

Featured Image: Arena, Miami, 1978 (c)Foto Helmut Newton, Helmut Newton Estate, Courtesy Helmut Newton Foundation

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