I got a chance recently to preview five documentaries about photographers that are turning up this week on the Sundance Channel. Tonight’s is Helmut Newton: My Life, about the world’s canniest dirty old man. It combines archival imagery with video interviews with Newton in later life — he died four years ago — and scenes of him at work, including some of him shooting what looks like the world’s naughtiest Volkswagen campaign. It’s not a ground breaking doc, but it has its moments. Those are the ones when it offers a glimpse into the thinking of a man who always seemed like he must have been a charming conversationalist without always being a reliable narrator. As I don’t need to tell you, charming and unreliable are just two peas in a pod.
Newton grew up in Germany as a Jew in the 1920s and ’30s. In the year 2000 he had the great pleasure of seeing giant posters for one of his shows hung in Berlin’s Zoo station, the same station he had departed from when he fled the country in 1938.
By the time he left Germany Newton was taking with him a fraught and complicated image bank in his head. Early on in this doc he says this:
Imagine a kid who’s crazy about pictures and all he wants to do is look at pictures and all he sees are Nazi pictures…
And as we know, the ambiguous power poses of fascism, like the ones struck by Arno Brecker’s self-dramatizing nudes, made their way into his teeming brain and eventually into his work.
If Newton had merely adapted the hygienic models of fascist iconography into his later work, he’d be what, a European Bruce Weber? But it gets more complicated. Newton combined fascist imagery — and fashion imagery — with personal obsessions. Over the years he drifted from Germany to Singapore, from there to Australia, where he met his wife June, then to postwar, pre-swinging London, which he hated, and then in the late ’50s to Paris, where he found his true home for 23 years at French Vogue. For years June also used to videotape Newton, footage which she put to use a few years ago in a documentary of her own, called Helmut by June, that turned up on television last year. It had one interesting insight into Newton’s psyche that he doesn’t share in the Sundance doc. I wrote about it in a post last April:
He talks about being drawn to large, powerful women — Amazons he calls them — and he connects it to the power of his mother, who guided the family to safety during the Holocaust. In his memoir Newton makes light of his early experience. Like everyone else in his family he had to flee Europe, but he likes to offer himself as a man whom history never laid a glove on. But after hearing him talk, however briefly, about his mother, you begin to understand the S&M currents in his work differently. Now they seem like an outgrowth of his own struggle with the power of women, a way to subordinate his own fears.
That made me realize why there are times when Newton reminds me of….
Post script — I also recommend keeping an eye out for William Eggleston in the Real World, which has its television premiere on Sundance on Wednesday. I caught it in its theatrical release a few years ago. It’s a haunting portrait of a haunted man, making his art from the not very promising materials of the world as we know it.