Review by Sean Boelman
As the medium becomes more accessible and popular among amateur communities and the mainstream world, photography has started to become even more interesting as a form of artistic expression. However, photographs have always been an artform and Gero von Boehm’s new documentary Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful serves as a great reminder of that fact.
In the film, von Boehm explores the work of the eponymous photographer by interviewing those who were photographed by him. Newton was known for his provocative and controversial images, so it will come as no surprise to audiences that a lot of time is spent exploring the content of Newton’s images rather than their form.
Perhaps the most interesting thing to come out of the movie is its exploration of the female image in photography. Nude photographs such as Newton's tend to receive a lot of backlash because of their almost objectifying depiction of the female body, but in the film, the models make a case as to why they were not only willing but eager to be photographed by Newton’s camera.
It’s interesting to hear these subjects talking about how they felt working with Newton. Certain assumptions can be made about the photographer’s persona based on his portfolio, but these interviews attempt to disprove some of those myths. One interviewee even suggests that Newton’s work may be a commentary on female objectification.
That said, the main thing that is missing from this movie is the perspective of Newton himself. The approach taken by von Boehm is certainly very intriguing, but secondhand information is really only criticism. The use of archive footage and interviews could have gone a long way in making the discussion feel more definitive.
Regardless, von Boehm’s question-and-answer style is quite fascinating, especially for those who have an existing interest in the photographic arts. This is a very focused narrative compared to most biographical documentaries, with less of an emphasis on the artist and more of a fascination with his body of work.
And as expected, von Boehm does some interesting things to incorporate Newton’s photographs into the film. Some of the best sequences show all of the different photographs Newton took of a specific subject before isolating the one or two that made the cut as meeting the photographer’s standards.
Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful is an interesting and challenging documentary. Thanks to its unorthodox approach and its thought-provoking content, this is a must-watch for anyone who loves art documentaries.
Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful is now streaming online in partnership with indie theaters. A list of participating locations can be found here.