I believe that myself reflected in the eyes of others is my true self.
Voyeurism, usually with some connection to both sex and violence has long been a concern for filmmakers, for obvious reasons. To be a photographer or a film director is inherently voyeuristic. This has been explored in Michael Powell’s 60s masterpiece Peeping Tom (1960) and Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), to Liliana Cavani’s controversial The Night Porter in the 70s and from the two Davids, precisely one decade apart – Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1986) and Crash (Cronenberg, 1996). All of these films also feature (to varying degrees) fetishism, fascism, machismo and masochism – all fascinating subjects for art, but ones usually met with moral outrage and sometimes censorship. Crash, in particular is the perfect dove-tailing of sensibilities between my favourite author – JG Ballard and Canadian horror maestro David Cronenberg (and has just been released by The Criterion Collection).
I’m a professional voyeur – Helmut Newton
Four films released (or re-released) in 2020 explore this theme and they demonstrate how both photography and celebrity have changed beyond all recognition – from the 1960s to today. They cover the 27 year old Canadian photographer Douglas Kirkland nervously taking on an assignment to shoot the most famous woman in the world in 1961, through to Helmut Newton’s contentious Vogue fashion shoots of the 80s and 90s, which frequently juxtaposed nude women with meat or metal and arrive at today’s world of easily manipulated digital photography, Photoshop and Instagram influencers.
Woman of the Photographs (directed by Takeshi Kushida) is about a mute Japanese photographer (the ultimate observer) who has taken over his father’s studio which has been going for 50 years. His main business now comes from digitally retouching photos – a service we see him provide for one particularly obsessive woman, looking for the perfect image for a dating site – “myself in the photograph gives a stronger impression than the real me.” He meets Kyoko – a former ballet dancer who now is trying to make it as an Instagram influencer. She falls out of a tree (while trying to take the perfect selfie) and gets quite a large wound on her chest. She decides to post pictures of the “true me” and gains a lot more interaction, to the point that when the wound starts to close, she reopens it, for fear of losing ‘likes.’ The sound design is the best of the year, with everything heightened, including the scratching of the Photoshop ‘wand’ as it erases imperfections. There is a close relationship between the visual and aural – Kyoko can hear the ‘likes’ as applause, as they bathe her face in their pink heart glow.
You got drowned in yourself and vanished – Kyoko (to herself) in Woman of the Photographs
Woman of the Photographs gets more surreal towards the end, with the Kyoko in the Instagram photos admonishing the real Kyoko and the body-horror aspects are certainly Cronenbergian. There is a recurring motif of close-ups of a praying mantis hungrily and noisily consuming meat. An accidental meeting-of-minds also happened between German photographer Helmut Newton, in his 1995 ‘High and Mighty’ Vogue photoshoot, which depicted stilettos as torture devices and Cronenberg’s Crash, which came out a year later. Model Nadja Auermann describes the ‘shitstorm’ that the shoot created in the documentary Helmut Newton – The Bad and the Beautiful (directed by Gero von Boehm) which was released earlier this year. Newton’s photoshoots frequently prompted angry letters-to-the-editor (who was, of course, Anna Wintour) for their perceived misogyny, nudity and the juxtaposition of high-and-low culture – a leather dominatrix spinning a spit-roasted pig, a raw chicken wearing tiny high-heels or a spatchcocked and spreadeagled roast chicken combined with priceless Bvgalri jewells.
More enemies, more honour – Helmut Newton
The best thing about von Boehm’s documentary is that every single talking head is a woman – Wintour talks of The Helmut Woman and here, The Helmut Woman has a voice. Grace Jones, Charlotte Rampling, Marianne Faithful and especially Isabella Rossellini all make insightful points about Newton’s work and the relationship between voyeur and subject. “A lot of men told me they were afraid (of my work). The girls look down on the man who is looking at them” says Newton. Newton took the famous photograph of Lynch grasping Rossellini’s neck (part of the promotion for Blue Velvet) – “an artist looking at an object, telling the puppet what she should do” says Rossellini. She later talks of the ideas and feelings that Newton was exposing in his work, which is extremely reminiscent of the pervasive idea of the ‘incel’ in today’s society – “I like you and I shouldn’t like you because you are a weapon…(men feel) an attraction and an anger towards her…they resent women because they are attracted to them, so they make them vulnerable. That is intolerable.”
Newton was a German Jew who fled Berlin in 1938, so he had his own relationship with fascism that must have emerged in his work at times. Not long after Charlotte Rampling made The Night Porter with Dirk Bogarde, Newton shot portraits of her in the Hotel Nord-Pinus, some nude and some clothed. Rampling discusses the crafting of her image and how the photos “went beautifully” with the themes of the film. The Night Porter is about the BDSM relationship between a Nazi guard in a camp and a young woman who is a prisoner there. They bump into each again after the war in Vienna and resume their roles. In the camp, Max (Bogarde) films Lucia (Rampling) and the prisoners are used as entertainment – there are male dancers and women dressed in the Nazi uniforms – aesthetically, there is a fine line between fetish-wear and fascist-wear.
Images create desire, they create dreams, they create disturbance – Nicole Kidman in That Click
If you compare the hotel room images of Rampling taken by Newton with the shots of Marilyn Monroe taken by Douglas Kirkland, they have a completely different feel. Rampling discusses the rebellious nature of the shots, as if she was saying “don’t get too close, I’ll do it on my terms.” In new documentary about Kirkland – That Click – directed by Luca Severi, we see that when he photographed Marilyn, even though she was nude and only covered by a translucent bedsheet, he gave her space – “let her feel free and safe” according to Sharon Stone. Monroe is being playful, inviting, flirtatious, but in perhaps the most Canadian move of all time, Kirkland chose to keep shooting instead of climbing into bed with her. Nicole Kidman says “there’s such a fragility to it and such a delicacy to it and an honesty…I like when I see an image that isn’t exploitative of her, but is very loving towards her.” Unlike Newton, who was primarily a fashion photographer, Kirkland was very much part of Hollywood. He would later specialise in being a set photographer on big-budget films such as Out of Africa, Titanic and Moulin Rouge.
Kirkland and Newton come from the twentieth century tradition of photography – obviously using cameras which required film that would later be developed. Kirkland has continued to use early cameras in his work, even Box Brownies and the like. They also worked with supermodels (like Claudia Schiffer) and actors (like Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe), a twentieth century notion of the celebrity, whereas Kyoko very much represents a twenty-first century celebrity – the Instagram influencer. The photographer in Woman of the Photographs uses a digital Nikon camera and by far the most important part of his job is the editing and retouching after the image has been captured. Before he meets Kyoko, he appears to be doing the work out of a sense of obligation to his father. But she awakens a sense of purpose and passion in him – “the deepest of ecstasies in knowing (his) existence is given meaning.”
A good lie can make people happy.
With recent biopics of Tom of Finland (Dome Karukowski, 2017) and Robert Mapplethorpe (Ondi Timoner, 2018), it’s good to see that controversial and kinky artists are being remembered and Helmut Newton is absolutely a part of this tradition. The Bad and the Beautiful is a fascinating exploration of the themes in Newton’s work, from the point-of-view of the women he photographed and is one of the most memorable films of the year, with images and quotations that burn into the brain. The same can very much be said of Woman of the Photographs, an exploration of the relationship between photographer and subject in 2020, which is very different to what it once was. A brilliant blend of visual and aural stimulation, it’s about someone who gets lost in her own image and it takes a photographer, of all things, to pull her out of it. I encourage you to explore these Girls on Film.
The Night Porter (1974) dir. Liliana Cavani CultFilms presents a new 4K restoration on Blu-Ray and Digital from 30 November 2020
Crash (1996) dir. David Cronenberg Released by The Criterion Collection on Blu-Ray and DVD from 1 December 2020
That Click (2020) dir. Luca Severi Available on Digital Download from 2 November 2020
Helmut Newton – The Bad and the Beautiful (2020) dir. Gero von Boehm Kino Lorber released this in Virtual Cinemas on 24 July 2020 and it’s now available on VOD