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Final Word: June Newton, Director, “Helmut by June”

Photographer Helmut Newton died in 2004 at the age of 83, but his images have
been iconic, especially in the fashion world, for decades. Though he also shot
portraits and a diverse range of photographs, he is best known for the sexual,
often fetishistic images of beautiful models in bizarre, suggestive situations
that some found beautiful and evocative and others saw as misogynistic and exploitative.
Some people who’ve worked with him have suggested he could be tyrannical and
arrogant, but in the film Helmut by June, he is more of a pussycat.

This isn’t so surprising, as the filmmaker is June Newton, his wife of 54
years. June Newton followed him around for a long time, primarily in the early
1990s, using a Sony Hi-8 camera, grabbing a remark here and there from the photographer
but nothing that could be called a real interview. What is interesting about
the film is the opportunity it offers to watch Newton at work, posing models
to conform to his ideas. It’s clear throughout that we’re seeing the subject
of the film through the filmmaker’s eyes (hence the title), but what the film
might lack in objectivity, it makes up for in intimacy—in little moments
that a traditional documentary crew would likely not have captured.

“In truth, it’s a fairly rose-tinted view of a controversial man,” says
Editor Oliver Potterton, who came to June’s attention through Producer Thom Mount. “That
was why the title had to be Helmut by June. That is the spirit of what
she had shot.”

Newton doesn’t talk much about technical issues in photography. In fact, he
seems quite bored by them in one moment when he holds up the 35mm camera he’s
using for a shoot. “Everything is automatic,” he says. “This is
a camera every amateur buys.” His pictures, he asserts, have nothing to
do with the equipment. “It’s all in there,” he says, proudly pointing
to his head.

“He never tried to influence me,” June recalls. “He was too
concentrated on taking the pictures. But he enjoyed watching what I’d filmed
at the end of the day. I had no structure in mind when I began filming Helmut.
I simply went on every shoot. The segments of the film are taken from hours of
material.”

Potterton’s work as an editor was primarily on trailers. It was his treatment
of the trailer for Roman Polanski’s Death and the Maiden—the original
version of this documentary is more than a decade old—that sold June on
the idea of having him edit this film. Potterton recalls being a bit hesitant
when the opportunity to work on this project presented itself. “My mother
was a documentary filmmaker in Canada,” he says. “I had a slightly
feminist slant to my upbringing, and so some of his photographs had me concerned.
I was apprehensive about meeting the man in Paris. It was only meeting June and
seeing the relationship of these two people and their 50-year marriage that I
realized how interesting this could be. The contrast between the photos and the
man and his missus offered a very curious dynamic that kept my mind spinning
and made the whole project more intriguing.”

“Canal Plus produced the film in 1994,” June explains. “Helmut
saw it and liked it. Brett Ratner has given it a new life for America.” Under
Ratner’s charge, the project that started on Hi-8 and was mastered to 1-inch
for its European distribution in the mid 1990s was digitally restored for its
American presentation on HBO.

Potterton, who hadn’t seen the film since 1994, watched the restored version
recently with an audience and says he was pleased with the film itself after
all this time and very encouraged by the response of the audience members. “They
laugh in all the right places,” he says. “You show an audience a documentary
about Helmut Newton and you don’t expect to be laughing. June did a wonderful
job of capturing the man the way she knew him, and I’m very glad it came together
so well. June’s quite a charmer, and she has a bloody good eye.”

Newton’s widow is still sitting on quite a lot of footage that did not make
it into Helmut by June, and she more than hints that she’d like to see
a second documentary come out of it. “God bless Brett Ratner,” she
says. “God bless America and God bless the sequel!”

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