Misty evening in Edinburgh, as the haar settled across the city at night, like a soft, grey blanket. I do love when the mist covers Edinburgh, especially at night – something about the way it softens the city, makes everything diffused, and the streetlights glow through the fog.
Helmut Newton: the Bad and the Beautiful,
Directed by Gero Von Boehm
Blue Finch Releasing
“A lot of the men told me they were afraid, the girls look down on the man who is looking at them.”
Helmut Newton, who passed away in 2004, was one of the most famous photographers in the world, especially in the realm of fashion photography. He was also often very controversial, not least for his very stylised nude images of women. For some they were the height of misogyny, the photographer arranging women’s bodies in a style and pose that fitted some mental image he had, indulging his own inner fetish of how an idealised female form should be, the models denuded, not only of clothes but personality, becoming like artfully arranged mannequins for his camera & mind.
But for others he created images of very strong women, often sexually imposing – as the quote by Newton himself at the top of this piece indicates, in many poses, despite being naked ostensibly for the “male gaze”, the women strike such a powerful pose, often shot from a low angle so they seem to be looking down at the viewer, their physique idealised, and powerful (like a cross between Classic Greek statuary and the idealised athletic bodies Leni Riefenstahl filmed in the 30s), in a manner which could intimidate the viewer. In some ways they look more as if they are the ones in the position of power, quite assured of their own place, tolerating the gaze of the viewer, not at the mercy of it.
Some of this is corroborated by the many famous “talking heads” included in Von Boehm’s documentary, which includes his wife (and sometimes model and fellow photographer) June Newton, Grace Jones, Charlotte Rampling, Isabella Rossellini, Anna Wintour, Claudia Schiffer, Marianne Faithfull and more. Rossellini, who was first photographed by Newton with David Lynch during the Blue Velvet shoot, noted he posed her with the famous director almost like a puppet that Lynch was moving as he wanted it to move, which, as she adds, in a way is partly the actor-director relationship so it worked quite well. Charlotte Rampling commented that he could be provocative, but that can be a good thing as she thinks the world needs a little provocation from time to time, especially in the arts, as it stimulates thought and discussion.
The formidable Grace Jones laughingly recalled him dismissing her at first because her breasts weren’t large enough (which rather adds to those arguing he was a misogynist who saw women as objects for his imagination and lens), but he eventually did make a pretty remarkable sequence of photos with her, notably some with actor Rolph Lundgren, which remain pretty striking. These included some interestingly posed nudes with the pair looking almost sculpted, one with Grace, already a tall and pretty striking looking woman as we all know, looking even taller and more imposing as she stand nude in a high position in a truck looking down on Lundgren (and by extension the viewer). “He was a little bit perverted. But so am I, so it’s okay,” Jones added, with a huge laugh.
The film does not ignore his detractors, however – for instance there is a fascinating clip from a 1970s French talk show with Newton and Susan Sontag, where she says that she quite likes him personally, but she has great problems with his work, and considers it to be strongly misogynistic. Newton replies (also in French) that he cannot be a misogynist as he loves women more than anything else in the world. Sontag fixes him with a look and coolly responds that she has heard so many misogynists make exactly that claim that they love women, with the inference being that no, what they really love is their own, internal, idealised version of what they want a woman to be.
There are other moments that show a sly sense of humour – he offers, for instance, to do a portrait shot of French politician Jean-Marie LePen. Who is of course flattered the world famous photographer wishes to do his portrait. Why does Newton – who was a child in Germany during the rise of the Nazis – want to take a portrait of this far-right fascistic politician? Well it turns out he does a lovely portrait, suggesting LePen bring his beloved dogs into the picture – LePen unaware that Newton is quite deliberately styling this portrait of the French far-right politician to look like a famous portrait of Adolf Hitler with his dogs. By the time LePen realises he has been played and the image criticizes and pastiches him and his lamentable politics it is too late and it has gone to press.
Other subjects discuss his work in terms of time and place, especially the 1980s fashion world, where his style of photographing women coincided with the rise of designers like Karl Lagerfeld, their fashions and the stylistic approach of his camera working well together. Other more personal moments reveal the person behind the lens, away from his “perfect”, idealised model imagery, his wife June recalls him taking his camera to visit her in hospital, but knowing this was a coping mechanism, that having the camera there helped him mediate the terror of seeing a loved one ill and in hospital, gave him something to cling to, some structure, a little control
It’s a fascinating documentary of an iconic twentieth century photographer; where you may fall on the discussion over celebrating or exploiting women in his imagery is a debate that I suspect will long continue, and as the documentary shows, those who knew him best, those who worked with him, have different opinions themselves on this issue. What the documentary does well is to show his work, place it in some context both of its time and of his life and influences, and to explore these different views of his work, while also showing that we are talking not just about these issues but about a person and their life, with all the complexities that entails.
Helmut Newton: the Bad and the Beautiful comes out via Blue Finch Releasing in Curzon Home Cinema and Digital Download from October 23rd. This review was originally penned for Live For Films.
Since the new lockdown restrictions mean I am not allowed into the family home if I go through to see dad (but we can meet outside in a busy cafe or bar?? Doesn’t make a lot of sense to me…) we met partway and had a day out in South Queensferry, then I had a wee wander around Linlithgow on the way back to the train home. Naturally I was taking photos while I was there ambling through the town and along the mighty Firth of Forth, and of course, the bridges (especially the Rail Bridge, which I think is a wonderful landmark as well as a gem of Victorian engineering)
The Forth is, as you can see, not just a majestic piece of scenery on the Scottish coast, or home to much history, it’s still a working river, with gas and oil tankers in particular passing up and down it, or loading and unloading at these offshore terminals, helped by tug boats
Walking in the Hermitage of Braid today, near the foot of Morningside (Miss Jean Brodie country). The trees are still mostly resplendent in their verdant coat of summer greenery, but Autumn, Autumn is whispering in Summer’s ear “my turn is coming….”
Just outside the Hermitage, over a tall wall of an expensive house, the branches of its trees were laden with the autumn bounty of apples. And me there without my scrumping ladder to grab any…
We were allowed one single, solitary exercise walk during the height of Lockdown. For those living alone this was especially hard, essentially meaning being isolated at home for the bulk of the day and evening, so those walks were important to my mental health as well as physical. Of course where I go the camera goes, and that was another way for me to cope with the months of stress and depression during Lockdown, documenting my city during these strangest of times
Coming home from the last visit to a friend before Lockdown – even though the official announcement was still a day or two away at this point, the cinemas and bars and restaurants had already closed. Saturday night on Lothian Road, lined with bars, restaurants, two cinemas, two theatres and a concert hall all nearby, a place I would avoid late on a weekend evening because it is so busy with drunks, and here it was, the only other people I saw a couple waiting on their own for a bus home. It was eerie and unsettling to see this normally busy, lively area so quiet – I have seen more life there at 3am walking home from a late night Film Festival show… This was a harbinger of how my city, and countless others around the world, would soon become.
Back in late March, early days of Lockdown, little traffic, the normal noises of the city mostly absent, and a haar had descended on the city, as it often does here, the mist rolling in from the mighty Firth of Forth, adding to the sense of quiet and fear. On this day as I walked Princes Street I saw the digital advertising billboards on the bus shelters had all been changed to “Thank you to our amazing NHS staff”, one after the other after the other progressing down this normally bustling street.
The famous Oxford Bar, where Ian Rankin’s fictional Edinburgh detective from his Rebus novels likes to drink, as does the author himself. Closed like the other bars. His birthday fell during Lockdown, so Ian took a bottle of beer and a glass, walked to the Ox, poured his pint and had it standing outside the closed pub.
Rainbows in windows and on the streets, and support for our NHS workers were everywhere. As with other nations the health professionals were overwhelmed, and in addition they were in the front line so even more vulnerable to infection, and the risk of bringing that home to family (some simply didn’t see their families for ages to minimise travel and risk). And still they looked after us as best they could.
Bright sunny spring day – the Blue Blazer bar in the foreground, the western flank of Edinburgh Castle atop its great volcanic rock in the background, Both closed.
Normally bustling George Street in April sunshine, all the fancy, expensive shops closed, no shoppers, no tourists, barely any traffic.
The top of the Royal Mile on a bright spring day. This should be heaving with tourists, instead barely a soul to be seen. As I walked the eerily deserted streets that would normally be so busy I kept hearing the music from the film 28 Days Later in my head. Much as we moan about legions of tourists it was, frankly, scary and unsettling and disturbing to see my city like this, still a glorious, grand old dame on a day like this, but with nobody there to admire her save me and my lens. An uncanny feeling to be able to stand in the middle of the road in this UNESCO world heritage site and be able to do a 360 degree pan with the camera safely because there was no traffic…
Ladies having a socially-distanced safe chat early in Lockdown, in the grounds of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. I should have been enjoying the Ray Harryhausen at 100 exhibition there of this wizard of cinema, a movie maker who filled my early cinema going with sheer wonder. But the galleries were closed – the grounds remained openk so I walked to them often, enjoying the sculpture gardens.
The Grassmarket, right below the Castle, normally packed with locals coming and going and many tourists, stag and hen parties and students enjoying the many bars and restaurants. Some of the inns here were centuries old when Robert Burns came to stay in them. Now empty, just me and my camera, some of the old pubs boarded up as they were worried about vandals or looters early on, which added to the strange empty feeling of the city.
Cockburn Street in the Old Town. Just a few years ago Hollywood was in town shooting scenes for the Avengers at the top of this street. Look at it here…
Quick, street shot from the hip, lady early on in Lockdown carrying her groceries home during the period when a lot of shelves were empty and some items hard to get, adding to the overall feeling of worry, stress, fear. Not a technically good shot, being hurriedly shot from the hip, but it captured that oh so bloody tired of it and wondering how long the road would be feeling, I thought.
Hardware store on Morningside Road, one of the few businesses still open. Nobody allowed in during Lockdown, so they had a screen at the door, people socially distanced in queues outside, waiting their turn, then asking for what they needed, it would be brought to them at the door and they would pay by contactless card. This would become a model later on as Lockdown eased a little more, my own bookshop did this sort of “click and collect” until we were allowed people back inside in the last couple of weeks (with many safety rules implemented).
Cycle shops stayed open too, peforming much needed maintenance – many took to bikes to avoid what was still running of public transport (to avoid more possible infection vectors). Bus drivers and trams kept going on reduced service here, props to those who kept them running for those who had to keep working and needed the transport, while the bike shops made socially distanced queues and saw people at the doors for repairs and advice to keep them going too. I noticed most bike shops also had air pumps and water outside so cyclists could use them if needed without coming in, just a nice little extra but of help being offered to the community.
Not all doom and gloom though, nature kept ticking away regardless of the worries oppressing the human world. The cherry blossoms performed their annual magic, something always lovely to see, but this year oh so much more special and wonderful and needed. As I was lining up this shot of the “tree tunnel” in the Meadows I hadn’t noticed these young, masked women had spotted me and posed for the shot!
Saint Giles Cathedral and Parliament Square, with not another soul to be seen. Normally so many tourists here, some sitting on the steps in the sun, resting their feet, lawyers coming and going from the nearby High Court and the Advocate’s Faculty. Not now. I’m not used to seeing it like this, it was upsetting and worrying, but again mediating it through my camera lens helped a bit, and I was determined to document my city during this time.
Safe, social distanced chatting in Princes Street Gardens. My walks brought me here often as a place to rest mid-walk before going home. With almost no traffic the sounds of the birds in the Gardens was so much more obvious and wonderful, while the spring weather meant they were perfumed with the scent of blooming flowers, all of which helped me cope with the endless days of isolation and worry.
As the months passed a few places re-opened doing takeaway only coffee, like this one in the Meadows. My god the luxury of being able to buy a coffee again, even if you had to take it outside, the first brew I hadn’t made for myself in weeks and weeks. The simple pleasure of being able to buy a cup of java then sit in the park with it…
Socially distanced walking, jogging and cycling on the Union Canal at Fountainbridge. I avoided the narrower parts of the canal walkway – not enough space for social distancing, and if people left space between walkers then joggers and cyclists would go right through the safe gap, huffing and puffing as they did, which was alarming under the pandemic conditions, so I stopped walking those areas and only using the segments like this where there was more room for everyone to be safer.
Single, solitary passenger waiting for a tram at what should be rush hour, in the Haymarket area, next to bus and train interchanges, should have been packed with commuters, but this time just one chap.
Cinemas closed even before the official Lockdown. Normally see several films a month and it was very strange to go so long without being able to see the silver screen (yes, I can watch at home, it isn’t the same experience), and this incuded my annual sojourn at the world oldest continually running film fest, the Edinburgh International Film Festival, which didn’t happen this year, of course. The closed and shuttered cinemas were stuck in time, their posters advertising current and coming attractions from just before everything stopped, like a time capsule. This is the family-owned Indy cinema The Dominion in Morningside.
Some made use of local green spaces – while I walked with the camera or sat on a bench in the parks to read for a while, others were performing their yoga exercises on Bruntsfield Links, or learning to juggle.
God, how important nature was to many of us in lifting our spirits – the return of life and colour and light in the spring is always welcome after winter here, but this year it was so badly needed to help us remember there was still magic and beauty to be found.
So few people in the earlier parts of Lockdown even in the heart of the city in Princes Street Gardens, just below the now closed Castle.
Masked and hooded in the Gardens during Lockdown.
Some were fortunate enough to have someone to hold their hand during this long, dark, isolating time.
Mask or turban, which to wear today….
We had to look for any small win, any little thing to cheer ourselves. One bright day, walking alone in the Meadows, I heard a beautiful voice singing arias, and found this young woman. I hadn’t heard anyone busking in weeks, let alone singing like this. The birds chirped in the trees above as she sang, voice clear, soaring out and up into the branches above to join those birds. I sat under a tree and listened, it was so sublime and wonderful and magical I cried at the beauty I had so unexpectedly found. It reminded me of the moment from The Shawshank Redemption where Tim Robbins’ character breaks the rules to play an opera piece over the prison tannoy, and everyone stops, all those locked within the walls lifted by the beauty of the song and the music. Oh god, it was just beautiful for a few, precious moments.
Masked trio strolling the Union Canal during Lockdown.
The haar returned as spring became summer and Lockdown rolled on. Despite the weather I went walking – I had to get out even for a while, and besides, it is more like walking through a light cloud than rain. Naturally I took photos and video clips as I walked. Edinburgh looks wonderful, draped in this soft, silken blanket…
As the weather rurned to warmth and sun, more were out walking, some found good spots, like this chap sitting by the old Leamington Lift Bridge to play his guitar in the sunlight.
With little road traffic much of what was on the road was cycle couriers, working round the clock delivering meals – with restaurants closed only home delivery was available, and these guys were criss-crossing the city all the time. I would see them in the same few spots on my walks, where they had found areas to grab a quick, much-needed rest. Many were clearly exhausted.
Sring had turned to summer as Lockdown went on. I went out for a stroll on Midsummer Night and took a few photos. This was after eleven at night, an hour after the summer sun had finally set, but in Scotland at Midsummer the skies just don’t really get dark. Even after the sun goes down there is a long, faerie light of twilight, the sky remains aglow and by 3am the sun is already rising again. We are not in the land of the mmidnight sun, but we do overlook their front lawn.
Even during Lockdown the city had to be kept clean. While many of us were furloughed the bin lorries still came round, the street cleaners still picked up the litter and made our city look nicer.
The concrete monstrosity of the multi-storey car park which previous generations of town planners allowed to be constructed right next to the Castle (what where they thinking??). Horrid, brutal structure and jarringly out of place where it is, but during Lockdown, totally empty of cars, and shot in black and white, it looked photogenic. I nipped in during a walk to snap this thinking I may never see it empty like this again…
The pubs re-open with strict distancing and safety rules next week, but the beer gardens and pavement cafes re-opened just a few days ago in Scotland (where Lockdown rules have been more cautious – as they should be – than those rules enacted by Westmonster down south). It was odd to see the Grassmarket like this, still quiet by what normal standards would have, but at least some life, compared to the deserted, boarded up scenes I shot a few weeks ago in this spot.
I shoot so many photos each year, and took even more during Lockdown, partly to document the times in my city, partly as one of my coping methods. I was also live tweeting video and photos as I walked, as a sort of “virtual walk” for those who couldn’t get out at all to enjoy, and several people got in touch to say they appreciated that and that those pics and videos helped them when they were confined, shielding, which made me feel a bit better, at least something postive had come out of it, however little. My photos went past the 21,000 uploads mark on my Flickr during Lockdown, and my daily views shot up as people were stuck inside, often looking online for diversion, so I hope those too helped some people pass the long, Lockdown days.
We’re still in the early easing of restrictions here, on guard, they could change if more infections appear, but let us hope not. I am back to work, we can let people in – carefully – to our bookstore once more, which is wonderful. Two of our very young readers even dressed up in costumes for their first visit in months, which made us happy. Things are still so uncertain, many places will simply not re-open, those that have will have to struggle and adapt to new ways of doing things, but at least we are back.
I normally keep an eye out for the regular breeding pair of swans we have on the nearby Union Canal, especially in spring when they have their cygnets. This year being furloughed for so long during Lockdown, with a single permitted daily exercise walk the only thing I could do outside the house, I had more of an opportunity to walk that way with the camera, and capture photos of them, from the small, fluffball stage of a couple of weeks old, to now, where they are rapidly growing to a similar size to their mother (Papa Swan is rather larger!), so I thought I would post a sequence of pics of this year’s cygnets to show how they have grown in the last few months.
This is our 2020 cygnets when very small – and supercute! I always love seeing them every year, but this year with the grim reality of Lockdown, the isolation and every threatening stress and depression, the magic and beauty of nature became all the more important, a wonderful escape as I took my once a day allowed exercise walk during the Lockdown (and of course where I go walking, the camera goes too).
My friend who runs the Union Canal Swans Twitter and Instagram is so known to the parent swans they let her feed their babies each year, the short video above is her feeding them some porridge (being Scottish swans they love a bit of porridge!)
Sleeping on the grass by the side of the canal
You can see how much larger they are by this point.
Papa Swan shaking it all out.
Quick close up portrait before they slipped back into the water after resting on the banking.
I love that slap-slap-slap of those big, webbed feet on the wet towpath!!!
On the daily permitted lockdown-era exercise walk I’ve been taking photos as I walk, mostly of the unsettlingly empty city streets. I’ll post some of those later, but for now, thinking we could all use something cheering, here are some wildlife photos I’ve taken on those walks. I spotted this pair of swans this evening on the Union Canal:
This lordly heron was on the Water of Leith, next to Murrayfield rugby stadium, surveying his kingdom:
And these goosanders were splashing around just on the other side of the river from the heron:
Meanwhile in an almost deserted Princes Street Gardens, the air is filled with the lovely scent of magnolias, while the cherry blossoms are becoming full and heavy:
I took a long walk on a nice day off at the end of the week, avoiding my usual refreshment stops in a pub on the way (this was before they were closed, but I had already decided not to risk going into any for a while). Gorgeous spring light that day, but only a handful of people out, even before the Lockdown. This was rush hour on Lothian Road, normally nose to tail traffic at five in the evening and busy busy stops, but here you can see just a few people, sensibly spacing themselves out to keep “social distance”:
Next to the bus stop is the Usher Hall, the Lyceum Theatre and Traverse Theatre, and these illuminated displays normally extoll the upcoming concerts and shows, but with the theatres and nearby cinems already closed by this point, there are now shows, and the posters for them have all been taken down, all very sad (for my own part theEdinburgh International Film Festival which I always attend and the second Cymera literary science fiction festival I take part in during June are also now cancelled.)
Eleven at night on Lothian Road – with several cinemas, theatres and many bars and restaurants this area is usually extremely busy on a Saturday night, but here it was quite unsettlingly quiet, rather eerie, actually. Bars, theatres all closed, people were already staying at home even before the Lockdown was announced, I saw perhaps two people where normally this spot is so loud and busy with pub crowds that I’d avoid it on a Saturday evening:
One spot of life, a solitary shopper in a late night corner store:
Much needed restocks arriving at a local store:
Took a walk with chum and his hound on Sunday, lovely bright day, the streets again were unnaturally quiet, although away from the main roads the parks, walkways by the river and canal and so on were quite busy, people obviously thinking these were a bit safer to let them get out but still have some safe space between them.
Passing over the Union Canal I saw this couple enjoying the spring sunshine by having a drink on the rear deck of their house barge:
Meanwhile this chap was using the park to keep his space from other people but also practise his juggling skills!
I took a walk on New Year’s Eve (also my birthday), and watched the final sunset of the decade from the roof terrace of the National Museum of Scotland, which is one of the finest (and free) spots to look out across the Old Town’s remarkable cityscape and geology (the one is closely entwined with the other). Last, tiny sliver of the sun about to vanish below the western horizon:
And just a few moments later, looking the same way but the sky now afire, the sun set early as it does in winter, but the heavens a glorious molten copper, a last hurrah of colour before the early winter night falls across the city:
This was a long zoom towards Calton Hill – you can see a huge crowd gathered around the old Royal Observatory (now home to the Collective Gallery) to watch that last sunset of 2019:
Similarly when I turned the camera towards the east and Arthur’s Seat, the huge extinct volcano which dominates the royal park of Holyrood in the heart of Edinburgh, I saw a crowd of figures along the summit, watching that last sunset:
Also looking east from the roof terrace, the handsome dome of Old College caught in the dusk light – if you click on the original on Flickr and look at the large version you can just see the distinctive triangular shape of North Berwick Law much further down the coast at the bottom left of the dome in the background: