Tuesday 26 July 2022

Nostalgic notes from a small island

Notes from a Small Island I first read Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island when it was published back in 1995, and then a few years ago I picked it up again to see if it had anything to say about the Bournemouth area. It did (Chapters 6 and 8) because that's where Bryson first worked as a journalist in the UK. I can't say I found any useful insights for my holiday, but chuckled reading that the British "are the only people in the world who think of jam and currants as thrilling constituents of a pudding or cake". Well, I can't argue with that knowing my own fondness for an Eccles cake. So when I returned home I decided to give the book another go.

The main thing to note is that Bill Bryson has not written a travel guide. Sure, it describes a journey around Britain, but the chapters are numbered rather than identified by a destination, and there's no index. It's a memoir, and the places he visits mostly recall episodes in his life. For instance his first encounter with England in Dover, or when he met his wife in Virginia Water, or his first real job in Britain at the Bournemouth Evening Echo and his work at The Times newspaper in 1980s London during the "Wapping dispute".

It is funny tho'. I laughed out loud several times, really laughed. For instance when he gets drunk in Liverpool and when he can't understand the Glaswegian accent. I was thrilled to find he enjoyed the old Coronation Street Tour as much as I did, and nodded in agreement with his description of the rail journey along the North Wales coast. The humour is terribly British and may not be understood by all, nor be to everyone's taste.

If the humour's not your thing, a large amount of pleasure can be had in recognising destinations. Bryson's purpose is not to persuade you to discover new places, and although some towns sound horrible (Milton Keynes), the people are generally welcoming. Although I read somewhere that someone is attempting to recreate the tour and visit as many of the hotels, restaurants and pubs mentioned in the book that still exist.

Some things haven't changed. People still say you're brave if you're "planning to travel around Britain by public transport", and that "everyone, but everyone, you talk to in Oxford thinks that it is one of the most beautiful cities in the world". Also that "a place as prosperous and decorous as Harrogate could inhabit the same zone of the country as Bradford or Bolton". I can't speak for Bradford, but it's certainly true about the once great Lancashire town, tho' you wouldn't think so if you'd seen Bolton's eponymous fee-paying school in Cold Feet, and the town centre's Le Mans Crescent in Peaky Blinders.

Things have changed a lot in the past 25 years and I'm not sure it still reflects Britain and the British. Bryson mentions his "greatest admiration for the A-Z" but who uses that anymore in the age of mobile phones and Google maps? On the underground I was recently disabused of the "orderly quiet; all these thousands of people passing on stairs and escalators", after being elbowed out of the way and told to f*ck off at London Bridge tube station. One thing Bryson would perhaps consider a change for the better tho' is that these days the BBC is no longer showing repeats of Cagney and Lacey.

More stuff

Wednesday 20 July 2022

Helmut Newton: Amazonian women and Wild West gunfighters exposed in Monaco

Newton, Riviera Gallimard/NMNM 2022
An exhibition of Helmut Newton's work is on at Monaco's Villa Sauber (5) until 13 November 2022. Newton, Riviera features photos taken mostly on the French Riviera from the 1960s until the photographer's death in 2004. Some 280 images include fashion shoots, personal snaps and private commissions.

What the pundits say

Newton's work has been labelled kinky, perverted, and misogynist, but a better description may be ambivalent. A large part of his output is not at all provocative, and pretty much everyone agrees that he's had a major influence on fashion photography.

What Helmut said

If you know nothing about the man, go straight to the end of the exhibition and start with the film Helmut by June (1995) (3). Shot by his wife, aka Alice Springs, it runs on a loop and captures Newton at home and at work. Be aware it's 53 minutes but well worth it.

The footage reveals his meticulous direction. Newton explains his use of the 'gunfighter stance' which stems from seeing "Gary Cooper as a gunfighter in High Noon. The outline of [the] body... the little waist, the big shoulders". Whatever the pose, it looks like hard work for his models, whether clothed or not, and it must have been an advantage to be strong, the type of Amazonian woman Newton says he admires.

In addition to the movie several of his famous quotes are printed on the walls of the exhibition. They reflect his opinions as well as his sense of humour:

Some people’s photography is an art. Mine is not. If they happen to be exhibited in a gallery or a museum, that's fine. But that’s not why I do them. I’m a gun for hire. (he's very keen to deny his work is art)

I also like to take landscape pictures but I don't get any commissions.

I love the sunshine. We don’t see it in Paris any more. (allegedly what he told the Monegasque official in charge of processing his residency paperwork)

What I think

At a superficial level I enjoy spotting Monaco landmarks in the photos, but what strikes me most is the sense of humour and playfulness. Just look at his portrait at the exhibition entrance in which he wears a pair of high-heeled, sling-backed sandals (Helmut in Pumps, Monaco, 1987).

Irony features in the images too. Woman Examining Man, Calvin Klein, American Vogue, Saint-Tropez, 1975 shows a woman manspreading while ogling a man. French Vogue, Plage du Carlton Cannes, 1981 portrays a female flasher in a bathing costume, her victim staring unmoved into the distance.

A more startling image is Mummy in the Garage, Monte-Carlo, 2000, a woman totally covered with bandages apart from her breasts and her feet shod with six-inch stilettos. It's somewhat unnerving. If Newton had not been so vocal in rejecting his work as art I'd view it more dispassionately, with an eye for the detail, the care with which it's constructed. I wonder if it's really any different from something like Manet's Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe, 1863 (2), or those pretty paintings of girls freeing birds from cages, which contemporary viewers considered erotic.

Two photos, Cigar Industry I and II, 1997, owned by a private collector, show women smoking cigars. I'm tempted to roll my eyes at the crude phallic imagery and resist the urge to snigger. Another voyeur might be turned on by it. What, then, if the model were a man relishing a big fat Toro?

By comparison Newton's portraits of the rich and famous look rather staid, like postcards a fan might purchase. Jude Law, Monaco, 2001 and Anthony Burgess, Monte-Carlo, 1985 are smoking. Bernardo Bertolucci, Cannes, 1996 clutches a curtain. Sylvester Stallone, Cap d'Antibes, Antibes, 1990 bizarrely wears a formal black dinner suit in the blazing sun.

Chris Roelandt et Gaetan Morlotti
A section is dedicated to photos of the Ballets de Monte Carlo. Male dancers Chris Roelandt et Gaetan Morlotti, Monte-Carlo, 1996 face off in front of Monaco's Salle Garnier. Their defined muscles and stance remind me of Olympic Discus Thrower by Leni Riefenstahl. Before escaping Germany in 1938 Newton was an apprentice photographer in Berlin and some of his images betray a 1930s aesthetic influence, as in one of my favourite photos of the exhibition, Nadja Auermann, Blumarine, Monaco, 1994. She poses with 'fräulein' blonde braids, gazing towards an optimistic horizon that she'll never reach wearing those six-inch stilettos. The way she holds her hands recalls the 'gunfighter stance' Newton mentions in his wife's film.

I don't agree with American writer Susan Sontag who told Newton in 1979, "Je ressens que vos photographies sont très misogynes et pour moi ça c'est des traits déplaisant" (1). Neither do I agree with Newton himself when he says his work is not art. Some images do provoke unease, but they invariably portray a sense of strength rather than submission. It may be a cliche, but in the case of Helmut Newton's work it's also a truism that 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder'. Go see the exhibition and decide for yourself.

More stuff

  1. YouTube - Apostrophes: Helmut Newton à propos de son travail, French discussion, 8 Jun 1979, incl. Susan Sonntag
    • English translation of Sonntag's quote: "I feel that your photographs are very misogynist and for me these are unpleasant features"
  2. Wikipedia - Déjeuner sur l'Herbe
  3. YouTube - Helmut by June, in 5 parts:
  4. Helmut Newton Foundation
  5. Nouveau Musée National de Monaco