Bettina Rheims: Scratch-and-Sniff

Bettina Rheims started taking pictures to impress her father. Believing she was not pretty enough for his standards, she took photographs of beautiful women to get his attention.

“Someone who doesn’t like museums is someone who doesn’t love women”, her connoisseur father Maurice Rheims declared grandly as he caressed the lower back of a Rodin sculpture. Doctrinarian and somewhat overbearing, this short yet handsome figure shared his knowledge and passion with young Bettina for, among many, François BoucherGustave Courbet, and Auguste Rodin; other men’s interpretation of feminine abandon.

Pretty girls behaving badly have a natural appeal, and images of the type of girls mothers warn you about are quite enticing. Naturally, Taschen did a big book on it. They specialise in making books filled with images meant to titillate the simplest common denominator, but can one blame them? It sells like hot croissants. Bettina deserves better.

No man could photograph women with such intimacy. A photographer’s eye is by definition a voyeur, in situations of naked vulnerability it becomes a predator. This adds sexual tension to an image. Not here, Bettina obtains an abandon of her subjects that is the result of her personal savoir faire; a mix of cajoling and directive handling of her voluntary prey. Like a dressing-up game, little girls making-up games, games that become a little naked, a little kinky. The result is a particular form of eroticism of a woman looking at another woman as she gives herself to the camera.

From a different generation, and maybe because it lacks the sexual tension and thus a shared purpose, it is unfair to compare Bettina’s fashion work with Guy Bourdin‘s glorious layers of provocation in full frontal color or Helmut Newton‘s elegant 50 shades of grey. But both were friends and, as the Old Masters of her youth, obvious inspirations.

Her garish, “look at me” images are attractive but somehow something is lacking. They remain in one’s mind as highly staged and richly produced pictures in a magazine. Bettina offers the best of herself in her personal and more introspective work, photographing the slightly off-kilter and interrogating the transient nature of all living things, as in her 1982 Animal series of formal portraits of stuffed animals chosen from Deyrolle‘s taxidermy collection. Or in 1990’s Modern Lovers, with her gender-questioning series shot after the death of her 33-year-old brother. True, these images seem perhaps harsher, less appealing at first, but there is something lasting and powerful that emanates from them: soul.

There is something inherently stifling about growing up in a powerful high society family. Letting others take precedence over you, never complaining and never explaining is drilled into you until it becomes a reflex. Of Bettina’s generation, Nan Goldin successfully based her whole oeuvre on explaining and complaining. Politeness, unobtrusiveness and prudery are not tantamount to great art. Bettina got to break that natural instinct through her work. She has proven that she could make her mark among the brutal world of fashion and advertising. Now, older, and still beautiful, it would be wonderful if she could just do more of what she does best: scrutinising our fragility and yearning.

Bettina’s life story, character and natural empathy are particularly endearing. An example can be found in a double page in the back of the Taschen book, where a facsimile of an early contact sheet of photographs taken for the celebration of the 90th birthday of her grandmother’s Nanny. Albeit not great photography, but simple, caring and revealing of herself and her love for others. That’s the necessary Bettina that I love and admire. As Rosine Crémieux, my very Parisian psychiatrist once said to me: “stop trying to charm me, now, tell me about you”.

Bettina Rheims runs at Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris, until March 27th, 2016. All images ©Bettina Rheims

Published in SuperMassiveBlackHole Mag. 03.03.16

 

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