Opinions Reviews

REVIEW: Bettina Who? Bettina Rheims at Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris

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For a long time I was under the mistaken impression that Bettina Rheims was German. For a start, I know several Bettinas and they’re all German. Also, “Rheims” – if you pronounce it “RrrrHAYMs” – sounds Deutsch. Plus, her photographs of women, with their disintegrating outfits, silky – if occasionally scarred – flesh, and “fuck-me-no-fuck-you” expressions, just look far too uncontrolled. Not out-of-control, but never-even-been-close-to-having-been-controlled. Far too un-French.

To be honest, I think I was subconsciously mixing her up with Ellen Von Unwerth. But then, IMHO, Ellen Von Unwerth is the Frenchest photographer in captivity, and I happen to know Ellen is eine echt Frankfurterin. Anyhow, Bettina Rheims was born in Neuilly-sur-Seine on 18 December 1952, which makes her French (and two years older than Ellen). This helps explain why the Maison européenne de la photographie is showing a retrospective of 40 years of her photography in the latest in their wonderful series of fun fearless female* photographer shows. (*Not their description.)

Bettina’s first show at MEP was Modern Lovers, in 1990. In 2000 the museum staged her I.N.R.I. Prints from both of these are in the current exhibition, as are works from Gender Studies (2011), Chambre Close (1990-1992), Espionnes (1992) and many, many more. I think one reason I was confusing Bettina with a German is because of the formidably organised nature of her career. She started working as a photographer in 1978, and has since produced at least 19 exhibitions and accompanying books.

In between, she has taken pictures for magazines, and done lots of Chanel advertising. In July 2011 she shot a story for us at Russian Vogue. It was a series of portraits of Russian female designers and artists, styled by Sascha Lilic (Ellen’s partner in crime.) The look was semi-post-apocalyptic – Mad Max with Russian girls who really were trying to get away from all that aprés-Soviet shizz. There was, for example, the shot below of Ulyana Sergeenko, who was just starting to make it as a restrained, Dior-lite modern couturier girl.

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Ulyana’s normal look is demurely head-scarved, cinch-waisted, with a flicky short ‘do and a tendency towards mid-calf 50s-style prom skirts. Licking your lips and metallic breastplates? Not so much. No one came off well here. But that Russian Vogue shoot is (surprise!) not part of the exhibition. The work that is on show – and there are three floors of it – is of an impressively consistent standard, not just in execution but in creativity.

Bettina Rheims has spent 40 years being inspired by women – by womens’ bodies as translators of womens’ souls – and her concentration, interest, devotion, curiosity, whatever it is, has seldom flagged.

This retrospective encompasses Bettina’s visions of woman-as-daemon (above, Arabella). As Greek goddess on a plinth. As sex worker, prisoner, weird Mona Lisa on the metro (you’ll have to look it up.) And woman as perennial baby-doll in the bad Elia Kazan or perhaps Louis Malle sense (below, Marthe, à la cigarette).

One of Bettina’s recurring obsessions is the beautiful-woman-messed-up. She has always photographed skin smooth, silky, and cream-toned, and should that skin be bruised – by a too-tight corset on a fashion shoot (Lara Stone covered with red welts) or patches of hair dye-like scratches on a wet face (Lauren Hutton, below) – the photographer shows that too. In a way, her 2011 series Gender Studies should have been a logical continuation of this. The premise is that a body is beautiful from the inside, no matter what happens on the outside (i’m quite aware how hippy-trippy this reads, bear with me.) But somehow, it doesn’t quite happen. Her photograph of Andre Pejic (below) looks like something by Pierre et Gilles.

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A very young Kate Moss is just disturbing. Corinne Day could shoot Kate topless at 15 and make it a game. For Bettina, the state of being nude in front of a camera is serious: it’s not something to take lightly. In Rheims’ work, the photographer has a responsibility for the transition – soul to body to camera to audience. In the end, I’d say, this is why Bettina’s relationship with her – overwhelmingly “strong” female – sitters is so profound, so consistent, and so consistently creative. Her female gaze touches the essence of femaleness, fearlessly (thanks Cosmo). She’s not afraid to show imperfection, even a bit of madness – as long as it’s a strong, assured, adult female imperfect madness.

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The title of her first book was Female Trouble, but females are the one thing Bettina has never had any trouble with at all.

Bettina Rheims continues at Maison Europeénne de la Photographie, Paris, until March 27th, 2016.

© Fiona Hayes 2016