Famous for her photos of beautiful women, Bettina Rheims has been one of France’s most celebrated photographers for almost four decades.
Clayton Maxwell: Could you please tell us about your surrealist, fantastical series titled Rose, C'est Paris?
Bettina Rheims: It’s actually a long story. I started this project to do a story of Paris. When I was in Shanghai doing a work with Serge Bramley who I’ve been collaborating with for many decades; we’ve done five or six big projects together. We returned from Shanghai thinking we wanted to live this experience again because it was fascinating, exotic and extremely enlightening, and we tried to figure out what was the next thing we were going to do together. It did take a few years—I did two interim projects without him and he wrote a book. And then we decided to enter another trip together. Except we didn’t really want to leave home for such a long time. Shanghai had been for one year and it was sort of heart breaking for our families. We thought how about doing a trip around our bedroom or something like that. So that meant Paris.
My work always starts the same way. I never start by looking at art or painting or photography. I always start by making lists of words. I started listing what I loved about Paris—what fascinated me, what were my nightmares, my dreams, and my fantasies and then around that we decided to tell a story. It’s not just any story. The first question we asked each other was: if we could have chosen the time we had lived in Paris, what would it have been? And obviously the most exciting time in Paris, when it was at its most glorious, was in between the two World Wars—the time of the Surrealists. This was when artists were together, inventing new languages and new forms of art, and crossing each other—all of these extraordinary figures in the same city working together at the same time. So we thought we would offer a tribute to that Paris of the Twenties, Thirties, and Forties where everything was possible. The key word was freedom.
Dream. Fantasy. Fear. Death. Sister—and then quickly that became twins, and then the story evolved out of this creature that I was obsessed with, Fantômas. Fantômas was a legend in the early-20th century—he started as a kind of cartoon in a newspaper. There was an episode of it in the newspaper everyday and the whole of France was scared by this terrible character who lived on top of Paris, running from one rooftop to another, wearing different disguises and murdering people. Everyone thinks he’s dead and then he’s living again. He’s been a hero of many of the surrealist artists, and there have been many films made about him. He became an icon. You have Superman—we have Fantômas. He’s our French superman.
So the dark side of the story is Fantômas—Magritte wrote a text about him, saying Fantômas is the Evil. Then we have the bright side of the project, which is a tribute to the surrealists, especially Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp invented the double of himself as a woman and she was called Rrose Sélavy. We twisted the words, but of course they mean something different in French, they are difficult to translate. Duchamp invented Rrose Sélavy. And we created Rose, c’est Paris.
The story is about Rose, a twin sister who arrived in Paris looking for her missing sister, Bea. In order for Rose to find her sister she has all these fantasies about what could have happened to her sister, and she becomes a sort of Alice in Wonderland, Paris. And she crosses all these different worlds, all these different pieces and passages in Paris trying to find her sister. Has she been kidnapped? Did she become a punk rock artist? Did she become a nun, a prostitute? Was she abducted by a wealthy guy who kept her locked up in his house in the 16th arrondissement? And she takes on all these different characters and puts on all these different costumes in order to look for her sister.
CM: You are famous for photographing very beautiful women. What have you learned about your own definition of beauty?
BR: Oh it’s so vast, it’s such a huge subject. I’ve found myself. Not in the beauty, you know, I am normal, but the more I moved along with my career and my work and the deeper I went into the work, not just about nudity but the work with women—as you know, there are more dressed than undressed. They are not always naked. The celebrities I photograph are not naked, but they may have a high sexual element in my pictures, a power or something, they are on the edge of something. But it’s not about taking off their clothes. There is bareness, but I love them and I make them beautiful, but not in a silly way. I’m not saying the other ones are silly, but they are not like the regular sexy pictures you see in magazines. Because they stay in charge or control. It’s a game where both of us have to be on top of it. It’s not just somebody rolling around on the floor unless mentally she decides to do it; she is on top of what she is doing. This is very important. My women are never victims. Even in Chambres Closed. They are on top of the thing; they know what they are doing. I think the fact that we move along together during the session, and I talk to them a lot—I’m into it, I give as much as they give me—I think it helps them.
CM: I think that comes through and makes your work different from a regular fashion shoot. Your subjects do seem powerful and, like you said, in charge. There seems to be a respectful intimacy that comes through your images.
BR: I think you are right. The key word is respect, if I were disrespectful for five minutes I would take down my camera and stop. I have a very moral attitude about that. I push them or I can be a bit of a thief, but I am only a crook with crooks. I have to have someone strong and powerful in front of me.
Text by Clayton Maxwell
© picture: Bettina Rheims, Sacre Coeur, fevrier 2009, Gelatinsilver print mounted on aluminum, Edition of 5 and 2 artists proof, 105x81,5 cm, courtesy Galerie Jerome De Noirmont, Paris, France