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Bettina Rheims
Bettina Rheims

Bettina Rheims

Country: France
Birth: 1952

Bettina Rheims, born Bettina Caroline Germaine Rheims is a French artist and photographer. She began her career with a series of images of striptease dancers and acrobats, and over the years she became one of the most notable persons behind the lens. "I adore flesh. I am a skin photographer," she says famously, and that perfectly explains her work. It is raw and erotic, frequently involving nudity and stuffed animals, and she achieves a visceral emotion that captivates the audience.

Some of her most well-known pieces raise problems of gender, androgyny, and transsexuality. Although Bettina Rheims began with obscure and marginalized subjects, her later assignments included advertising campaigns for fashion and major brands like Chanel and Lancôme, as well as prominent international magazines. Madonna, Charlotte Rampling, Catherine Deneuve, Kylie Minogue, Claudia Schiffer, and many others were photographed by Rheims. And there's something indisputably human and true in every photograph she takes, perhaps too natural and personal.

I have always believed that whether the work is my idea or a commission, it is personal work.... In the end, as my old master Helmut Newton used to say, there are only two kinds of pictures: the good ones and the bad ones.

-- Bettina Rheims


Bettina Rheims was born in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. She is the daughter of the French Academy's Maurice Rheims. She began her career as a photographer in 1978, at the age of 26, after working as a model, a journalist, and running an art gallery. Initially, she accomplished a lot of commissioned work, such as record covers for Jean-Jacques Goldman and celebrity portraits. She devoted herself entirely to photography beginning in 1980. She created a series of images of strippers and acrobats, which were presented in two personal exhibits in Paris in 1981, at the Centre Pompidou and the Galerie Texbraun. Encouraged by her success, she began work on a series of plush animal portraits, which were shown in Paris and New York.

In 1982, Rheims' Animal series allowed her to focus her lens on a different type of nudity: stuffed animals with fixed looks, "which seemed to desire to express something beyond death." "I had to capture their stare," the photographer claimed. The photographer questioned gender, androgyny, and transsexuality in Modern Lovers (1989-1990). Les Espionnes (1992) and Kim (1993) were two subsequent publications on the same subject (1994).

At the same time she took portrait images for worldwide magazines and advertising campaigns (Well and Chanel), created her first fashion series, worked on cover sleeves, and film posters, and in 1986 directed her first advertising campaign. Her female portraits were published in a monograph, Female Trouble, in 1989, and exhibited in Germany and Japan. The next year, she created Modern Lovers, a series of portraits of androgynous youths that were presented in France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, as well as being published in book form.

I still find myself having to justify being a woman taking pictures of naked women. It never occurred to me that there was something bizarre about it, it always felt very natural.

-- Bettina Rheims


Bettina Rheims began work on one of her major series, Chambre Close, in the early 1990s (1990-1992). This was her first color work, and it marked the beginning of her partnership with novelist Serge Bramly, in which her images were combined with the writer's fiction. Chambre Close is a parody of the first pornographic images in form — chambers with fading walls and old-fashioned wallpaper — but in substance, it attempts to stage amateur models in stances that play on the eroticism and misunderstanding between those looking and those displaying themselves.

At the close of his presidential campaign in 1995, Jacques Chirac allowed Rheims to work behind the scenes on a series of images depicting the last moments of the election. Following the election, the French Republic's Presidency commissioned Bettina Rheims to create the official picture of Jacques Chirac. According to Libération, she intended to give the President "the easygoing look of the great heroes in westerns."

The decade ended with the publishing of the book I.N.R.I. and its accompanying exhibition in 1999. I.N.R.I. constructs a philosophical debate on the history of the crucifixion through images of episodes from Christ's life, from the Annunciation to the Ascension, once again connecting the gaze of Rheims with the writing of Serge Bramly. Bettina Rheims advocated "modern illustrations, following the advent of photography, cinema, and advertising imagery, as if Jesus were to return today." The release of this work was highly contentious in France.

During two long stays in Shanghai in 2002, Bettina Rheimsmade a series about the city. "The initial impressions of a visitor coming in Shanghai are of people with deep-rooted ancestral rituals and customs who have thrown themselves into the frenzied race of the modern world." Rheims, blending into this 'alternative way of thinking,' offers us a fresh perspective on the enigma that is China's coexistence with its millenary traditions, avant-garde facet, official elements, and underground qualities.

Rheims exhibited Héroïnes, a piece that was essentially an homage to sculpture, at the Galerie De Noirmont in 2005. On this occasion, the photographer worked with designer Jean Colonna to outfit the women in unique outfits. "Thus, old haute couture gowns were reassembled on each of these contemporary icons. These unusually beautiful women then toyed with a stone, which became their pedestal for a brief while."

Bettina Rheims collaborated with Serge Bramly again at the end of the 2000s, and Rose, c'est Paris was shown at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in 2010. Bettina Rheims and Serge Bramly crafted a fictional thread from autobiographical parts for the photographic story. In this piece, Paris plays "the role of the muse more than the subject, and [appears] in an almost allegorical manner through the figures weaved into a story." A young woman we'll call B. is hunting for Rose, her twin sister who she thinks has vanished. Rose, c'est Paris is presented as a "great mysterious series," a genre beloved by surrealists, and is divided into thirteen episodes in which we discover, among other things, an unusual or obscure Paris that is voluntarily timeless."

Exhibited in 2012 in Düsseldorf, the Gender Studies series pursues the questioning of gender representation. The device linking image and sound (by Frédéric Sanchez) presents 27 sound portraits of young men and women who responded to a request the photographer posted on Facebook. The photos are accompanied by interview clips and have featured in several exhibitions and a book. Rheims has also worked on advertising campaigns for fashion and big brands, such as Chanel and Lancôme, as well as taking portraits of famous women for international magazines. Rheims says that she has been inspired by Diane Arbus and Helmut Newton as well as by the work of early painters.
 

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