Friday, September 17, 2010

Five Reasons to Love Bettina Rheims

The exhibition of photographs by celebrated French photographer Bettina Rheims that opened last night at the Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York is notable not because there is anything that is particularly new—much of the work will be familiar to those who know Rheims's work. It is worth noting, however, because it highlights a photographer who, despite having had some editorial success in the U.S. in the 1990s, has never gained the renown here as she has in Europe. Galleries on this side of the Atlantic have never given Rheims the kind of sustained attention that would have made her a bigger presence in the art world here. It was wonderful to see her work at Houk and to know that she has found a home at a preeminent gallery.

Why she hasn't become more of a star here is an interesting question...

I think it's probably because her work is almost impossible to fit into discrete slots. Usually when we look at photographs it is with an immediate understanding of the tradition the work comes from and the intent with which the image-maker is working. (Same with movies, which have always been genre-based.) It's a kind of contract between creator and viewer that makes the act of communication much less taxing for both parties. Rheims hasn't signed off on that contract, and her images are filled with what can seem to be contradictions. When I look at her photographs I am frankly often confounded by my own expectations of celebrity, fashion, eroticism, feminism, and truth vs. fiction. Rheims doesn't deliver any of these things in ways I'm used to.

I think some cultures are more comfortable with contradiction than others, or, to put it another way, some cultures simply don't see contradictions where others might. Perhaps in France, where artists are given forbearance in a way not  understood in the U.S., Rheims doesn't present as many contradictions.

That's pure speculation on my part, of course, and I'd love to hear any opinions pro and con on the topic. Are the French different from you and I?

At any rate, the show at Houk offered a good summation of Rheims's career. The collection might have been a bit weighted toward her celebrity portraiture, but nonetheless it showcased the photographer's consistently surprising ideas about women and they way they are portrayed in pictures.

Here are five reasons (all from Houk) to love Rheims:

1. Monica Bellucci, Paris, 1995

 As Rheims, a one-time model herself, notes in this video, "I photograph women because I know them so well..." Her subjects, famous and beautiful,  have confidence in Rheims, and it shows.

2. Madonna, New York, 1994

In an interview I did with Rheims a couple of years ago, she said, "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."

3. Marion Cotillard, 2002

Catherine Denueve once described Rheims's work as "masculine and feminine at the same time." Perhaps there is a contradiction there, and perhaps not.

4. Anne Pedersen, Paris, 1996

Often, it's not the big questions that prompt the creative spark, but smaller ones. "In a way, all my projects start with skin," Rheims once told me. "My first question—even before I start to think about black and white or color or camera format—is, "What kind of skin do I want to represent?"

5. Karen Muldar, 1996

Rheim's once told an interviewer that subjects often come to her studio "to scare themselves a little." Here she turns what might have been a merely scintillating shot of a tiny Chanel bra into an entire story. She may have started with skin.

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