Bettina Rheims on art, photography and sexual harassment in fashion in Hyères

“I am not really a fashion photographer,” said Bettina Rheims, straining credulity in a revealing and emotional master class at the Festival de Hyères, Europe’s leading festival for young designers and photographers.
 
Bettina Rheims, jury president of photography - FashionNetwork.com

Though founded as a festival of young talent 33 years ago in the famed Villa de Noailles, a marvelous work of modernist architecture on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean, the Hyères Festival has also grown into one of Europe’s most prestigious photography prizes. This year the president of photography jury is Rheims, a loquacious lady who speaks English prose with a smoky French accent. 
 
A brilliant art photographer whose works have been presented in scores of galleries and museums, Rheims is also a known for her work in fashion. Most notably a four-year period in the 90s when she shot a series of punky yet glamorous, iconic images for the now defunct Condé Nast magazine Details working with the brilliant stylist Bill Mullen. It’s the subject of a bold exhibition inside the villa’s former squash court, featuring gutsy, color drenched imagery of a new generation of then unknown stars including Angelina Jolie, Gwen Stefani, Salma Hayek and Mickey Rourke.
 
“I didn’t want a typical exhibition like in a gallery or museum. But a living installation. Allowing people to interact with the work. See and touch the great posters, like the pages of a magazine,” explained Rheims in a discussion with Mullen attended by an audience of 300. Along one wall of the squash court, visitors can leaf through one-meter high-reproductions hung vertically. 
 
“I was in Los Angeles almost every month.  These photos show the fashion was '90s. Helmut Lang, Martine Sitbon and Jean Colonna. They capture a period of grunge and Nirvana and post punk. That’s why Jean Colonna, who is here with us, told me that I was only really a photographer for four years!” said Rheims with a deep-throated laugh. Her discussions as one of four debates organised by the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, French fashion's governing body, 
 
To Mullen, the images represented a different way of celebrating a new generation.
 
“We came from a different point of view than Vanity Fair. Gwen Stefani or Shirley Manson from Garbage or Lil’ Kim had a different kind of fame. It was like in the Batman Returns when the Penguin says to Batman, ‘What you put in your toilet I put on my mantle!’” chortles Mullen.
 
“Salma Hayek had literally just arrived form Mexico. Angelina Jolie came to our LA hotel suite for the casting with a glossy book of 8-by-5-inch photos, just before a porn star and after a waitress who might get a job in 5 years,” recalled Mullen, who tapped his feet throughout the interview. The various shoots had titles like:  Lost Angels. Do It Right! Violent Femmes.
 
Before Rheims scoffed, “Creativity has abandoned most of the magazines. In our day, there was no retouching. Now an actress’s PR woman would intervene and things would have be redone. Photos get retouched before the shoot is even taken!” snorted Rheims.
 
The scion of a notable Paris family, and distant cousin to the Rothschilds, Rheims' first steps in photography were shooting strip-tease artists in Pigalle. The female form, whether nude or covered, is a central subject in her work, like Chambre Close, where she reimagined early pornography, playing on the confusion of roles between amateur models and their viewers. While later works with her husband, author Serge Bramly, such as Rose, c’est Paris, is a photographic tale of a young muse looking for her sister.  She was probably the first photographer to cover the emergence of transgender subjects, way before it became fashionable. Indeed, Rheims whole career stands for women’s empowerment. 
 
“I never shot women who were not sure of what they were doing. Though I may well be the last photographer working, as they will all be banned,” she sniffed.
 
Though she is definitely a supporter of #MeToo?
 
“What has happened this year is fantastic. Like all movements in society it will become too big. But it is so important that it exists. It will change face of the world. Now women can say 'no'! I was speaking to a jury member, an artist but also very famous model, Saskia de Brauw. She never really faced an assault. But she recalled all the times models were asked to take off their clothes and they felt they could not be allowed to feel bad about that. That was what they were so supposed to do. There were all these little daily things that men allowed themselves to do. An improper word, somebody saying to you in the morning ‘you look sexy,’ but maybe you don’t want to hear that. That is ending now, which is a really great change,” she said quietly.
 
“I was myself a model too. A century ago. And I had some terrible things happen to me. When you walked into a photographer’s studio they would say ‘take off your clothes.’ Just to work out how you would look in a couture evening dress they needed to see you in a bikini without a bra!” she shrugged.
 
How was she enjoying her role as jury president?
 
“Before I even look at their photos I want to talk to the finalists. Wherever are they from? Why did they make it to the jury? What they would do with the prize money if they won?” she smiled, before adding that she wanted to help them understand how to make a portfolio; or meet the right magazine or edit their work.
 
“I was lucky enough to cross the path of Helmut Newtown when I was 25 and he became my mentor and teacher. Every Thursday night he would look at my work and often destroyed it but just sometimes say something nice. It’s the duty of the artist to transmit what you know. Ours is not a  craft – like furniture – where you train someone to make a certain style. Our role is to give young people part of our enthusiasm and experience,” she added.
 
However, she cautioned that shooting fashion had probably hurt her reputation as a fine art photographer.
 
“I never privileged a commissioned work over my own projects. Commissions are useful as they are like a lab to elaborate new techniques. And the best way to learn them is to do editorial and advertising. My first project was photographing strippers in Pigalle – along with one lamp and a camera. But in fashion you work with a team. So, when everything is perfect and set up  I come and give it the kick,” she argued.
 
“Doing fashion did damage my career as an artist. Some museums will never show my work, as I am a “commercial photographer.” They forget that Man Ray and Brassai; Avedon and Penn all worked for commissions. But, it doesn’t matter what a picture is done for in the beginning. It just counts that it is a good picture. In the end, we are here to show people things that they don’t want to see.  When I started working with transgender subjects – nobody was interested in publishing these photos! If one day we convince one person to open their ideas and minds then we help make the world better. You have to do that if you are an artist!”

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