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Le lait miraculeux de la Vierge, March 1997
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– My first thought was that I wanted to see women take their clothes off. It was strange, and I didn’t know why, I just knew that I did.

That is how Bettina Rheims describes the moment when she picked up a camera in earnest, and asked herself why she wanted to take pictures.

Going through her imagery leaves you with an impression of long, white limbs. Smoky, messy, but glamorously painted eyelids. Beautiful women forged from boys’ bodies. It’s not a far leap to assume that these portraits somehow suggest the tone of her relationship with her own body. Especially when Rheims shares stories of her childhood.

– I was the fat little girl that the family didn’t want to show off. Instead I stayed in my room and drew, on my own. Those years created a strong craving for validation from my father, the art expert and womanizer, but that validation didn’t come until I had an exhibition in the same space as Man Ray. That was when he could find a sense of accomplishment through my achievement, rather than just through me.

“The power of a person is about something more generous, that gives as much as it takes.”

Bettina Rheims’s father was a member of the Académie Française, a historian, and an art dealer. Going farther back, she also has connections to the famed banker family, the Rothschilds.

Beauty, and the lack or rebellion thereof, is a running theme throughout Bettina Rheims’s oeuvre – as it is for every child raised to become a woman. The quiet girl dispatched to her nursery found herself growing into a face that evoked Sophia Loren, and indeed worked as a model for a few years before she became interested in moving to the other side of the camera.

– I wanted to portray naked women, so I asked my friends if they would model. But of course none of them wanted to take their clothes off for my photographs, she says, laughing.

Instead, she found women who worked as strippers or circus performers. Her gaze transmuted them into images of long legs, painted eyes, and the swathes of skin between them. Her first black-and-white exhibition launched a career that would see her work displayed in prestigious museums and fashion glossies alike.

German photographer Helmut Newton has been a massive influence on Bettina Rheims’s work. For a few years in Paris, he even served as her mentor. Every week, they would meet in his studio and discuss her shots.

– He saw me as a kind of student. Every Thursday, I would go to his studio and he would show me his work and then we’d look at mine. He could be incredibly harsh, and often made me cry. Every time I left I would swear I’d never go back, but every Thursday I did. Helmut taught me how to take pictures and I really loved him. He was very important to me, she once told Russh Magazine.

Chambre Close (1990–1992) was the first exhibit that showed off her compelling use of color: Amid a spectrum of dusty candy shades and shimmering jewels, women flash a breast, a pudenda, sometimes a rear end. Nudity is a common thread in her work, but she refutes any suggestion of it being exploitative.

– A lot of the pictures in today’s fashion magazines have a lot more nudity than my work does. I explore the female form because I think it’s beautiful, and it pulses with an inexplicably elusive quality that is utterly fascinating.

Beauty and controversy

But do her images leave any room for the elusive, or a beauty that offers any resistance or pushback? Her portraits rarely stray from the common ideals of beauty, even though several of her pieces are considered highly controversial. Among them are Lovers (1989-1990), I.N.R.I (1999), and Gender Studies (2011), which show crucified models and androgynous bodies that either shift between gender identities or cross them entirely. All of them dominated by doll-like visages atop lanky legs. Long lashes, and thighs that just barely shield the privates. Toned muscles on bodies where breasts have been surgically removed. There is very little room for fatty tissue, blackheads, pudgy bellies – or irony.

– Beauty has always been my thing. But not our regular idea of beauty. I mean, I’ve loved working with Claudia Schiffer, but beauty isn’t just Claudia Schiffer, it comes from within. It radiates. The power of a person is about something more generous, that gives as much as it takes. I think generosity is what life is really about.

One of her earliest pieces, Animal (1982), presents the viewer with a more plain, still naked, but totally unbeguiling reflection: Portraits of taxidermy. Eyes and maws glossy with formaldehyde and lacquer, the beasts shine a light back on the beholder’s own murky depths. They play along the blood red, shiny thread that Bettina Rheims has spun and woven throughout her pictures.

– I love flesh. I am a photographer of skin.