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Interview with Bettina RHEIMS on Her Return to America – part I

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4 juillet II, Paris, 1990

Bettina Rheims has been creating intensely erotic images of women, for more than three decades. My introduction to Rheims’ work was marked by the purchase of her hugely successful Chamber Closed – a copy of which has graced my tri-continental travelling library since, 1998. Two weeks ago, I spoke with Bettina over the phone, in Paris, about her work …and return to New York City, after many years of absence. Her first major gallery exhibition in the United States, in nearly 20 years, is held at the Edwynn Houk Gallery, until October 30, 2010.

Homa Nasab – In what way do think your background as a model has influenced your work?

Bettina Rheims – I don’t know that it did influence me. What it did tell me was that I did not want to stay on that side of the camera. Though, my experiences in front of the camera – even as an actress for a brief period – may unconsciously have given me the feeling that I don’t want to make women uncomfortable… though it’s sometimes necessary for my work.

HN – OK, but how did you get into modelling?

BR – I did not go to college or university and I was just pretty enough to be a model… but I did it unconsciously. I was never a supermodel; I was never on the cover of Vogue or something like that. That was a time when people did not care so much about – or have as much respect for models. In the 70’s, we were asked to take off our clothes and we did it. Sometimes we were promised campaigns and sometimes did not get it…

HN – As difficult as it maybe, how would you define your work’s character?

BR – My work is about getting to know myself better. It’s about what it is like to be a woman. A question that comes to me, often. And, then, there are others… for example, what is religion or faith? I ask myself what it is like to be a man who suffers for 10 years to become a woman? So, in some ways, it’s all really more and more about becoming a woman better…

5 mai I, Paris, novembre 1991

HN – So can one say that, in some ways, your images are self-portraits?

BR – That’s right! I don’t do self-portraits but my pictures are self-portraits. My various series reflect what I am into in that moment… and it is my way of expressing what it is like to be a creative.

HN – How do your ideas begin?

I am a writer with images and the funny thing is that my work, every project, starts with a list of words. I start with my notebook of ideas which is full of words and, then, the words become images.

HN – Let’s talk about your collaboration with Serge Bramly. I am always intrigued by creative couples who work together …

BR – Serge was a photographer and I was a journalist and I was as bad a journalist as I was a model. Serge and I were a team for a while until we became lovers. He was not a good photographer and he pushed me to find that which made my life better, more alive.

Before meeting him, 10 years earlier when I was 14 years old, I loved being in a dark room. He gave me a camera – that time it was a roller flex – and, the moment I looked into that square I knew that was it for me. And, I owe this re-discovery to Serge.

6 décembre, Paris, 1991

HN – And, you have been working together ever since…

That’s right. After the birth of my only child (Virgile Bramly) who is now 30 years old, we separated. However, every 3-5 years we get together and work on one of my big, heavy projects. They often require a lot of money and energy; you must remember, nobody works like that in my country. France is not America (in that sense). The logistics of making a movie are too much for me. I cannot deal with that. So, Serge and I are like ping pong players: I pose permanent questions… and may be for the next 3 years we won’t work together. He may write a novel. We have done 5 projects together: Chambre Closed (1992), I.N.R.I. (1998), Shanghai (2003), Bettina Rheims: Retrospective (2004), Rose c’est Paris (2009).

HN – Having lived in Europe for nearly a decade, until about two years ago, I hadn’t noticed your absence from the American art scene. But you weren’t showing your work in the States much. Why was that?

I have shown everywhere in Europe and everywhere in Asia. I could have said that in the (George W.) Bush Era, my work was a bit too much and over the top. So, it was a difficult time for me, there. Though, perhaps I could have tried harder. But I am shy with that sort of thing and it is not my job to do it. I wait for things to happen and I don’t like to force destiny

HN – So, you think that the heavily erotic and controversial nature of your work prevented it from being properly shown in the States.

BR – Yes, I have done a lot of work on gender issues and what it is like to be a woman and more and more about people of everyday life… I have done photographs of transsexuals, and in Modern Lovers, for example, of androgynous teenagers. I introduced sexuality into contemporary production and fashion. And, now sex is everywhere. So, perhaps I opened the doors too soon.

Breakfast with Monica Bellucci, Paris, novembre 1995

Madonna sitting on the floor and lifting her dress, New York, septembre 1994

HN – But, you don’t think that your portraits of celebrities and movie stars bring you closer to the American art (consuming) public?

BR – … Well, aside from some works with Madonna and other Hollywood stars, in the mid 1990’s., I have been shooting a lot of French & European actors, lately, and they are not so popular in America, these days.

HN – Nevertheless, now you are back in NYC where you have an exhibition at the Edwynn Houck Gallery which runs until October 30th.

Yes, I feel that I have never really been exhibited properly in America, until now. This is, also, the first time that I am starting a long-term relationship with a gallery.

HN – As a curator, I am curious to know how did this arrangement (of working with an agent) come about?

BR – I have been working with Jed Root for 20 years but, until recently, it was never his thing to touch the art side. The whole thing started about 2-3 years ago. I told him, why don’t you become my agent and he loved the idea of moving from commercial to fine arts. He has always been attracted to art but he never had a chance to step into it.

HN – How did the transition of working with Jed on projects that went beyond purely commercial basis evolve?

BR – Well, Jed began to work with me in Asia where he represented me in Shanghai and Beijing and he really liked it. It was another side of the work that had he already done. So, we decided to come to the States. You know, my work is big and heavy so it’s not too easy to carry around…

Bettina Rheims & Serge Bramly, Paris C’est Rose, April 8th-July 11th 2009, Bibliothèque Nationale de France

HN – What’s your next project in the US, then?

BR – Again, I haven’t had many shows in the US but will be showing my latest work, Rose c’est Paris, at Edwynn Houk, in 12 months’ time. I am really happy to be back in New York. I used to live and work there and it was a source of inspiration! As for other American cities: Los Angeles? I have done a lot of work, there, too. But, then, I found more excitement in Paris and Berlin… but I think that NY is back on track!

Bettina Rheims and Serge Bramly’s latest work, Rose c’est Paris, from April 8th-July 11th 2009 at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

*All photo courtesy of the artist & Edwynn Houk Gallery

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  1. Wonderful work Homa. I enjoy every word.

  2. [...] – Last time, we spoke you said that for a while, you “found more excitement in Paris and Berlin… but I [...]

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