Bettina Rheims

Eschewing any pretense to critique—in contrast to those photographers who’ve attempted to bracket out fashion’s starstruck vision to pursue subtexts revealed in the grainy, often black-and-white imagery of the stealthy, oblique shot—Bettina Rheims embraces the convergence between fashion/celebrity photography and art. In most fashion photographs, we are meant to see past an unnamed model’s personal identity to the characteristics she is supposed to embody in projecting an image suitable to a particular fashion line. On the other hand, fashion models are increasingly becoming celebrities, who are often made the subjects of biographical photo-essays. Yet, even though Rheims’ models are named in the titles of her photographs, we are hardly made to feel that we are being offered any “behind-the-scenes” insight into the real women behind her images. Instead, she makes use of an aura of familiarity—palpable even to those of us who would never recognize their names—along with a brilliantly marshaled visual rhetoric, to expand their “representative” status into a mythos of women.

Clothes are essential to these incarnations. Claire Stansfield’s dress seems to pour down her body like a transparent, viscous fluid, causing her to resemble some Ovidian maiden being transformed into a river. A pattern of red and yellow flowers floats across her liquescent flesh as across the surface of a pond. The gold sheath worn by Rose McGowan endows her body with the radiance of a Byzantine icon, an aura so strong that there is no need for a hieratic pose to stress it. The most inexplicable naturalistic details serve only to amplify the mystery: Why in the world is she stretched to tiptoes? Perhaps it’s because of an irrepressible inner dynamism that turns any pose into a leap. And that strand of hair that trails up the raw, unfinished wall behind her? Even an inanimate entity, like this crumbling backdrop, in McGowan’s presence seems to come sufficiently alive to cling to some aspect of her person, as though a man were hopelessly twirling her lock with his finger.

For an American viewer, at least, these pictures take on added piquancy when one knows that Rheims took the official photograph of the President of the Republic—meaning that her portrait of Jacques Chirac hangs in every one of France’s 36,000 town halls; one can only imagine the uproar here if Bill Clinton’s official portrait had been done by a photographer whose work is often so saturated with sexuality. Rheims, in a recent interview, complained that “men think that I cast a male gaze on women,” and I tend to agree. Rheims portrays women as goddesses—a rare view among women, who are more likely than men to have a down-to-earth view of their sisters. The difference is that few men could project this myth so passionately and retain a sense of humor—as Rheims always does—a humor manifested in weird details like the gravity-defying length of ash hanging from Claire Stansfield’s cigarette. These large, color-saturated prints would be imposing in any context, but their scale also emphasizes Rheims’ vision of women as mythic creatures, larger-than-life beings possessed of a fiercer vitality than the mere mortals who serve as witnesses to their existence. You needn’t share that vision to be impressed with the virtuosic imagemaking it provokes in Rheims.

Barry Schwabsky