“It’s the balance between everything – the clothes and the hair and the make-up and the light. At one point it’s perfect, and the picture is there.” Bettina Rheims is certainly an authority on creation of ideal images: since the early Eighties, this influential practitioner has taken impressive photographs, many of which rank as visual landmarks of our times. Alongside her portraits of celebrities and the French cultural elite – Madonna, Yves Saint Laurent, Marguerite Duras and others – she made herself a name with the creation of often erotic, provocative art and fashion photography.
Her latest work – something Rheims terms “completely new and different” and “real” – is now on display at the London Hamiltons Gallery. “Gender Studies” portrays 25 individuals whose classification into normative gender roles fail. It could be seen as a continuation of her long-running preoccupation with the human body and its relationship to gender. Starting with voyeuristic photographs of more or less naked women in revealing poses, she soon became interested in people who combine both the male and the female. “We all have another part in us”, says Rheims.
It’s been commented before that she manages to look at women from a man’s perspective, maybe that’s also the source of her ongoing fascination. In “Modern Lovers”, an art series including the very first picture of Kate Moss in 1993, she approached the subject as an examination with identity. “Kim” followed in 1994, a book project about the transsexual Kim Harlow who later died of Aids. Some 20 years later “Gender Studies” serves as an update work to what gender could also mean today.
The project started by snooping around on Facebook and undertaking lengthy castings on Skype before she alighting upon transgender-mannequins, including that embodiment of androgyny par excellence, the Bosnian-Australian model Andrej Pejic. The biggest change as against Rheims’ former projects was the existence of what she calls the “third gender”: another, neither female nor male, but something in between. “The most fascinating thing I discovered was that a lot of people didn’t want to change sex,” she remarks. “They are on that thin line of ultimate freedom to say, ‘We don’t want to choose. This is our freedom of life, we wanna keep on living like that.’”
For Rheims, who has been in contact with Camera Work for a long time, this was the “perfect project to start a collaboration” – and hopefully not her last experience in Berlin, a city where balance may be hard to find, but where the nuances of gender are accepted. Long ago seduced by the town’s galleries, museums and currywurst she grins: “I love the city.”
Text by Celina Plag
Bettina Rheims, “Gender Studies”, at Hamiltons Gallery
Until 1st March 2013