Bettina Rheims began working as a model, journalist and art dealer before moving behind the camera in her late twenties. Rheims has since become one of France’s most internationally acclaimed contemporary practioners. Since the 1980’s her work has focused of gender and sexuality, capturing individuals ranging from the androgynous to transgendered. Rheims photographs possess a rawness and vulnerability, which reminds me of Marie Hald’s images of Bonnie, and something I’d love to emulate.
In the series ‘Modern Lovers’ (1989-91) which was exhibited at Hamiltons, Rheim’s depicted a series of androgynous and transgender adolescents. Each image is a statement of individuality and their relationship with society. The series proves how one image can be just as poignant as an entire series. I wonder if one image could represent my subject without revealing their full identity? The images are raw and bare, reminiscent to the portraits taken by Richard Avelon.
You get the sense that her subjects are exposed and revealing who they really are. Their dead pan expressions, central position and monotone tint acts as if the individuals have been fitted into the frame, like you’d categorize someone by putting them into a ‘box’. The series challenges what we, society, consider male and female and pushing the conventions of what is ‘normal’. I really like the style of the images but again if I were to photograph my subjects, nudity would not be involved.
‘Modern Lovers’ triggered Rheim’s latest work, ‘Gender Studies’ where she depicts transsexuals and a third gender; those that preferred not to choose a sex and exist as both, adopting a dual identity. Candy magazine wanted Rheim’s to republish her old artworks from ‘Modern Lovers’, which deals with transgender and androgyny. The images were uploaded onto Facebook and received comments from those who felt they could relate to the subjects depicted. Rheim’s decided to take this a step further and explore the differences in the world of gender today in comparison to over twenty years ago.
Facebook, the place where people re-kindled or became interested in Rheims’ older work, naturally became the ideal place to find subjects. Rheim’s posted a message on Facebook encouraging those that ‘felt different’ to get into contact with her. This led to Rheims communicating with the subjects on a more personal level. She would have the individuals tell stories about their lives, using Skype to communicate with them. Eventually she whittled the subjects down to 27 candidates from around the world to visit her studio. Rheims collaborated with her friend and designer Jean Colonna who “helped to glorify these new Modern Lovers”
The images possess similar qualities to those from ‘Modern Lovers’. The individuals appear bare and raw. Whilst I love black and white in the older work I like the use of pale colours in this series. It some how makes the photographs feel more current and up-to-date and evidences how gender and sexuality has evolved when comparing it to ‘Modern Lovers’. I feel there is a sense of nymph and magic in the series, as if the subjects have been elevated to something holy and special, breaking away from all social constructs and norms. This would link to ideas within some Native American cultures, who hold transgender people in high regard, considering them Godly and precious. I feel this is reinforced through the shredded garments and muted milky hues within the images all.
This mystical notion may also have been influenced by the stories of the subjects. When speaking to the subjects Rheims was struck by their ranging tones, voices and words used, something quite bewildering and wonderful. Some spoke about fairies, witches and princesses, others about their struggles with being in the wrong body. As a result of this Rheims collaborated with sound artist Frederick Sanchez in order to record the stories and add an audible dimension.
What struck me as something unique about this series, is Rheims inclusion of individuals who refuse to choose between the two categories available: male and female and decide to live using both identities. It shows how whilst transgender and androgyny and categorizing people has always existed, it has evolved and people can now live in between these categories. Rather then just showing transsexuals, we see a new group of people. It’s challenging to look through the images. Your constantly conflicted as to whether their male or female, despite knowing that some just do not fit either option. As humans we naturally try to categorize people and this series challenges just that. It makes me wonder what would have happened if my subjects were given this third option. Would they still have gone through with gender confirmation surgery?
Similarly to Davidmann’s works, Rheims elevates her subjects depicted as something for the audience to gawp at and explore. Again, I do really like the images and I feel the character’s personalities and uniqueness do come through more successfully in these images compared to Davidmann’s, but I still feel their being exploited for the public to enjoy. Having them exhibited and printed to a large scale makes them into spectacles and highlights them. However, the notion of making them appear mystical and magical I do like, as if there uniqueness is a positive and wonderful thing, something, which should be seen and appreciated. So I supposed having them exhibited could reinforce this.
Overall, the series links to almost every aspect of Phonar. Rheims used social media and other modern technologies to seek her subjects and build relationships with them. She collaborated with other creative’s as well as the subjects to ensure the images would depict them in a beautiful and mystical way, as that’s who they are, “just wonderful”. And she also recognized the importance of mixing it up and adding audio to add even more gravity to the images and people within them. In relation to my final piece, Rheim’s work has encouraged me to think carefully about the delivery of my piece and to use all platforms available to ensure it’s something unique and current.