Bettina Rheims is an iconic French photographer known for her sensual portraits of women, who range from movie stars, models and musicians to androgynous teens, wives of Russian millionaires and Parisian women whom she finds while “hunting” on the streets. Her subjects are often shot in various states of (un)dress, their portrayal filtered through her fantastic visions.
It is powerful imagery that has often made Rheim’s work the subject of controversy — her book “I.N.R.I.,” a collaboration with writer and essayist Serge Bramly, which uses models to portray the life of Jesus Christ in a contemporary context, was met with much uproar by the French extreme right.
Her exhibition at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Arts, “Made in Paradise,” features much of her most acclaimed photographs of women — from celebrities to the anonymous — all of which display a sense of vulnerability yet powerful glory.
What is the appeal of taking photographs of celebrities?
When I consider what I do, I always talk about it like a war, and I guess that war gets bigger when it involves celebrities — it is more fun.
They give everything away every day, and I want them to give me something that they are not giving to other people. So it’s not just about taking pretty pictures of somebody famous, it’s not another picture that so many photographers have already done before me. It is about digging deeper, digging somewhere else.
That is the difficult but fun part. The not so fun part is that celebrities now have total control over their images. So I have stopped shooting celebrities.
If you look at the work in the show (“Made in Paradise”), there are not many recent pictures. That’s because now it (celebrity photography) involves too much traffic through agents and managers; there’s also submitting the pictures to retouchers. It becomes an industry that is not artistic anymore.
About your nonprofessional models — where do you find them and what draws you to a particular person?
It depends on what project I am working on. For example, when I was working on “Chambre Close,” I wanted women taking off their clothes in their bedrooms — they had to be anonymous, and the fun thing was, I was searching for them all the time.
I would go buy a pair of shoes and I’d look at the girl who was selling me the shoes. I would see in her eyes if she would say yes, just by some kind of exchange. I was some kind of hunter.
The fun part about shooting unknown people is that when I start a project, whether it is about androgyny or it’s “Chambre Close” or “I.N.R.I.,” my eye becomes subjective to what I am looking for.
What kind of relationship do you have to develop with the model? For example, for your more erotic work?
How can I describe it? It is me getting them to trust me, getting them to like me, although sometimes they start to hate me because I’m after something they don’t want to give.
It’s like a war. It’s a fun war, and it’s a game. It is a dangerous game but it always ends well.
How much do you direct your subjects?
Quite a lot. I start looking at people and watching what they do, what they give me, how they give it to me, how they react and how they move.
I see their potential and I see their desire, and I play around with that. Then I start to direct. I’m a pretty directive person — right down to the tip of a model’s finger. It becomes as if the model is a piece of clay or something. Then I let go again — it is a case of letting go and coming back, letting go and coming back again. It is a mixture of direction and letting go. When I abandon the models, they start to freak out. So I have to keep on talking so the thread doesn’t cut and the link doesn’t get suppressed.
When you take on commissions, is your shooting process different to your personal work?
I like both, I must say. I do less and less commissions and only accept one when I am useful to it.
When you become a bit famous, people come to you because they want your name, but they don’t necessarily want your work. They want to be around you, they want you to shoot them because it makes them proud or something.
But the idea that such people don’t really want my world and my universe, that I won’t be able to bring something to the work that other people cannot bring — other people who may be less expensive and less complicated to work with — makes me not want to do it anymore.
What are some of the challenges of working across cultures?
I love it because I get to go to foreign lands. When I don’t speak the language, whether it is Japanese or Chinese, it’s like what I enjoy about the books I read and the movies I see: I like other cultures and I want to learn things that I don’t know about and I want to learn about other people lives, especially women.
It was fascinating for me in Japan. I have been going there for 25 years and I was fascinated by the evolution of women, how they gained their freedom; they’ve moved forward so fast. They had so much to catch up on, and for me all this is so interesting. I like to think — and people tell me that I am, so it might be true — that I was a part of that. That in a tiny way, my work helped these women find their way or helped them discover and realize that they could show and express their femininity.
“Bettina Rheims: Made in Paradise” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography runs till May 15; admission ¥900; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Thu., Fri. till 8 p.m.), closed Mon. For more information, visit www.syabi.com.