Bettina Rheims Interview: Insights from a Three Decade Career Shooting Eroticism

A peep into the awesome Bettina Rheims photo gallery

Bettina Rheims photo gallery - Featured
Josie I, Paris, Septembre 1989 (“Modern Lovers”) from Bettina Rheims photo gallery

Bettina Rheims is one of photography’s greats: in her early years, she mentored under Helmut Newton; in 1981, she published her first photo book, Portraits; in 1994, she won the Grand Prix de la Photographie of the City of Paris. Born in 1952, she worked as a model before becoming a photographer. She is known for producing erotic and, at times, controversial images.

She has also been exhibited around the world, including stays at Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville in Paris and Gallery Daniel Wolf in New York. She has shot fashion and celebrity work with Elle and L’Officiel, among others. Rheims lives and works in Paris. We spoke over email.*

Bettina Rheims photo gallery - Milla Jovovich
Milla Jovovich, étude, Paris, Mars 2005 (“Héroïnes”) from Bettina Rheims photo gallery

You say that the moment you grabbed a camera your life began to make sense. How did you get your start with photography, exactly? How would you describe your work?

I started photography when I was a teenager as I discovered that I could be left alone when I was in my dark room. At first my goal was developing, my sister was one of my first models, and I was also doing a lot of street photography.

Bettina Rheims photo gallery - street photography
26 juin I, Paris, Juin 1991 (“Chambre Close”) from Bettina Rheims photo gallery

Were you ever unsure of your talents? Did you ever feel like giving up?

When I finished school and left home, I tried various things but finally went back to photography. That was the only thing I was meant to do!! So I never really doubted or felt like giving up. I usually have those kind of thoughts when I’m not working, but as soon as I grab a camera, all uncertainty vanishes.

Bettina Rheims photo gallery - uncertainty vanishes
22 octobre, Paris, Juin 1991 (“Chambre Close”) from Bettina Rheims photo gallery

What was your first — very first — childhood memory? Do you think this first visual memory and its emotional pull might have influenced your work?

I remember that as a child, we didn’t get much chance to spend time with our parents, but when my dad wanted to be with us, kids, he used to take us to the museum and explain the paintings to us as if we were adults. And I think that the love of art still remains in the back of my head during the shootings.

Bettina Rheims photo gallery - Helmut Newton mentored
Irina Lazareanu, étude, Paris, février 2005 (“Héroïnes”) Bettina Rheims photo gallery

Helmut Newton mentored you. I read that you would go every Thursday to meet him so that you two could talk about your work. What was that experience like?

Serge Bramly and I were having diner every Thursday with Helmut Newton, either at his house or at the restaurant. Some time I would bring some of my images, but most of the time he was showing his work. It was an amazing privilege!

Bettina Rheims photo gallery - Serge Bramly
Marthe en guêpière, Paris, février 1987 (“Female Trouble”) Bettina Rheims photo gallery

What did Newton teach you, above all? You’ve said that his criticisms could make you cry.

He’d drag me to his workshops pretending that he had only ugly students and wanted to see a nice face at the front row. I followed him to Arles, to the Fondation Cartier, and that’s when I saw him do nudes and portraits. One day, he said to me, “Bettina, why don’t you do color, you’ll never be a photographer if you don’t do color.” And June, who was there at the time, asked him why he never told her to do color and he answered, “because Bettina is going to BE a photographer.” He could be like that sometimes!! He also came once to see me at home, looked at my images — he was in a bad mood — and said, “People really pay you to do that?” I felt hurt and got angry. After that we didn’t get the chance to see each other much, but he came to my exhibition of Chambre Close and was very impressed by the way my work evolved.

Bettina Rheims photo gallery - expectation from the photographe
Lara, Paris, janvier 2008, Paris (“Just Like a Woman”) Bettina Rheims photo gallery

Have you ever surprised yourself with how sexual your photographs can be? What’s the attraction of photographing women to you, exactly? And when you’re shooting, do you mostly shoot from intuition?

I’m always surprised to see how easily women accept to undress if there is a true and genuine expectation from the photographer, but mostly a great respect of the fragility and beauty of each one of them. I think that I first started to shoot naked women because I wanted my father to look at my images and father liked very pretty women. But I shoot women because I know them, as I’m a woman myself. I understand their fears, I have their same hang-ups, I make the same dreams. It’s more exciting for me to penetrate a woman’s mind. It’s like doing a self-portrait.

Bettina Rheims photo gallery - penetrate a woman’s mind
Kaplan I, Paris, février 1990 (“Modern Lovers”) Bettina Rheims photo gallery

I usually shoot following my instinct and trying to get something personal from my model. I think that’s what makes my image “sexual”. I don’t think that “sexual” means “erotic” but it’s like you’re reaching something deep, unknown and secret in someone . . .

Bettina Rheims photo gallery - erotic image
Dovile, Paris, janvier 2008 (“Just Like a Woman”) Bettina Rheims photo gallery

I really love this one. Could you explain how this image was made from start to finish?

This image is taken from a series called Just Like a Woman. I wanted to explore women’s sexuality, passion, climax from a new angle … a kind of man’s angle… that’s why all my models have been shot from above … as if I was the lover looking at them in the eyes, seeing their red cheeks and lips (via coddington). This series is all staged and everything is fake (the marks on the body are made with make-up, the girls are not in a bed but on the floor of my studio, they are not really looking at me, as I was hiding behind a black curtain) but it explores the reality of woman’s pleasure.

Bettina Rheims photo gallery - woman’s pleasure
Pierres de Rêves, Paris, février 2009 (“Rose, c’est Paris”) from Bettina Rheims photo gallery

Do you ever browse Instagram? Do you have any favorite young photographers?

I unfortunately don’t have the chance to discover new photographers but I sometime wish I could spend more time looking at books or going to exhibitions. Time is luxury . . .

Bettina Rheims photo gallery favorite young photographers
Causes perdues, Paris, février 2009 (“Rose, c’est Paris”) Bettina Rheims photo gallery

Check out all of Bettina Rheims photo gallery at her website!

Correction, Jan. 29, 2015: This post originally misstated that Rheims worked for Marie Claire and was exhibited at Cook Fine Art. Rheims hasn’t.

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