Leo I, from the series Modern Lovers
18 Dec 1952 -
‘Searching plays a significant role in photography. That is exactly what is suppressed in advertising and fashion photography.’ Bettina Rheims 1998 1
Like many fashion photographers, Bettina Rheims has pursued projects which explore her personal notions of individual beauty, rather than that dictated by magazines and advertising agencies. In her series ‘Modern lovers’, Rheims subverts fashionable ideals of beauty by portraying the androgyny of young men and women. Her subjects stand awkwardly before the camera against a plain studio backdrop, sometimes looking into the camera, sometimes turning away. Their ambivalence in being photographed is matched by the ambiguity they present to the viewer: these rather feminine men and masculine women confound gender distinctions, but at the same time confirm the homoerotic tendencies prevalent in much fashion photography from the 1990s. It comes as no surprise to see a young Kate Moss, who shot to fame in Calvin Klein’s homoerotic advertising campaign in 1992, among the modern lovers.
Rheims began work as a portrait photographer in 1978 and has since worked as a fashion and celebrity photographer and photojournalist. The subjects of her first exhibition in 1981 were striptease artists and circus performers – the ‘demi-monde’ to fashion and modelling’s ‘haute-monde’. Similarly, Rheims approached most of her subjects for ‘Modern lovers’ ‘on the street, in bars, everywhere’.2 None were older than 20 and all were forming their identity, coming to terms with their bodies, their sexuality and their look. Rheims, who had been a model herself before turning to photography, compares her subjects to butterflies and angels – elusive creatures in the process of metamorphosis and transcendence.
1. Rheims B 1998, 'Bettina Rheims: modern lovers', Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney np
© Art Gallery of New South Wales Photography Collection Handbook, 2007
gelatin silver photograph
7/15 [edition of 18, 15 of which are printed on 60 x 50cm paper.]
54.5 x 44.3 cm image; 60.0 x 50.1 cm sheet
Signature & date
Signed and dated lower verso, ink “BR ... Décembre 1989 ... Bettina Rheims”.
Gift of Edron Pty Ltd - 1996 through the auspices of Alistair McAlpine
Not on display
© Bettina Rheims, Modern Lovers series
Shown in 3 exhibitions
Bettina Rheims: Modern Lovers, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 14 Dec 1998–21 Feb 1999
The fashion of Helmut Newton and Bettina Rheims, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 09 Feb 2013–17 May 2013
The Unflinching Gaze: photo media and the male figure, Bathurst Regional Art Gallery, Bathurst, 13 Oct 2017–03 Dec 2017
Referenced in 5 publications
Eleanor Weber, Look, 'Fashion photography that chartered new ground', pg.30-31, Sydney, Feb 2013, 31 (illus.).
Judith White, Look, 'Unexpected Angels', pg. 11, Heidelberg, Dec 1998-Jan 1999, 5 (illus.), 11 (illus.). The image appearing on page 5 is in detail.
Bettina Rheims Modern Lovers, Heidelberg, 1990, 49 (illus.).
Bettina Rheims: Modern Lovers, Sydney, 1998.
Capital Q Weekly, 'Angels undressed', pg. 1, Darlinghurst, 11 Dec 1998, 1. This appears in the xtra section of the newspaper.