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Bettina Rheims with one of her photographs, Copyright: Imago/S. Gudath
Image: Imago/S. Gudath

Erotic and emancipated: the women of Bettina Rheims

Sertan Sanderson
March 8, 2016

Bettina Rheims is renowned for her provocative style, showing powerful women claiming eroticism as a tool to convey feminism. But her portraits also address vulnerability and decay. A new book explores her method.


She has been hailed as the female Helmut Newton, who served as her mentor for years. But Bettina Rheims's photographs deal with more than just beautiful bodies. In her own words, they explore what's "underneath the skin."

Rheims depicts well-known personalities like Madonna, Kate Moss and Charlotte Rampling, as well as unknown models from the street, looking for empowerment through beauty, eroticism, but also by admitting flaws, imperfections and vulnerability. The vast majority of her subjects are women.

Images of women for women

While male photographers have repeatedly been accused of misogyny for their downright sexy depictions of women in the past, Rheims has claimed nudity and skin as a way to spread emancipation. Rheims famously said that she takes pictures "of women for women" and has even used female models to illustrate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

"I still find myself having to justify being a woman taking pictures of naked women. It never occurred to me that there was something bizarre about it," Bettina Rheims said about her work.

The 63-year-old artist is regarded as a highly subversive force in photography who through the camera lens likes to explore the boundaries of gender roles and their corresponding definitions. Her own background as a model in New York in the 1970s has played a big part in her professional development, allowing Bettina Rheims to relate to the subjects in her photographs more intimately and directly.

Her exhibitions have toured the world, showing alongside great names in photography like Man Ray. The TASCHEN publishing house recently honored her career with an illustrated review of her iconic work. Originally released as limited edition, the 598-page strong XL-sized tome is now also available in an unlimited edition.

French art historian and author Catherine Millet has called the book "a celebration of excess, color, exhibitionism and voyeurism."

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