“The question of gender, social and cultural discrimination is a societal problem.”

“Barrage du Ternay”, Tel Quel, 2019 © Beatrix von Conta

How did you become a photographer? Would you define yourself as a one?

When I was 6 years old, I came across the catalogue of The Family of Man, Edward Steichen’s famous exhibition shown at the Moma in New York in 1955. It was like a picture book and a fairy tale about real life.  Some of the photographs in it were very striking and they immediately made me question issues of transience, rootlessness and death. The enigmatic side of these photographs shaped my relationship with the real world by introducing a persistent doubt towards appearances. They prompted me to build hypotheses, to question signs and to invent stories. I quickly understood that what I saw was not actually what was being shown, that what I was seeing was a sort of doublespeak, and that images too can have several meanings. I began taking photographs shortly after this discovery.

I’ve always considered myself to be a photographer. When I use that term, I do so without needing to add anything else onto that definition. Doing so often ends up being a way of artificially enhancing what the term ‘photography’ actually opens up of infinite and magical possibilities for exploring and representing the world.

What drives you as a photographer?

As a landscape photographer, I question vanishing worlds and the fragility of landscapes. These myriad landscapes that are so often illogical, disjointed, shaped by human presence are also imbued with a particular beauty that touches me deeply. I’ve never come across a ‘dull’ landscape. Each one represents a particular moment that is frozen in time, in which I try to uncover signs of any shifts at play. Perhaps that is why I am still so interested in what I call contradictory landscapes which are often complex and confusing because they evoke one thing and its opposite; beauty and the absence of it. Perhaps that’s also why I’m so particular about the way I frame my photos. I want to hint at a form of organised chaos in order to make it subtly tangible.

I see the world as being covered in a skin of images. By photographing these fragments, I can commit those ‘shreds’ to memory. They become essential witnesses of the here and now, that moves too fast, and is searching for meaning.

Do you think there is such a thing as a ‘woman’s gaze’ in photography? Is this something you can relate to?

What is a ‘woman’s gaze’? Is it a more feminine, softer, empathetic, consensual way of looking at the world, as opposed to a man’s gaze which doesn’t bother with such ‘sensitivity’? Do we focus on subject matter that is more acceptable and comfortable to look at? Is it not time to do away with these clichés which we blindly espouse? The question of gender, social and cultural discrimination is a societal problem. There are many different struggles. But with censorship and self-censorship becoming so common in the cultural world, we should pick our battles wisely. Terms such as cancel culture and cultural appropriation close the door on any debate or controversy.

The possibility that a woman may be driven to investigate and question areas that are culturally attributed to her gender doesn’t necessarily mean she will do so with a ‘woman’s gaze’. However, she may highlight problems in society more honestly and with more finesse. Her work is more long-term. Is the work of women photographers Nan Goldin, Sophie Calle or Olivia Gay the reflection of this ‘woman’s gaze’? Perhaps women are freer in their approach than men, who may not dare to show their work in a certain way for fear their photos may appear too feminine? Is a woman’s vulnerability, resistance and free spirit reflected in a style of photography that is imbued with an underlying and subtle violence? Is it thanks to her place in society that she looks at herself in a lucid, ironic, caustic and sometimes fierce way? I can’t find a male equivalent to Cindy Sherman’s work… Women don’t mind ridicule, it doesn’t kill.

The little girl is silent, the boy doesn’t cry. The former observes and measures her words, the latter contains his emotions. For both though, what is expressed through the body, is always determined by societal norms which aren’t equal.

Can one talk about a ‘woman’s gaze’? A ‘feminist’ gaze? I’m not sure. We need a change in the way women are seen.

For me, the very first criterion concerning a photograph has always been its relevance, its visual force, what it evokes, suggests and brings to light. Whether the author is a woman or a man was, and is, indifferent to me. I have never asked myself if I had a ‘woman’s gaze’. I’ve always dealt with my subjects and commitments head on, without judging: they reflect ‘what you see is what it is’.

Has being a woman influenced your work as an artist in any way?

Would it be surprising to answer ‘yes’ to that question? To point out how creative one has to be to juggle work and family life? To have to justify doing an exciting job that doesn’t pay well when inevitably faced with the seemingly innocent question “Ah, you’re a photographer…is that ALL you do?”? To be astonished by the fact that when women receive inquiries or CVs they always respond, even with a short note, whereas men do not? It’s important to point out that in our consumer society, there’s a drive to find new talent, out of nowhere, and which is often transient and doomed to be forgotten the following year…. It’s as though creation required no time, no time for reflexion or retreat, and very little work.

As a woman, you have to keep proving over and over that your status as an artist is justified and things don’t get any easier after the age of thirty.

Do you live off your art?

I consider it an incredible luxury and an inexhaustible source of happiness to have been a photographer for so many years. I’ve never questioned my choice. But as it is for the vast majority of photographers, both women and men, the struggle to make ends meet is endless. Nothing is ever taken for granted. I’m happy if I earn the minimum wage in a year. And with the health crisis and related uncertainty and lack of prospects; and with many projects being postponed or even cancelled altogether, being represented and morally supported by my gallery Le Réverbère is infinitely precious.

Which authors have inspired you? Are there any women photographers among them?

The field in which I’ve met the most memorable people has been in the visual arts.

In photography, discovering Walker Evans was a real shock: his work made me aware that photography could have a political impact. His work continues to influence me. In 1975, I attended the screening of William Eugene Smith’s photographs in Arles at the Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie. Smith showed his work on the Bay of Minamata, Japan, and his study on the impact of mercury pollution on the population. He was half drunk and babbling away about his photographs. It was overwhelming. For me, his work encompassed everything: landscapes and humans; a strong commitment; and the power and beauty of photography.

I feel very close to Pierre de Fenoÿl’s photographs, to his poetic and empathetic view of landscapes; and I feel professionally close to the works of Mary Ellen Mark, Dorothea Lange, Sally Mann, Elina Brotherus and Arièle Bonzon. There are many others.

Beatrix von Conta


Beatrix von Conta, born in Kaiserslautern, Germany in 1949, moved to France in 1975. Represented since 1992 by the Lyon gallery Le Réverbère, she has exhibited her work at the Rencontres d’Arles, the FIAC and Paris Photo. Through her photographic work, the artist questions the memory of the landscape, and its more or less violent mutation. During her career, she has been interested in natural disasters, the ravages of war, as well as in urban construction. Within the framework of a commission by the Vanoise National Park (2006-2008), Beatrix von Conta created the first French photographic observatory in altitude. “I don’t know any ordinary landscapes”, says the photographer, who today continues to question their disappearance, their fragility and their relationship with humans.

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