“I think that photography has something to do with femininity.”

Still Life with bowl (14020202), 2014 © Valérie Belin / Courtesy de l’artiste et de la Galerie Nathalie Obadia Paris / Bruxelles

You studied fine arts and philosophy of art, why did you turn to photography?

As a matter of fact, I started photography as early as my second year at the National School of Fine Art, so very early in my career. And quite naturally, I found that it was an instrument that allowed me to create, in a way that was more in tune with the times I found myself in. There was also the fact that photography was a posture that suited me. A photographer and a painter do not have the same posture. A painter creates from nothing, in a less observational standpoint, and is less attentive to the world.

To this day, you’ve produced 45 photographic series… Where do you find your inspiration?

45 series, when you think about it, is not a huge number. It’s about the number of films a filmmaker can make in his lifetime, knowing that a film is very complicated to produce. Motivation is maintained by the rule of supply and demand, in other words, when you are stimulated by other people’s views, by their demands, their expectations. Obviously, you are more inclined to pursue your quest. In a way, you are encouraged. And then it simply corresponds to a vital necessity, like a writer, like any artist whose life is dedicated to their art. That’s the way it is.

You experiment with several technical processes, is it a way to achieve “photographic perfection”?

I am often asked about the idea of photographic perfection in my work, but I don’t see what it corresponds to. There is simply a desire for me to use a tool for its expressive power. If at an earlier time – which is still true today – I had this concern for the rendering of details, it was to achieve a certain excess in photography, a sort of surgical precision here. You could say that my work is characterised both by a kind of excess of realism, of precision, of coldness, you could say, and also a totally unrealistic, non-naturalist aspect, as a kind of paradox between these two dimensions. And for me, perfection lies in the union of these two often contradictory entities. So, I was indeed able to use a large format view-camera, at one time, which gave me very large negatives, with an enormous amount of information, especially on the skin of my models.

I needed, and still need, this precision. However, this precision is often excessive, which forces me to “calm it down” in post-production, in order to recover the first impression, the one I got through the viewfinder. Like a simplification of the image a posteriori, in post-production. This also applies to the colours. I can operate by subtracting information, that is to say I remove the realistic colour, for instance, from make-up, from hair, from a piece of clothing… There is often a chromatic reduction. But I still need this excess of precision, which means that there is no blur in the image, no notions of glamour, nor of “artistic blur”… All this is linked to an attachment to the planarity of the photographic image. In other words, there is no foreground and background, no blur and sharpness, or any kind of atmospheric rendering: everything is exactly on the same plane, and that’s very important to me, this planarity.

What is your relationship to light?

Light, as for any photographer, is of course essential, but perhaps for me it is even more so, in the sense that you could say that what I photograph are really radiographs – radiographs of objects like in the early days of my work. I’m thinking of the photographs of Crystal I and II, of Silver, of the mirrors of Venice I and II, where what I capture is really the light reflected by these objects. I am very close to an ontological definition of photography as the luminous imprint of things and beings. Then when I get more attached to people and characters, you can also say, somewhere, that these are radiographs of these people, and not psychological or subjective portraits, or even physical portraits in a certain way. They are a bit like mental visions, essences, or archetypes.

You capture human beings in a “disincarnated” way, how would you describe your relationship to the living? And the organic?

In my work, indeed, there is always this very strong paradox between the living, whose lives seem to have been taken from them, and vice-versa, a kind of soul supplement to the objects I photograph, as if, all of a sudden, they had the energy of life. This is one of those paradoxes that constitute what I try to do with photography, that is to say a kind of deconstruction of what could be called – a little naively – stereotypes. When you look at the people that I photograph they are often models: plastic models, live or professional models. And I capture them all in the same manner. You could almost say that the celluloid models are more alive than the live mannequins that I also photograph.

You could say, it is true, that my models are disincarnated. They are disincarnated in the sense that I do not photograph them for their qualities or their physical presence, but for their roles as archetypes, typologies, phenomena… You could say that I do not photograph people but existences.

The standards of beauty are a recurring theme in your body of work, is it a pretext for questioning the status of photography?

The importance of beauty in my work is, I think, undoubtedly linked to an interrogation, not about photography itself, but about the image in general. Because the idea of an image includes this idea of beauty. An image, today, must first of all show a certain stereotype of beauty, mainly conveyed by women – more so than by men. And I think that the beauty in my work is that of the stereotype – of a search to fit a stereotype. Even when you think of relatively old series, such as the Bodybuilders’ series, you already find this quest for beauty among bodybuilders, as they try to fit a stereotype which is that of ancient beauty. The same thing happens with transsexuals – men who, wanting to be beautiful, desire to become women. Because it has been said that women are beauty, that being a woman is the equivalent of being beautiful. For them, it is not a question of changing sex, but of becoming beautiful. This is very astonishing.

What space do women occupy in your search for the sublime?

Is there sublimation in my work? In a way, yes. Because I think that an artistic work is above all motivated by a desire to sublimate something that may originally be perceived as ugly. The sublime is a quest, it’s a search that is never finished. Women play an important role in my work because I think that women are much more subjects and triggers for the imagination than men. The woman transforms herself: there was the boyish woman, the vase woman, the wonder woman… The woman, in fact, is a vehicle, a transport of fantasies, much more so than the man who has a posture that remains relatively stable, and who is not subject to all these projections, to this imagination.

Has your status as a woman influenced your career?

It is difficult for me to analyse things because I like to make, and not analyse my own creations. What I find, however, is that there are, and have been, many women photographers, unlike women painters for instance. The recognition of women painters remains and has been more difficult than the recognition of women photographers. You may wonder why. Is it because photography is an art with a feminine dimension? Perhaps, because to be a photographer is to be in a posture that is perhaps less macho than that of a painter, who projects something onto a canvas, whereas a photographer observes, collects, knows, understands… And a photographer is someone who returns to their subjects, who asks them questions, who goes onto the field time and time again, who always wants to do better… In fact, I think that photography has something to do with femininity.

One day, one of your teachers told you: “this is not a woman’s work”. Do you think you have now developed a certain “female gaze”?

Being a woman and content to be myself, it is obvious that I had to develop a female gaze, or at least to produce a body of work that corresponds to the person I am – a woman indeed. I think you don’t make the same types of images when you are a man and a woman… Or a woman… – a revealing slip of the tongue. I think that we all have a masculine and feminine part and today more than before – this separation does not exist in childhood, it is built precisely with the absorption of stereotypes – I think that my work deconstructs a certain number of stereotypes. Perhaps it also deconstructs this one, this too brutal separation between the feminine and the masculine.

Valérie Belin © Frédéric Stucin


Born in 1964 in Boulogne-Billancourt, Valérie Belin turned to photography very early on during her studies at the École des Beaux-arts de Versailles, then at the École nationale supérieure d’art de Bourges. Also holding a Masters in philosophy of art, she first found herself in different minimalist and conceptual movements, where she questioned the photographic medium – both as the subject of her work and her means of creation. At the heart of her work, a particular attention to light and matter nourishes her reflections. In it, she discovered a field of experimentation where she was able to study the bodies of things and beings, as well as their metamorphoses and sublimations. With 45 series to her credit, and exhibitions presented all over the world, Valérie Belin has established herself on the international scene. Winner of the Prix Pictet in 2015, she was named an Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters in 2017.

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