The Wick - Valérie Belin, photographe
Paris, le 10 janvier 2020
©Frédéric Stucin The Wick - Valérie Belin, photographe
Paris, le 10 janvier 2020
©Frédéric Stucin
Monday Muse

Interview Artist and Photo London’s 2024 Master of Photography Valérie Belin

Interview
Valérie Belin
Photography
Frédéric Stucin
13 May 2024
Interview
Valérie Belin
Photography
Frédéric Stucin
13 May 2024
This week, Photo London unveils a special exhibition Silent Stories honouring its Master of Photography for 2024, the acclaimed French artist, Valérie Belin. Belin, 60, is recognised for her monumental, concept-based photographs that disrupt ideas about identity, gender and artifice. Belin trained in art in France in the 1980s, and began to work with photography at that time, challenging the boundaries of what a photograph means and how it toys with ‘reality’ and ‘illusion’.

Over the thirty years Belin has been active, her works have focused on body builders, car crashes, fashion models, Michael Jackson look-alikes and card sharks, always exploring the plasticity of bodies and photography’s ability to create artifice and illusion. Sometimes surreal, often disquieting, Belin’s uses digital technologies to achieve the eerie effects of colour and texture that are a signature in her work, distancing familiar imagery even further from our perception of what is ‘real’.

Awarded the Paris Photo Prize in 2007, the Prix Pictet in 2015 and the prestigious Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2019, Belin’s works have been exhibited all over the world and belong to numerous major collections – including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, and the V&A Museum, London, to name a few. Ahead of this landmark moment in her three decade-long career, Belin answered The Wick’s questions, telling us more about the conceptual linchpins behind her arresting images, what the accolades mean to her – and why she’s pining for a photograph by Walker Evans.

THE WICK:   You have just opened a major solo exhibition in France, with works from a number of important series. Can you tell us more about the exhibition and what it reveals about your practice?

Valérie Belin:   It’s a solo exhibition at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux, running from April to October 2024. It’s a retrospective of my work from the mid-1990s onwards, including the latest series of photographs I’ve made. The exhibition is in two parts: a major monographic exhibition, spanning all three floors of the gallery, and around ten photographs presented in relation to works from the museum’s permanent collection. This exhibition provides a better understanding of the nature of my work, and in particular the link between my practice of photography and painting.

TW:   What made you initially interested in creating photographs that blur “real” and “illusory”?

VB:   I became aware of the “fake” nature of photography very early on, for example when I photographed glass objects and mirrors. This became obvious when I photographed the bodies of bodybuilders. I went on making photographs of models, transsexuals and look-alikes that questioned notions of identity and gender. Then I ended up making hyper-realistic portraits of window mannequins where you’re not quite sure whether what you’re seeing is real or fake. I think that photography, like painting, is an artefact. It doesn’t represent reality; there’s a gap between what you see and what is really there. The real subject of my photographs lies in this slight discrepancy.

TW:   You have also considered the ways in which notions of gender and identity as a performance – how has this evolved in your work?

VB:   I became interested in these issues when I took portraits of trans individuals in their transitional phase, and also when I took portraits of Michael Jackson lookalikes. This desire for transformation in the people photographed was a form of existential performance. It gave me the idea of turning it into an artistic performance in itself, which was presented at the Centre Pompidou in 2013.

TW:   What kind of sources do you use for creating your work?

VB:   I draw my inspiration from many sources: literature, film (Hitchcock’s films, for example), magazines, photography, painting… In 2002, when I took photographs of engines that can be considered as “still lifes”, I was inspired by Agnus Dei, a painting by Francisco de Zurbarán that can be seen in the Prado Museum in Madrid.

“Think of your work as a matter of life and death.”

TW:   Photography for you seems to be both your medium and your material?

VB:   Yes, photography is both the medium I use and “the very subject of my photographs”. It’s a conceptual approach that’s linked to my artistic education. My work has evolved in the direction of a greater interest in the image itself, but there is still this conceptual and “minimal” influence in my work.

TW:   Working with women and images of women so extensively and profoundly over the years, what changes have you seen in how women are portrayed and seen?

VB:   Basically, I don’t see much change. Women are still subject to the same “dictatorship of the image”. It manifests itself in different forms, which evolve over time, but the main change is in the way models are produced and reproduced, which is now more “social”.

TW:   How do you feel being recognized as Photo London’s Master of Photography for 2024?

VB:   I am honoured to have been chosen after such talented photographers as Sebastião Salgado, Don McCullin, Taryn Simon, Edward Burtynsky, Stephen Shore, Shirin Neshat, Nick Knight and Martin Parr. I was also very honoured to be awarded the 6th Prix Pictet in 2015 and to have exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 2019. I’m also delighted that this event is taking place in London, a city that is close to my heart and a source of inspiration.

TW:   Which artwork would you like to add to your own collection?

VB:   A Walker Evans photograph from 1930 entitled: “The Cactus Plant, Interior Detail of Portuguese House, Truro Massachusetts”, a photograph where the depth of field is infinite, and where therefore the shots are all equivalent. It brings everything to the surface.

TW:   Advice for artists starting out today?

VB:   Think of your work as a matter of life and death.

TW:   Who is your personal Monday Muse?

VB:   Artemisia Gentileschi, an Italian Baroque painter, who was the first woman to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence – and also because many of Gentileschi’s paintings feature women.


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