Valerie Belin

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Internationally renowned and critically respected, Valérie Belin (born 1964) is perhaps the most celebrated French photographer working today. Her monumental works explore issues of surface, identity and artificiality. In her photographs Belin utilises the human form as a powerful vessel to project or subvert meaning, with the questioning of reality a central thread that weaves throughout her oeuvre.

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Early Career

Valérie Belin was born in 1964 in Boulogne-Billancourt, France. She trained in fine arts at the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Bourges from 1983 to 1988, before studying the philosophy of art at the Université Panthéon-Sorbonne in Paris.

In 1987, while still a student, Belin made experimental and abstracted photographs of direct light sources, including neon light strips. Her first photographic series dealt with what Belin refers to as “the matter of things”; black and white images of crystal carafes, Murano-glass mirrors and other objects chosen for their particular luminescent qualities. Other early series by Belin used objects to investigate the echo of human presence; carcasses of wrecked cars and discarded bridal dresses.

Belin has worked strictly in series throughout her career. It is through her series that she is able to explore aspects of cliché and stereotypes. Each of her series contains individual images that closely mirror each other while offering subtle variations. Belin’s series appear methodical and systematic, and an absolute frontality of the viewpoint remains a constant in all of her works.

Recent Work

Belin began to photograph the human form in 1999, with her series Bodybuilders. Belin photographed these figures, oversized muscles glistening, isolated against stark white backgrounds. These men and women were driven by their desire to transform themselves, and through Belin’s lens they are indeed transformed. In this series they are indeed transformed into sculptural, monumental objects.

Belin’s work has often returned to the depiction of the human form at transformative moments. She has not only photographed bodybuilders, but also brides and trans women. The passport-style portraits of her series Transsexuals reveal every minute detail in the face of their subjects. Belin removes all trace of context or narrative from these images, presenting a typology of surface details. Despite this fascination with surface, Belin’s series is truly an examination of the frontiers of identity and gender, presenting the faces of those longing to be “other”.

In her photographs, Belin utilises the human form as a powerful vessel to project or subvert meaning. She has photographed mannequins and models on equal terms, with the questioning of reality a central thread that weaves throughout her oeuvre. Belin’s 2003 series, Mannequins, is perhaps her most well known. The works documented a series of shop-window mannequins that had been cast directly from human models. It was the perfect and lifelike nature of the mannequins that drew the artist to photograph them. Belin’s portraits of mannequins aim to imbue life into something inanimate. The recurring theme of constructed or idealised beauty in Belin’s work addresses issues of reality and fiction within the photographic image. In 2006, Belin began to use colour in her works, and gradually began to experiment with various digital manipulations. Her series Super Models (2015) revisits the very same life-like mannequins of her 2003 series, this time superimposing abstracted, digital shapes over the graceful plastic bodies. Belin appropriated ready-made patterns found on the Internet, which she subsequently reworked and fused with her portraits. Belin has stated that she began to use superimposition as a technique in order to “make viewing the image more complex, more disturbing, less immediate, less evident, less univocal.” In 2011 Belin presented a video work as part of an installation in Rio de Janeiro, in which she reprised each of the photographs taken from her series Black Eyed Susan, over which she superimposed a moving video image, accompanied by repetitive electronic music. In 2013 Belin produced a live performance for the Centre Pompidou, revisiting her 2003 series Michael Jackson.

The 2016 series All Star interweaves photographic portraits with graphic imagery from comic books. Suggestive snippets of text and violent imagery burst through the surface of these portraits to infer the chaotic and agitated state that lies just beneath the calm surface of the subject’s often-vacant faces. Belin revisits and develops the motif of constructed beauty in her most recent series, Painted Ladies, in which each portrait is named after the specific brushes used to paint the model’s faces and the equivalent digital retouching tools used by Belin in post-production. The resulting imagery not only explores the relationship between painting and photography, but also manipulation – of both image and viewer. The Painted Ladies series, in particular, highlights society’s increasing acceptance of edited realities as fact. Belin here executes an exaggerated performance of the very processes that drive our modern, technology and image driven world.

Exhibitions and Awards

Belin’s work has been exhibited at the Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Photography, Amsterdam; the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, and was the focus of a major retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, Paris in 2015. Her work is housed in the collections of many notable institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art. New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Musée d’art Modern de la ville de Paris and Kunsthaus Zürich. She was awarded the sixth annual Prix Pictet in 2015 for her work exploring the theme of disorder. Belin lives and works in Paris.

Valérie Belin Studio Visit

Transcript

Belin: My work has always been very sophisticated, even from the beginning, it’s far from naturalism and from documentary photography. It’s really, from the beginning, very painterly, very abstract. I didn’t do photographic school, so my learning was mainly about sculpture, painting, Minimal art and Italian Baroque art. So, I would say that my work is really coming from those two very paradoxical different artistic movements: one playing with the many details, theatrical lights. The Minimal art was on the contrary playing on a very strict protocol, the reduction of form.

My first works were mainly in black and white, and dealing mainly with the matter of things. My first series were about crystals, silver objects. For me, the crystal objects were a kind of metaphor of a body, a transference body, so it’s like a portrait of an object. For me, the Car Crash is also a kind of body. You can feel the desire of reaching the human figure, because for me a car is really something that reminds you the people that were inside the car. Then, you have the Body Builder series. It’s like a metallic body, like a car crash, like the crystals, like the silver, they are so shiny so the light is really important in the picture. And also in black and white, they become like in between objects and human beings. That’s why they were exactly the perfect typology for me to make my first picture with people.

The first portrait in the classical sense of the term were the Transsexuals series. Of course, the transsexuals for me were also very linked to the Body Builders because they are people who want to transform themselves. All my subjects in a way are people who want to change themselves, who want to be an image, who want to reach a kind of stereotype. The mannequins were chosen because of their very imperialistic style and they are moulded on real life women at the beginning and then of course idolised, transformed, to make the perfect woman. But in a way, from the beginning, they are a kind of photography in three dimensions of a real woman. And then, of course, when you see the picture you first have the feeling it’s a real girl. But then, when you go closer to the printed self, you can see that something is wrong, you can feel it’s not a real person, it’s an object. So, you are seduced by the beauty of the girl, which is something that allows you to look at it, and then you are wondering what is happening here.

I just want to communicate a certain instability of life, a certain uncanny feeling that I have for my own person. Nowadays, my subjects are mainly female models. I mean, I’m a woman, so again because my work is quite autobiographic, I am naturally more involved or more comfortable with women. Women are more, for me, a kind of victim of stereotypes. I think it’s something that is almost unconscious, but that we are everyday attacked by those stereotypes and especially with television, with magazines, with every kind of media. My first superimposition was with the Crowned Head series where I put together five pictures of the same girl, slightly different shots. Then, with the Brides series for example, I merged together very opposite images – the bride itself, which is a kind of symbol of eternity, and fast food shop which on the contrary are meaning the fast, something that doesn’t last long.

I think we are living in a world of superimposition, and during the day you have a cell phone, you have a computer, a laptop, you have people speaking to you, dealing with different levels of information and more and more sophisticated and unreal also aspects of our life. So, I think my work is also a translation of this matter of fact. For example, in the series All Star, you have a portrait of a girl, she’s in a way absent. And you have also going through her head, these comics. The superimposition makes the comics become a kind of metaphor of what’s happening in the head of this girl. Painted Ladies, for me, it’s the kind of total creation from nothing, because those female models from model agencies for me were a kind of empty shape that I could use to create characters. And those characters are characters from today, meaning they are a kind of digital creation as well. It’s like if those girls were not existing at the beginning, and the work of making a photograph with them makes them alive. Almost like a Frankenstein, I am in a laboratory creating someone who doesn’t exist.

The style of my work, it’s really linked to the tradition of painting where the subject is mainly a surface where something is happening. It could be the surface of a face, it could be the surface of an object. When it’s an object you have the feeling of something alive, when it’s a real person you have the feeling that my style consists to remove life from this person. So, I think what is in common in all these is the fragility of life, a kind of disorder process in our life. For me, the aesthetic experience in general is something that recalls you to look at yourself. What is the difference between a mannequin, a model, and yourself? We could say that it’s a kind of observation of what is happening today, what is life today, and how it is fertilised by globalisation, by virtualisation of life.

Related

Notes, News and Press

Notes

Valerie Belin: Creating the Appearance of Living Flesh in Plastic

Press

The New York Times: Valérie Belin celebrated at 10th anniversary of the Prix Pictet

News

Valérie Belin celebrated at Les Rencontres de la Photographie, Arles