Renée Jacobs is well known in the photography world for her female nudes. She is the recipient of the prestigious International Photography Award for Fine Art Nude and in October 2021, she will exhibit her work alongside Helmut Newton’s Private Property in FotoNostrum Gallery in Barcelona. Soon, the second edition of her book PARIS and the new book POLAROIDS will be published. We, therefore, sat together with Jacobs to discuss her photography vision, approach to the medium and her upcoming books.
Generally, how do your photoshoots go about? Do you have a large crew and set, or you rather keep it minimal?
Always just me and the model or models. There is no other way to get the authenticity and intimacy that I want to photograph. No crews, assistants, makeup or hair people. Barely ever artificial lights. I love shooting at night, in low light. Dark rooms. A streetlight. I love motion. I’m enthralled with things on the periphery of what the eye sees or the mind understands. If I wanted a big production, I would be shooting products. I don’t view women as boxes of cereal.
How do you search for your models? Are they strangers or acquaintances?
In the very beginning, I put up a casting call on a site that connected models and photographers. But it very quickly became word-of-mouth. Or stopping women in the street or a café. And the best images come from women I have relationships with over time. I was shooting some of my friends in Ramatuelle and we were out getting groceries. They came running over because they spotted a beautiful woman, they wanted us to “adopt” for our week of shooting. She came to the place we were staying the next day and we got some wonderful images.
Your photographs portray hyper-femininity from a perspective of a female queer gaze. How then would you describe your approach to the concept of femininity in your imagery?
I photograph images that I would have wanted to see as a young queer. Douglas and Françoise Kirkland wrote in the introduction to one of my books that I view the female body as my “intimate sketchpad.” That’s true on many levels. Visually, emotionally, psychologically. I think society at large and the queer community itself should be big enough to embrace the sexuality I’m presenting in my photos. I’m thrilled to present these empowered, sensual, emotionally and erotically sophisticated women.
The notion of pleasure seems to be at the centre of your work. Particularly, female pleasure and that of the viewer. Can you elaborate on this relationship between pleasure and voyeurism in your oeuvre?
You are absolutely correct. Women’s pleasure is not only central to my philosophy of photography but also to my philosophy of life. We have been repressed for so long. It’s our turn to have our say about exactly how, what, when and who pleasures us.
I’m not photographing for the viewer. Don’t get me wrong-it’s wonderful to be published in books and magazines, exhibited and collected. But the images are for me and the women in the photographs. I want to be true to our emotions, our fantasies, our desires, our needs.
Since women are shown as libertines in your photographs, subverting the usual association of libertine traits with a man, do you consider your work to be a form of feminist and queer resistance to such socially and morally established connotations?
Absolutely. I’m always reading about how the “female gaze” doesn’t “sexualize” women. First, I don’t believe that. It completely erases queer women from the equation. Second, why should that be the goal? In the introduction to my PARIS book, Professor John Wood wrote that sexual desire is omnivorous and—above all—personal. Plenty of women want to be “sexualized”—everyone is entitled to manifest that in their own way. Or not. Think of the wide range of male photographers that have shot the female nude—Araki, Newton, Weston, Gibson, Clergue, the list is really endless. Why are women photographers of the female nude supposed to adhere to a narrow emotional and sexual (or non-sexual) parameter?
If you expect the “female gaze” to be non-sexual, then who defines the sexuality of women? There’s a song in “Hamilton” that talks about “who tells our story.” I’m a big believer in inclusion and representation. For the most part, women’s sexuality in general and lesbian sexuality, in particular, is either erased or exploited. It’s rarely empowered. For the most part, we’re invisible—at least in telling our own stories. If you remove us from visually commenting and defining our sexuality, you create a cultural vacuum that is only filled by others. As a result, you end up with hideous photos like the “faux lesbian” Melania Trump images that do tremendous harm to us. I’d rather have a hand in shaping the dialogue.
I began a little investigation to see what kind of references there are for “lesbians” (or “lesbiennes” here in France where I live) in major photo collections. Many collections have no reference at all. One major French photo institution has only a single reference—that of a “lesbian dream” of a male photographer. No. Non.
What kind of image of women do you want the world to see?
Whatever image the particular woman in the image wants to project. A woman’s desires, self-projection and needs may vary widely from mine. My goal is to make sure my photographs are true to the women in them.
The two upcoming books by Jacobs are currently available for pre-order.
PARIS is a softcover book with a mounted photo on the cover, approximately 140 pages, 17×24 cm, limited to only 400 signed and numbered copies. The pre-order price in June is €49/afterward €69. It will also be available as a hardbound with a mounted photo, limited to 100 copies with a signed print for the June pre-order price of €219, €269.
POLAROIDS will be available as a handbound hardcover book with an open spine and a tipped-in original C-print on the cover, limited to 500 signed and numbered copies. Approximately 96 pages, 12x16cm, €55. A limited edition of 30 hardbound copies, each with a brand new original unique Polaroid will also be available.