Renée Jacobs and Her Lens on Women’s World
Renée Jacobs was born and raised in Philadelphia, but she lives in Los Angeles. She was a lawyer for civil and constitutional rights for 15 years, a freelance photojournalist, and from 2006 an art nude photographer.
In 1986, Pennsylvania State University Press published “Slow Burn: A Photodocument of Centralia, Pennsylvania”, a photo report on the tragic events of Centralia. Now a “Ghost Town”, Centralia was built in the early 1800’s on an anthracite coal field. In 1962, one of the pits used for illegal dumping caught fire and caused an underground mine fire that destroyed the town and is still burning. The book was republished in 2010, thanks to the positive reviews of the New York Times Review of Books and Photo-Eye. As a freelance photojournalist, Renée won several awards and nominations, and was published in many renowned photo magazines. She received the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Outstanding Coverage of the Disadvantaged, and a selection of her photos is in the permanent collection of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.
In 2008 she won the International Photography Award for Fine Art Nude. In 2012, Edition Galerie Vevais published her first monograph of nudes, “Werkdruck” with a foreword by Jock Sturges. In 2013, Edition Galerie Vevais published “Renée Jacobs’ Paris”, born from a long sojourn in the French Capital. In 2014, Editions Bessard published her “Rêve de Femmes”, which Photo-Eye selected as one of the best photo books of the year. Between 2013 and 2014, Renée spent some time in various Italian places such as Venice and the Lake Como, where she opened an exhibition for MAG – Marsiglione Art Gallery of a series of unpublished photos on her Parisian and Venetian experiences.
B: Good afternoon Renée, it’s a pleasure to see you again. Last year in Paris, during the fotofever art fair and Paris Photo, and today in this beautiful Tuscan countryside setting where she will be conducting a nudes workshop in the summer.
I know you have just opened your exhibition “Nude Views” in Como with the MAG Gallery organized by Salvatore Marsiglione, and taken new shots. Your first impressions?
B: Well, I have never been to Como before, actually I’ve never been to any other part of Italy besides Venice, and I had only been to Venice twice. But I had wanted to do a book on Italy, so we made plans to come back and start shooting, and the Como exhibit was very interesting. I did something I’ve never done before, which was to come into a city that I didn’t know, with some models that I’ve never met, and try to do some shooting right off the plane to get it on the walls through for an exhibit in two or three days.
B: Do you have some funny story to tell us, something that happened during the shots?
R: Well, in Como it was very interesting because it’s such a small town, and so everyone knew about us very quickly and there was some coverage in the newspapers, so when one of our models went into a bar to buy some cappuccino in the morning, they looked at her and pointed at the newspaper. So, we became very well recognized in Como very quickly.
B: Yes, I knew of some articles on newspapers like “Como invaded by beautiful girls, beautiful models…”
R: Yeah, exactly.
B: I see that you like to visit Italy, especially Venice, where you have worked and had some experiences in the past. Is this a choice dictated by affection or is it just because Venice is a city that represents a good background for art nude photography?
R: I don’t actually that Venice has any background for art nude photography. I think they’re quite opposed to art nude photography in Venice, and I wanted to see Venice because it is very special to Wendy, my model and partner and muse, and it was a good introduction because she has friends in Venice, and of course it’s like Paris, one of the most romantic cities in the world, and the light… It was an interesting challenge for me, because Paris you see it in black and white, I see it in black and white, I see most of the world in black & white, but Venice is pastels, it’s subtle colors, and so it’s a whole different experience, very subtle but it’s definitely color, it’s not a black & white city, so that was an interesting challenge. But Venice was just the beginning, as a small introduction to Italy.
B: You started as photojournalist, besides having been a lawyer for Civil Rights for fifteen years. I think about your first published work, “Slow Burn” (1986), a very strong reportage and denunciation of environmental exploitation. And from your biography I learned that in 2006 you quit the legal profession to entirely devote yourself to photography. In 2011, during an interview, you said: “After all that time practicing law and all its confrontation and hard edges, I needed to immerse myself in beauty (…)”. Was there an experience that triggered in your mind the need for a radical change?
R: Well, I had started as a photojournalist when I was very young. I was in my twenties, so “Slow Burn” actually came out the first time in 1986, and then I was a lawyer for a very long time. And with both “Slow Burn” and being a lawyer, the reportage and the law, I was very serious, I was a very serious person. I thought nude photographs exploited women, I didn’t think anything but very serious black & white documentary photography was worth anything. And then I stopped practicing law and really did need to see the beauty in the world and I just happened to start taking some nudes and I loved them. I was totally shocked but it wasn’t a conscious plan, it was just feeling suddenly so healed by beauty and… we sit here today, which is much better than practicing law.
B: Through your photographs, you tell stories of beguiling and beautiful women. Do you build the narrative plot before shooting, starting from a previously conceived idea, or is it a sort of work in progress based also on a certain location?
R: It’s really a combination of things. Now, because there’s so much social media, we think we know people, and models that I never met I think I know them from their photos. Well, at least what they want us to know. But I try not to really think about that, and be influenced by it, because every interaction with every different person is totally unique. I thought you were Tilda Swinton because of your facebook profile photo, so to meet you in person and have an interaction is completely different. So, it so much depends on my connection with the model, what story she has, what ideas she has. I mean, you heard Simona talking about Pisa. She grew up in the area and went there as a child. So to photograph her there was very powerful for both of us. It’s so fascinating because every woman is so different. It’s not that I see pieces of myself in all of them as much as seeing so much diversity makes me realize how powerful we are in our differences. I have some models who would never do anything in front of people, or in public, or the street photography sort of thing, but the powerful eroticism that they want to show just quietly, one on one, in a room where no one can see them, that’s their fantasy, you know. I have other models that I shot… all they want to do is run naked down the Champs Élysées. Sometimes we talk in advance, but then I hear things that I didn’t expect, like Simona with Pisa and it’s an ongoing story, and with models that I shot over time the story builds as well, because we have these amazing experiences and it’s always... I never go in in advance, really knowing anything. It totally depends on the model and the light. We got here yesterday and in about ten minutes I had Ingvild in the shower because the light was so beautiful…
B: When you choose your locations do you have some parameters? Do you choose them for some particular reason or you choose them because there’s a certain kind of light or some feeling you …
R: Again, usually it’s mostly open to a model, you know, the model’s reaction to a place, whether that’s Pisa, or a flower, or a pool. I love shooting in the water, so showers and tubs and pools. It sounds odd, but I think... When it comes to locations I try follow the energy. We ended up in Bonassola, which was really unplanned, and we didn’t get to see poor Mario in Cinque Terre because it rained and we left, and we ended up with this amazing woman in Bonassola who had never done any modeling, a gorgeous woman, a vegan, and so strong, and she was so excited to try something new like this. As soon as we all met it was just... we never wanted to leave there either, and that was totally unplanned. We thought we would go visit and do some photos, but she suggested, since she had a B&B, come stay with us and I said okay...
B: What strikes me in your pictures, besides the sensuality oozing from the motions and pose of these unreachable women who are never crude – although they release sometimes a very strong erotic tension -, is the intensity with which they address the onlooker. It is as if a wordless dialog sets in, made only of sensations between the narrator, the protagonists of the story, and those participating from the outside. Can we call it voyeurism?
R: It’s a very fascinating concept and I thought about this quite a bit when I read the question. I have a new book coming out, “Rêves de Femmes”. A very famous photographer, Douglas Kirkland, and his wife Françoise wrote the introduction and they talked about this a little bit too, that it feels like you’re glimpsing something you shouldn’t be seeing. It’s a sort of voyeurism. It’s a really interesting concept, and I’m not even sure how I feel about that in the work, because I never think about the end viewer. You know the person actually seeing the photos at the end. It’s so much about the experience, and what the model is feeling and wants to show. So, I often forget that many people see the photos. So, in a way it’s voyeurism, in a way it’s exhibitionism, but always, always it’s me and the model. The amazing thing about photography is that so many of these amazing things happen in the fraction of a second. So, to be in a perfect place, in a perfect mood, in a perfect light with the perfect woman to express something is all I ever feel or see, and so, to think about people seeing the photos afterwards is almost strange. I mean, I understand why this exists as an art form, as a medium. But I find it very interesting when people are very, very focused or concerned on the end viewer, especially now because there’s seven billion photographers in the world and everyone has a camera and everyone has an opinion about photography. People love it, people hate it, people think it is powerful, people think it’s exploitive. You can get so caught up in caring about that, so, yeah, I suppose there is some voyeurism and some exhibition, but to me it’s always this perfect fraction of a second. I have to think a lot about that, though, because it’s a very difficult question, we are going to some very interesting areas, you know, that are not superficial.
B: Another point that I find interesting is the message that one draws from your pictures. A sort of womanly pride, but without feminist contents. Do you think that this has been influenced also by your background as lawyer or is it simply the view of a woman who takes pictures of women?
R: I’m not sure about the feminist content or the lack of feminist content. I am a proud feminist, I think all the women that I photograph are feminists, the word has different meanings to different people, but I think what you said, pride is the important word, completely. For so long women have been told to hide their sexuality or pretend it doesn’t exist, or have it only exist to sell soap or shampoos but not to take pride and power, and sexuality is powerful, is incredibly powerful. It was pointed out to me once by a very well-known male photographer that in many of my photos I have the women with their chins up, and I find that to be powerful and proud… The other photographer thought it projected as arrogance.
B: It’s a very strong message to people who look…
R: Well, my message usually is: I want to see a woman saying “Fuck you!” and not “Fuck me!”
B: It’s a bit different…
R: It’s totally different, and again, for the women that want to say that, that’s fantastic too, because everyone is different. But this male photographer took me to task; he thought that it was an arrogant pose. To me, a woman’s neck so beautiful and strong, and that pose is so proud, but not in a bad way. But I think pride is an important experience in all of this.
B: Last question! Professor John Wood, who wrote the introduction to your book “Renée Jacobs’ Paris” has likened you to that current of “revolutionary female artists” of the 19th Century, who contributed to free the woman from prejudices, redefining the artistic and human dimension. In your field, photography, do you feel that way? Like a ‘revolutionary”?
R: I can only hope for such a thing! It was a very kind introduction that John Wood wrote, and I think, again, it’s a very complicated history of nude women in art, women making art, women being prideful, women trying to understand themselves. I think that anyone, man or woman, that tries to really represent themselves is revolutionary. Every woman that I photograph to me is a revolutionary, because of the things they teach me and the things that I learn… I’m lucky to hear their stories, I’m just like a recorder, a reporter, really, but I had no idea… when I was practicing law for fifteen years, the world changed in terms of power of women. I went into a profession that was very demanding and I came out, and suddenly women were tattooed and pierced and strong. They didn’t define themselves sexually as straight or bi, you know, any of these things. They were just alive, and that to me is revolutionary. I missed fifteen years of it, while practicing law!
B: Thank you Renée, it’s been a pleasure to share this interview with you.
B.O. ©Floz Visions 2015