Growing up in the U.S. has always made it difficult to view the nude form as something to easily embrace and understand from something other than a conservative mindset. Most of the rest of the world doesn’t seem to see it this way, and it takes a special person to teach us about eroticism and its place from a healthy, less than critical mind. That person for me is Renée Jacobs.
The photographs being created by Renée Jacobs so often contain a sense of movement, even within the static image, and something I’ve always thought of as forward movement through forward thinking. Her photographs of the female form bring the viewer elements of sensuality, elegance, grace, and beauty. The cornerstone of her images have reflected female empowerment throughout her career, as she handles herself with an intelligence and confidence that have made her images sought after by collectors worldwide. Recently, Renée has made a move to France as her home and base of operations. This change of environment is clearly a step in the right direction as she furthers her work by offering workshops, as well as the future of a photography festival devoted to positive representations of women. Renée Jacobs seems to be the perfect person to discuss the female gaze, as well as the strength of character behind it.
Renée Jacobs is one of the most celebrated photographers of the female nude of our time. Recipient of the prestigious International Photography Award for Fine Art Nude, her work has been exhibited and published around the world.
Her 2009 & 2010 photo calendars went to #1 on Amazon. Monographs of her work include Werkdruck (2012/Editions Galerie Vevais, edited and with an introduction by Jock Sturges); Renée Jacobs' PARIS (2013/Editions Galerie Vevais) and Reves de Femmes (2014/Editions Bessard). Magazines that have featured Renée's work include Silvershotz, Adore Noir, PH Magazine, Fine Art Photo, Nude Magazine, Photoicon, French Photo, B&W Magazine, Focus, FHM Turkey and numerous others. Her interviews of Charis Wilson, Araki, Lillian Bassman, Shelby Lee Adams, Douglas Kirkland and others have been featured in magazines around the world. She has been featured in numerous anthologies, such as Taschen's Mammoth Book of Erotic Photography.
Renée's early photojournalism included assignments for The New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and many other newspapers and magazines. She received the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Outstanding Coverage of the Disadvanatged and her work is in the permanent collection of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. Her first book, Slow Burn: A Photodocument of Centralia, Pennsylvania was originally published in 1986 and re-issued in 2010 to favorable reviews in The New York Times Review of Books and photo-eye. After a 15 year detour as a civil rights lawyer, Renée returned to photography.
Michael Kirchoff: Could you tell us a little about your start in photography? I understand that it is vastly different from what you are photographing now, is this correct?
Renée Jacobs: I started in high school, taking the train from the suburbs to downtown Philadelphia to learn the ins and outs of film developing and darkroom work. I started really photographing in the 1980s as a freelancer for newspapers and magazines on the East Coast, including The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Some of my early photojournalism garnered awards, such as the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Outstanding Coverage of the Disadvantaged, resulting in the placement of my work in the permanent collection of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. My photojournalism career culminated in the publication of my monograph of photography and oral histories titled, Slow Burn: A Photodocument of Centralia, Pennsylvania, which chronicled the death of a small anthracite coal town from an underground mine fire. I’m delighted to say the archive from Slow Burn recently was acquired by the Archive of Documentary Arts at Duke University.
MK: After your initial foray into photography, you made a big career change into another field entirely. Was being a working photographer not what you wanted it to be, or were there other motivating factors that caused this decision to leave image making for a time?
RJ: As a result of Slow Burn, I got a scholarship to study environmental law at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon. I was tired of the East Coast. I looked at the map and saw that Oregon was twice the size of Pennsylvania and put one-fifth the amount of people in that space. So I packed my dog and everything I owned in my Jeep and went west. Also, quite frankly, I didn’t think I could support myself as a photojournalist. Naively, I thought I could do both. I think I did one photo story for the Portland Oregonian and a few shoots for the weekly paper there, but that was about it for 15 years.
MK: It's been some time since you were a photojournalist, do you ever have thoughts of returning to that sort of work, and do you feel that this past is what informs your current photography?
I don’t see myself ever going back to the world of photojournalism. Sometimes I think of the photography I do now as a sort of “erotic journalism.” There’s a certain truth I want to tell in my nude work. As a small technical issue, most of my photojournalistic work was horizontal; most of my nudes are vertical.
MK: With regards to traveling in pursuit of your photographs, do you find that you are motivated by your environment? Does this bring about a mental change in how you create the work, as well as the obvious physical one?
I'm completely, totally and unabashedly a visual slave to my environment. I did love the desert light and landscape outside of Los Angeles where I lived for 17 years, but I loathed LA proper. I love everything about Europe and I love shooting here…The light, the food, the wine, the history, the architecture, the different attitudes towards sexuality—everything about it motivates me.
MK: You’ve recently made a big change in your life with regards to your home and studio. Tell us what prompted the change and what positive aspects have come about from it. I know that conducting workshops has been added to your routine, and I’ve heard some murmuring of an upcoming photo festival, is this correct?
RJ: After spending many years going back and forth for my book, RENÉE JACOBS’ PARIS and spending time in Tuscany teaching workshops, it just dawned on me that I might be happier and more productive in Europe than Los Angeles. I’m delighted to have launched my Photo Workshops at our new house here in the south of France—Maison des Rêves. You can find more information about the workshops and my work at www.reneejacobs.com
And we’re incredibly excited about the photo festival we will be launching - Photos de Femmes. We've started looking at venues for the festival. Southern France truly is glorious and we’re looking at some magnificent chateaux. We're going to highlight the most powerful images of women in every genre of photography-fine art, documentary, conceptual, portraiture- from around the world with inventive installations, contests, panels and other things. We’ll be looking for suggestions for photographers who are committed to positive and empowering representations of women. You can stay in touch with us here:
MK: Light, environment, movement, and of course eroticism are all evident in your images of women. What is it that you find most interesting when it comes to photographing women, not to mention black and white?
Visually, to me, the most erotic thing in the world is to see long hair blowing in the wind. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg of course when it comes to photographing women. And while I have shot in color and had quite a bit of color work published, there’s just something timeless and classic to me about black & white photos of women.
MK: My guess is that you spend a fair amount of time with your models in order for you both to feel comfortable, and to capture those fleeting glimpses and moments. Tell us a little about how you work with your models.
For me, it’s absolutely foundational to find out about my model’s comfort zone & fantasies. I don’t ever want to push a model out of her comfort zone—but I do want to find out what her erotic zone is—her fantasies, her desires. Eroticism is such a charged word. For me, it’s like the blinding light on a summer day. You can’t possibly truly see it or explain it. It’s the essence of who we are——all of our senses, intelligence, emotions all in an infinite impossible-to-define package. The fact that so many women have helped me to see their eroticism has helped me understand and appreciate my own.
MK: The difference between men and women who photograph the human form seems abundantly clear at times, and ideas of empowerment come into play. There is a contemporary term known as the "female gaze", and I'm wondering how this applies to the work you do, versus what others are trying to achieve.
RJ: I am a proud feminist, I think all the women that I photograph are feminists. To me, the “female gaze” centers around pride. 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 own the 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, which he found to be a pose reflecting arrogance. I find that to be powerful and proud. I always say repression is the enemy, especially of women. People often think a man made my images. I make no apologies for the eroticism of the women in my photos. We’re collaborating to make these images for us. I’m not interested in allegory, I’m not interested in masking it, I’m interested in revealing it.
MK: You have a very striking view of the female form, and I'm wondering what it is that you are wanting the viewer to take away from your photographs? Also, how much of Renée Jacobs is reflected in your images?
RJ: I actually care very little about what the viewer takes from the photographs. Don’t get me wrong-- it’s wonderful to be published, exhibited and have my work in collections. But I think that’s a result of not caring—the people who like the work and truly understand it I think are the people that view women as having complete agency over themselves. I want to be happy with the photos & I want the model or models to be happy.
Perhaps John Wood, the poet and photo historian put it best in the introduction he wrote to my PARIS book: “Erotic art is clearly the most generous of the visual arts. Artist and model jointly agree to create and share with others a moment that is usually private, hidden from view, a moment that exists behind closed doors. But it is also the kind of moment which, probably from the beginning of humanity, other people have always delighted in witnessing. We love glimpsing the private lives of others.”
I interviewed Charis Wilson not long before her death a few years ago. She was Edward Weston’s wife and “muse” (a term she didn’t have much use for—she thought it was French for men being able to have a wife and mistresses). She spoke eloquently about how her feeling of Weston’s photos of her changed over time. When she was young, she thought they were really all Weston’s creation. Later in life, she came to view them as more of a co-creation. I don’t know how much of me is in my images, but I do feel I’m a conduit for a lot of women who want to understand and explore a wide spectrum of sexual power.
MK: Many people seem to accept nudity found in paintings and seen in museum collections as acceptable forms of art and beauty. Nudity found in modern culture is often vilified as “dirty” and undesirable. How has our society progressed into this way of thinking, and how do you handle it as an artist working with this subject matter?
RJ: I think one of the biggest ways I’ve dealt with it is to move to France. This discussion parallels a lot of discussions about censorship on social media these days. While I don’t agree at all with the censorship (surely Facebook can figure out an 18+ setting), the recovering lawyer in me recognizes social media’s right to censor. I get more annoyed with people who deride me for censoring the work to show it on social media. My feeling is that the imagery is better viewed in a book or as a print. Buy the art and support the artist.
MK: In stepping away from the topic of nudity for a moment, is there another subject that you also feel passionate about photographing?
I actually really enjoy shooting food as well. French food especially of course is just so erotic when it’s done well and presented so beautifully. Same with Japanese food.
MK: You have published three book titles in the past, and are working on another of Polaroid imagery. Could you give us some insight to the decision making process required to edit your photographs for a book? Also, personal kudos from me for creating a book of instant film photography.
RJ: Thank you very much! My Polaroid book is very much a work in progress, so any publishers reading this that want to make it happen-do reach out!
Making a book is an exhilarating process. I’ve been really fortunate—the printing for my books Werkdruck and RENÉE JACOBS’ PARIS is just so stellar and all the kudos for that go to Alexander Scholz at Galerie Vevais in Berlin. Of course, the process includes some agonizing choices. The process for Werkdruck--which Jock Sturges edited, sequenced and wrote an introduction for—was very different than PARIS, in which I was more involved. Werkdruck included mostly very early, very tame work. PARIS came later and was much more erotic—which I think is a testament to how much more I came to trust my models and they came to trust me. I still beat myself up over one particular missed opportunity in PARIS. I photographed Sylvia Gobbel who was one of Helmut Newton’s favorite models. I loved the photos but didn’t feel they were of “Newton” quality so I left them out of the book. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking. Ridiculous decision on my part. One of the photos became a limited edition print to go along with a limited edition of the book, but it should have been in the book. If we ever go to a second printing…..
MK: On the technical side of things, what are the tools you are using to make your images? Are you a film, digital, or both kind of photographer? Does it really matter what you use?
I use digital at the moment, with some 4x5 Type 55 Polaroid in a converted Polaroid 110 but of course you can’t get the film anymore. I’m growing less and less fond of digital, but I think the message I convey in the photos is the same.
MK: Your work has already taken a dramatic shift from the past. Do you see your current work changing or evolving into something entirely different in the future?
Always. I actually really want to start with alternative processes and larger format work. I live in a beautiful place now and I think I want to slow down the process. Digital is just too fast and we’re bombarded with so much imagery.
MK: In speaking to future generations of photographers, do you have any words of wisdom to those setting out to make their own mark in the photographic world?
RJ: Absolutely do not think that you will “make a mark in the photographic world.” Anyone who starts out thinking this is not only on a fool’s errand but really going in the opposite direction of where their efforts should be in terms of understanding what they want to say & what their vision is. Rather than “making it” in the photo world, I would suggest the phrase “find it.” There are 7 billion people on the planet. Someone out there probably wants to hear what you have to say visually. Don’t expect your work to resonate to the handful of people at the top of the photo world hierarchy. They’re inundated with work. We’re all inundated visually. Do what makes you happy.
You can find more of Renée's work at her website here.
This interview originally published in Issue 57 of Blur Magazine, October, 2017.