For French photographer Remi Rebillard, it was all about being in the right place at the right time. He attributes his love of photography, and his career in the medium, to meeting and working with French film director Jean Becker, and to his childhood admiration for photographer Giacobetti, whom he actually met. Then, visiting St Barts in the Caribbean to meet a friend, he was asked to assist a French photographer on a shoot for a catalogue. But his first piece of luck was being born in Paris in 1960, and growing up among actors and artists, in a period of great artistic freedom.
His early assignments, around 1991, were with European fashion magazines, such as Grazia, Amica, Figaro Madame and Uomo Vogue, and in the UK, with Elle and Cosmopolitan. Rebillard then moved to New York with his young American wife, Cara Leigh, choosing the city for its vibrancy, but splitting his time between the Big Apple and Miami.
He has always been very aware of, and responsive to, light. Even before his photography days, he was fascinated by its constant shifts and changes, and its effect on different surfaces such as water or wet glass. With the encouragement of others, including Faith Kates of Next, he developed a way of working that combined the daylight streaming into his Greenwich Village artist’s loft, and strobes with gels.
Rebillard confronts us with emotive and graphic images, creating space between the semi-fictional figure and the viewer. His images project moods, but inject a subversive quality, too. He manages to introduce this element to such seemingly straightforward occasions as models wearing skimpy swimwear, so that it’s not just another catalogue job. He is able to depict the sensual side of women in moments of grace, using careful lighting to highlight the increasing sense of distance between their bodies, and the world around them.
Even those with their own individual method of expression have been influenced by others before them. For Remi Rebillard, it was Sebastião Salgado and Javier Vallhonrat; the German eye of Helmut Newton and the social observation of Bill Brandt; the uniquely feminine style of Sarah Moon; Irving Penn and the Paris-based Italian, Paolo Roversi; plus film director Ridley Scott.
He has been quoted as saying: “I turn to my dreams, I observe the world around them, and rely on continually learning new things” It may be this that gives his pictures their dream-like quality, blurring the edges between the real and the imaginary, so that we’re not sure how much really exists. His colours both intrigue and disturb us.
Always inspired by art, Rebillard uses his camera like an artist’s palette. Intrigued by the feelings evoked by desire and attraction, he produces photos that are more like a story or a film. With his grasp of fantasy, and the ability to improvise, he could really be an artist or a film director, teasing out an emotional response from his subject. He can convey the soul of a place just as easily as that of a person, as in his recent feature, Soulful Photos from Navajo.
Remi Rebillard continues to produce thought-provoking visual essays that convey a sense of fading into time and space. The crisis of the American dream, loneliness, a surfer in Solitude by the Sea, empty deckchairs on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – all these, and many more, have been recounted in his own photographic language and style. He employs his story-telling style and dramatic flair to remind us of the separateness of our lives. But what we see also reminds us of the brilliance of his photography.
Anna Marie Reilly