“Representation is incredibly important,” the artist says, “women need not be desexualised, but it should always be our choice”
In Renée Jacobs’ current exhibition at FotoNostrum Gallery in Barcelona, Spain, the artist shows work alongside a selection of photographs by Helmut Newton. It was an idea conceived to offer two opposing visions of women, from two different sets of eyes.
Jacobs explains that Julio Hirsch-Hardy, director of FotoNostrum, reached out two years ago with an idea to do a concurrent exhibit alongside Newton’s Private Property – a project collating some of the German-Australian photographer’s most iconic erotic and fashion work.
Newton’s pictures have often been some of those at the centre of conversations when it comes to subjects including male voyeurism and the representation of the female body. As an artist who built her career on making pictures of empowered women, it was an intriguing prospect. “I loved the idea,” says Jacobs, “Newton’s lesbian images were some of the first photographic clues to me that my desires might just fall along a spectrum of wonderful diversity that was inclusive.”
Born in 1962, Jacobs grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She picked up photography in high school, and freelanced for magazines and newspapers throughout college, going on to publish her first book of photojournalism in 1986, Slow Burn: A Photodocument of Centralia, Pennsylvania. From there, she was awarded a scholarship to study environmental law in Portland, Oregon, and worked in civil rights law for the next 15 years.
During this part of her life, she was responsible for bringing around some of the early litigation around gay rights in the US. Eventually though, the impulse to take photographs trickled back into her consciousness. Since then, Jacobs has always regarded her work as “visual activism that’s a direct line from those days”.
Jacobs has spent her photographic career making erotic black and white nudes, and images that visualise female sensuality and lesbian love with intimacy and emotion. “I started out taking the prototypical headless, faceless, ‘bodyscape’ nudes, but quickly realised that those didn’t represent – to me – the actual power of the women behind the images.”
Ever on a journey to feel around the edges of her own sexuality, Jacobs began taking pictures of a group of women that she saw as fearless, strong and free. “It completely changed the way I viewed photography, women and myself,” she recalls. “There was nothing else in the artistic or commercial world that was speaking to my desires or those of so many of the women in my orbit.”
Now based in the mountains west of Montpellier, France, Jacobs has recently released two photobooks. Paris, the revised second edition of a book that sold out in 2013, and Polaroids, a passionate depiction of women across the sexual spectrum. “Paris was really the start of how I was introduced to women who were empowered in their sensuality – that city really does something to women,” she says.
Meanwhile, “Polaroids is just a wonder to me,” she says. “My publisher Alexander Scholz at Galerie Vevais in Berlin created a handmade Japanese stitched book with an open spine, which showcases my Polaroid Type 55 positives beautifully.” It is a tactile object to be treasured; a piece of art that is suited to hold the precious pictures inside of it.
For Jacobs, the key to making powerful, feminist work is to collaborate deeply with her models. “It’s about what they want to show. What they want to explore,” she says. “I photographed one of Newton’s muses – Sylvia Gobbel – and that image is both in Paris and in the exhibition. Was there a difference in Newton’s personal vs. commercial work? I don’t know. I can only speak to how important it is to me to give models free rein.”
For Jacobs, representation is important. “Women need not be desexualised, but it should always be our choice. What you’re seeing in my photographs is women who can speak for themselves – visually, physically, intellectually, emotionally, sexually. And lesbians should very much be part of that conversation. After all, our imagery is used so often in ways beyond our control. I always say lesbian sexuality is often erased or exploited, rarely is it empowered.”
Paris and Polaroids by Renee Jacobs are available to order via her website. Her work is also exhibited alongside Helmut Newton’s Private Property at Fotonostrum in Barcelona, Spain.
Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London