Jane Birkin, Charlotte Rampling, Romy Schneider; some of the most archetypally French women in cultural history – those who channel that country’s precise combination of careful control and nonchalance in everything from their style to their attitude – are not French at all, in fact, says Sonia Sieff. A French photographer and filmmaker herself, Sieff has just completed a four-year-long photo series entitled Les Françaises, published now in book-form by Rizzoli, in which she shot friends, and friends-of-friends, nude in various spots around France. Crucially, she says, they are “all French by heart, by nature or by birth”.
What does this mean, exactly? It all comes down to attitude, she explains and, looking at the resulting photographs – sensitive, sculptural compositions of women dotted around their adopted ‘homeland,’ lounging gracefully across sofas, in window frames and in grandiose drawing rooms – you can see what she means. Oft-debated questions about the female gaze spring to mind, and while such a topic is implict throughout the project, for Sieff it was more about the relationships that the process of capturing these images required. She first started the series four years ago, she says, but had been shooting her subjects nude for much longer: “Most of them are really good friends. I started with women I knew for a long time – then it was easier to convince the other ones.”
Most importantly her subjects are united in their ambition: their drive to create. “Some of them are famous, some of them are not, because this is about really what interests me; women who are inspired, who are talented, who are doing things. So I’ve chosen all the women who are strong characters. They’re very different. Some of them are thin, some are 40, some are 20. The idea was to picture different personalities. It was addictive, the psychological element of this project – I had to convince all those women to follow me, to trust me.” Here, as her book launches in Paris, Sieff reflects on these themes – of nudity, of ‘Frenchness’, and of environment.
On photographing her subjects nude…
“I think that these pictures are like undressed portraits. Some of the women are very comfortable with their body, and could undress very easily, while for some of them perhaps it was the first time, and certainly the last time that they would do this. I didn’t ask them to be vulgaire. This was not the point, I didn’t want them to open their legs, I didn’t want them to play a sexual game. It was the exactly the opposite.”
On what defines a ‘French’ woman…
“Nonchalance – there’s something about this which is typically French. Like, you think we’ve just got out of bed, but actually everything is under control. French women are always taking care, they’re always watching themselves, they look cool but they’re not cool. There’s always this little control, even about the make-up. You don’t see the make-up, but there’s some make-up. They’re conscient, they’re aware of themselves. It’s a fake cool attitude.”
On how she chose the setting for each photograph…
“It was an exchange with the woman. Most of the women were pictured in their places, in their apartment or country home or holiday place, and if they didn’t have a nice place or for whatever reason it was not possible, we decided upon it together. We spoke, we asked their friends – everything is linked to them. There’s also something linked to reality or to their universe – it’s very intimate.”
Les Françaises by Sonia Sieff is out now, published by Rizzoli.