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Gilles Bensimon Photography: No Particular Order

Photography: No particular order by Gilles Bensimon (Hardcover - October 2003) 224 pages ; Dimensions (in inches): 0.95 x 14.72 x 10.78 Publisher: Filipacchi Publishing

With subjects like Naomi, Linda, Claudia, Kate and Christie, it might be tempting to think it would be hard to make anything but an extraordinary photograph. Gilles Bensimon, however, has exceptional talents for exacerbating the particular qualities that make these individual women so alluring-reinventing them, among many others, season after season. Editorial director of Elle magazine since 1999, Bensimon has ridden the tide from the 1980s supermodel phenomenon (which he is almost single-handedly responsible for creating) to now-a cultural moment when Hollywood-type celebrities like J.Lo, Gwennyth and Beyoncé have, for better or worse, usurped mega-beauties on fashion magazine covers. (If you have an image of any of these women lodged in your optical unconscious, chances are pretty good that Bensimon created it.)

Presently celebrated by both an exhibition at Bergdorf Goodman and a 224-page catalogue, (No Particular Order, published by Filipacchi) Bensimon's oeuvre spans nearly three decades of what Truman Capote called "that place called fabulous." The tactful sexiness of his swimwear photography, in particular, is stunning. Well-oiled, super-tanned, long-limbed females cavort and sprawl on pristine beaches (a spectacle few would argue with). There's an elegantly stark, sculptural, geometric quality to the way Bensimon deals with the human form, the lines of a bathing suit and also light. At the same time, his contrasting, sensual treatment of texture-powdery sand stuck to a collarbone, silky hair blowing in the wind-saves the pictures from feeling distant. One crisply composed image of Elle MacPherson on all fours by the sea, wearing a bright yellow one-piece, grinning as she flings her long, wet hair up in the air, communicates nothing less than joy.

Bensimon's strength does not lie in subtlety. He depicts a waifish, blonde model hiking up her translucent skirt, for example, in front of a plot of orchids. In another photograph, we find a brunette with bee-stung lips coyly sucking on a sugar cube. The bluntness works because of its guilelessness, and also because Bensimon always adds a hint (and just a hint) of sophistication. In fact, mixing the high and low numbers among Bensimon's most successful strategies. A precious-looking woman with delicate bones and pale skin sits in a French-seeming café, for instance, in front of a steaming Styrofoam cup; Catherine Zeta-Jones' feline aspects contrast her regal character in a portrait that shows her eyes darting off in slightly different directions. Her lips curl vaguely upward, as if to indicate that, despite the over-the-top white lace gown she's wearing, she doesn't take herself all that seriously.
Bensimon's versatility is particularly evident in a number of photographs of the bald, super-dark-skinned African model Alek Wek. In one, Bensimon portrays her as a devil, wearing a bustier and horns on her head, gold glitter around her eyes, sticking her pointy tongue out. In another photograph, the utter blackness of Wek's skin contrasts a crisp white suit as she leaps in the air, attenuated limbs stretched out. Another image portrays her more reverently, in sepia tones, looking directly at the camera with doelike eyes.

Two main things come to mind looking at this body of work. Firstly, all of it is iconic. Nothing, including the mundane, appears mundane in front of Bensimon's lens. Everything is an event, ranging from a shadow to a strand of hair to a feather. Secondly, and rather surprisingly, Bensimon's photography has aged very nicely. His work from two decades ago looks, in some ways, fresher today than it did when he made it. It goes to prove, once again, that if something is truly done well, it can withstand the tests of time.

-Sarah Valdez

Sarah Valdez is an associate editor at Artnews Magazine. She lives in New York City. Read her other recent reviews: Richard Avedon Exhibition; Herman Landshoff Exhibition at F.I.T.; First Assistants Show; Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed exhibition at the Costume Institute and the Guy Bourdin photo exhibition at the Pace/MacGill Gallery.


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