Carole Bellaïche has devoted most of her career to actor portraits. Some of the greatest figures of contemporary cinema have passed before her lens: David Lynch, Isabelle Huppert, Catherine Deneuve, Fanny Ardant, Juliette Binoche, Emmanuelle Béart, Anna Karina but also François Cluzet, Julie Delpy, Hippolyte Girardot… The list is endless.
This year, Carole Bellaïche published a book about her childhood apartment. She takes stock of her memories: “I think about it every day. I think of it as of a human being, or rather like a main character in our family history. We thought there were five of us, but in fact there were six. I think of it as if we had just left it yesterday, even though we moved in the summer of 1990. It was the apartment of my childhood and adolescence. Beaumarchais.” These are the opening words in the book. 25 Boulevard Beaumarchais pays tribute to the apartment that was the cradle of, and witness to, Carole’s first photographic experiments.
The Artist’s Lair
Carole Bellaïche gave me an appointment at her home in the Strasbourg-Saint Denis-Republique district, where she has set up a mini studio and where she keeps her archives, just one block away from her childhood apartment.
Friday afternoon, I rang the intercom. I didn’t catch the floor number, and climbed the stairwell with the hope of guessing which one was hers by the sound of approaching footsteps or of a door being opened. Then quickly came the surprising discovery: Carole Bellaïche’s apartment and universe spill over into the stairwell. On the second floor, there is a somewhat erratic mini-exhibition featuring photos and posters from her previous exhibitions. So this is where the artist lives.
She ushered me into her world with a sense of relaxed self-confidence. In our wake followed the ghosts of the many actors who had walked through this door. Carole Bellaïche has big black eyes which combine a child’s smile with the seriousness and perspicacity of a seasoned photographer. As she gave me a tour of the apartment, Carole pointed to her companion as if he were a lifelong acquaintance of mine: “Jacques is working on his film,” she said. Her apartment is a jumble of memories and curiosities. Like at a gallery, the foyer is dedicated to her personal collection of artists’ portraits. The hallway leading to the kitchen is punctuated by photos of her own children. She has dedicated her life to photography, and one could retrace her entire life through images.
Photography: A Young Girl’s Game
“How would you like to proceed?” Carole is used to interviews, jumps right into it. That’s also how she got into photography, at 25 Boulevard Beaumarchais, where she lived with her mother, an antique dealer, her father, a doctor, and her two sisters. Carole started photographing with her best friend: “We had known each other since we were five, and we shared everything. When my father bought a camera, we started to take pictures together, first outdoors, then in the apartment. I was thirteen at the time. That’s her on the cover of the book.” The black-and-white book cover features a young girl sitting on the floor, her cheek resting on the velvet seat of an armchair. Her right hand seems to be caressing the upholstery the way a little girl might caress a plush animal. Her gaze, looking at and beyond the lens, is magnetic and melancholic; it is filled with longing for a bygone era, for a finished party.
In the late 1970s, the two girlfriends played at being a witch’s apprentices: “My friend Pascale and I started to work in the darkroom. We used to go to her stepfather’s lab, which was in the basement of her building, across the street from mine, at 4 Boulevard Beaumarchais. She was at my place a lot because my parents went out to work and hers worked at home; they were psychoanalysts. We had my place all to ourselves. We went to the basement to make our first prints and we unwrapped the photosensitive paper in full light. We ruined the whole box! We started to make prints, and we found that extraordinary. In shooting film as much as in the darkroom, I think I fell in love, body and soul, and that love is still there.” She had found her calling.
Carole Bellaïche’s creativity was bubbling over. She would use Pascale, her girlfriends, and other young girls as models and made them pose in the decor of her family apartment: “My mind was on fire. As soon as a girl took pictures, we would get together for shooting sessions. And since my mother had just opened a boutique, she had a lot of dresses. She would raid private mansions. There were entire trousseaux with dresses out of this world.”
Carole Bellaïche is also fascinated by light: “I learned photography and lighting on the job. At the beginning, I used lamps a bit randomly, and little by little I discovered that the light of the apartment was super beautiful, and so I started shooting in natural light. As soon as I put the models in the light, as soon as I dressed them up, they would become pictures.” The photographer fell in love with faces and her models: “I can’t explain what a face might make me feel. I love pretty faces. It was very passionate (with my models), our relationship was very strong because we created things together. It wasn’t a romantic relationship, but it was close.”
What at first was just a game, soon took on a very professional feel. “Influenced by German Expressionist cinema, Les Enfants du Paradis, and the make-up photographer Serge Lutens,” Carole Bellaïche organized, with one of her favorite models Nathalie, a retro shoot with “doll-like” and “vampire make-up.” They booked a professional make-up artist ten years their senior. Looking at the prints, Carole Bellaïche is satisfied with her session. It is the best she has ever done.
Flipping through the book, 25 boulevard Beaumarchais, one discovers damaged prints of young girls from another time, lascivious, as if they stepped out of the Titanic. One girl is lying in a doorway, showing only her face, with its dreamy, romantic look, while the other, wearing a black dress, is sprawled on the stairs like a limp flower. These prints exude adolescent nonchalance and reverie.
When she met Dominique Issermann, she seized the opportunity and spoke to the fashion photographer about this series: “I think I had a good shoot, I would like to show it to you.” Upon discovering these photos, the photographer urged her to continue her work, telling her she was onto “something.”
An Actor’s Photographer
Convinced of her talent, Dominique Issermann sent actors her way so she would build their portfolio. Carole Bellaïche was only sixteen at the time. Soon, her home turned into a fashion show. “I no longer had my girlfriends pose but photographed actors and actresses, I took advantage of all these people, and made a bit more mature photos.” The elegance of Gabrielle Lazure, Emmanuelle Béart’s fragility, Hippolyte Girardot’s shyness, or Tom Novembre’s mischievousness: Carole Bellaïche would capture the soul of every actor to appear before her camera. She will also begin later in 1992, a long collaboration with Les Cahiers du Cinéma.
While Carole Bellaïche usually forges strong relationships with her models, one encounter turned out to be particularly decisive: with Juliette Binoche. “We met through Romain Brémond and Dominique Besnehard, with whom I was working a lot at the time, in the context of my major series in museums. I was twenty-one and I was preparing an exhibition in museums with a lot of film people I had invited. They all said yes. As did Binoche. Binoche had just been to Cannes, she got noticed, this little girl with a strange name, this sort of energy she had, the way she laughed. She was quite singular compared to the other actresses, she had a particular physique. We met at my place, and to start with, we shot some six, seven rolls of B&W film. It was very lively, we hit it off instantly. We knew that we were going to do other things together, and we prepared the museum shoot for which she wore a little black dress. She had made an image for herself, a bit like in a tableau. The museum series with her was great because she was very inspired.”
That series sealed the beginning of an intense artistic collaboration between the two young women. They saw each other regularly and prepared their sessions by writing down their ideas in a notebook. When looking at Juliette Binoche’s prints, one understands what intrigued Carole Bellaïche: the actor’s mutinous look and childlike face are unlike any other. She transforms from one print to the next like a chameleon: here, a teenage rebel with a cigarette hanging from her lips; there, in a bathrobe; sometimes a fragile and dreamy young woman with bare shoulders, other times a dangerous femme fatale in a polka dot dress; a Marilyn with a platinum blonde wig; an Arletty; or yet a romantic Piaf in black and white; a punk wearing dark makeup. Juliette Binoche and Carole Bellaïche went on a “transformation spree,” and the actor became the photographer’s muse: “Binoche was very inspiring, very alive, she had energy, desire, curiosity.”
Actors wanting to build their portfolios came and went at Carole Bellaïche’s house, crossed paths when they came to pick up their prints, became friends, mingled with Carole Bellaïche’s family and became friends of the family. “Everyone got along: us, the three girls, the actors, friends, our parents, the clients… A non-stop get-together…. [The house] became a very lively place, but also when you are coming of age, bring people over, it’s a lot of chaos. My parents became very chummy with all our friends.” The testimonies of these regular visitors, deftly collected by Carole Bellaïche, punctuate the book. Juliette Binoche’s recollection of the apartment: “It was one of those places marked by spirits, with nooks and crannies. They stretched like rooms opening one onto the next, moving forward in memory. It was a family apartment, a dwelling of old souls, Parisian for sure, but hailing from afar. There were absences, and many presences. The aromas fused with light reflecting off objects: old-fashioned precious metals, ancient wood, oriental carpets which formed one with the surroundings.”
25 Boulevard Beaumarchais was a witness to this shared, eventful life, both familial and artistic. Carole Bellaïche pays homage to the apartment as if it were an actor in her own and others’ lives. When the family had to move, Carole began to “scan” it, wishing to immortalize every corner of the place as part and parcel of its existence and the keeper of the souls of those who lived and passed through it. “I grabbed my camera and for the last six months, I photographed everything. I had boxes and boxes of pictures. I shot the rooms at different times, I wanted to keep everything, to not forget anything. I was in a frenzy. The place was ours; in fact, it was us, almost as if we were in the walls. It remained hyper present for me.” Photos of the interior, as if captured between shots, reveal a large bourgeois apartment where sunlight might be filtered through the curtains or flood the room in a luminous halo, skipping across the furniture and objects (lampshades and crystal chandeliers, oil lamps with pendants). The work of light, as well as the grain of the photo, allow almost to distinguish the microparticles of dust dancing over the antique marbled parquet floor, which must be full of cracks. The shots of the rows of doors opening onto hallways lined with small-paned windows transform the apartment into a Hammershoi painting. Shelves containing a dinner service set, the fluted legs of a piece of furniture, papers piled up on a desk, crystal decanters lined up on a mantlepiece in front of the mirror. Everything is photographed, frozen for eternity.
25 Boulevard Beaumarchais is a door to Carole Bellaïche’s universe. Like an old trunk filled with souvenirs that make one sigh or smile, 25 Boulevard Beaumarchais contains personal and sacred relics of a happy, bohemian family life that unfolded in the apartment where Carole found her photographic vocation. Bathed in the light of this dwelling, all these faces make up an essence of humanity, filled with nostalgia and hope.
Carole Bellaïche, 25 Boulevard Beaumarchais, Revelatoer, 42€, 192 pp.
To learn more about Carole Bellaïche’s work, please visit her website.