It was the age of androgyny. In response to the AIDS blight of the 1980s, young people were experimenting with gender ambiguity, much as Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics had done and Tilda Swinton in her breakthrough role as the sex-switching Orlando of the film of Virginia Woolf’s classic novel would do.
Bettina Rheims was a Paris-based model and then a journalist who, picking up a camera, came under the spell of the fashion photography master Helmut Newton, whose pioneering photography coupled androgyny with a new pictorial eye that disrupted classic fashion silhouettes.
‘‘He was such a strong and inspiring man,’’ Rheims recalls.
Soon, Rheims found herself photographing her Modern Lovers series: there was Leo, Martine, Yannick, Roshumba and dozens of other young androgynous people including, perhaps incongrously, Kate Moss, then a budding model who was decidedly feminine yet whose chest at 15 in 1989 was boyishly flat.
Androgyny was about ‘‘posture’’ and ‘‘attitude’’, Rheims, now 60, explains from her photographic studio on the rue du Roi de Sicile in Paris’s fourth arrondisement, but also a response to AIDS and the swathe it cut through the gay and artistic communities.
‘‘Androgyny was one of the ways of seduction, maybe, but inventing a new attitude towards the impossibility to have sex,’’ she says.
The series, showing head-and-shoulder figures of androgynous single subjects mostly aged 16 to 20 photographed by Rheims, was provocative, but not sensational.
Perhaps because Moss’s face was still unknown and her pioneering of the fashion waif look yet to come, Rheims’s image of a nude Moss at age 15 did not cause the stir that Corrine Bailey’s photo shoot of a topless 16-year-old Moss for The Face in 1990 did.
The Modern Lovers series was eagerly snapped by Lord Alastair McAlpine and donated to the Art Gallery of NSW in 1995. The gallery has defended exhibiting the Moss photo in a new exhibition of Modern Lovers alongside the works of Helmut Newton.
The Moss photo has been exhibited and reprinted before. ‘‘We exhibit art, not pornography,’’ a spokeswoman said.
Rheims has never had her work exhibited with Newton's work before. She says she is ''very proud'' that the gallery is showing both their works.
''He was my master,'' says Rheims, ''not in terms of inspiration, but in terms of giving me the strength, the power to become what I became.
Androgyny was one of the ways of seduction, but inventing a new attitude towards the impossibility to have sex.
''He decided to take me under his wing. I was a young photographer. He was a superstar. I used to go and see Helmut for dinner, every Thursday night, Helmut and [his wife] June. I would go and bring my work. It lasted for years. Helmut and I were very close.''
In the 23 years since Modern Lovers was first exhibited, androgyny became a staple of fashion, movies, books and university courses.
After that series, Rheims met and photographed transsexual subjects; those living their lives as the opposite sex to which they had been designated at birth.
More recently, in 2011, Rheims began a new series, Gender Studies, which is currently showing at London’s Hamiltons Gallery, featuring people who live not as male or female, but a new ‘‘third’’ sex, a development that was ‘‘more political’’ and ‘‘not about posture and attitude’’ like androgyny was in the 1980s.
'‘I discovered people who didn’t want to choose, but decided they were both, and there was a gender of ‘not choosing’ or choosing according to the day, or mood, and not fitting into one of these boxes,’’ says Rheims.
She found these people through Facebook, Skyped with them to hear their stories of life, love, childhood and family, then invited 30 to her Paris studio to be photographed, with sound artist Frederic Sanchez recording their voices.
Rheims hopes Gender Studies will come to Australia, particularly given a Sydneysider, Norrie mAy-Welby, was in 2011 the first Australian issued with a passport containing an ‘‘X’’ for ‘‘sex not specified’’.
The Fashion of Helmut Newton and Bettina Rheims, including Modern Lovers, is at the Art Gallery of NSW until May 19.