Moving from New York to Paris six years ago, Rachel Rebibo has had image-making in her for a long time. Previously a resident of Washington, D.C. and New York, she now finds herself in sync with the European lifestyle, despite the byzantine maze of French paperwork she’s often required to navigate. Finding herself behind a camera since she was ten, this photographer is hitting her stride in a big way. Often carrying four cameras and a light meter in her handbag, she’s ready for any photographic happening. “I’m one of those chicks who rocks a really big purse,” she laughs.
Women and their fashion accessories is something Rebibo knows a lot about. She loves to photograph women. In particular she has shot a woman named Julia, a professional makeup artist, in a wide variety of styles and locations. “I feel like the camera loves her. She can’t take a bad picture,” she says of her muse. The two became close friends after meeting as students. “I’m sort of addicted to taking her picture, I think she’s beautiful,” Rebibo says. You can see more of these images on her site.
Not content to just photograph female models, Rebibo drove around the United States for a month and a half, creating images for her Americana series. Rebibo didn’t simply document landscapes, buildings, and still life studies. She also got to meet citizens who took her into their homes and fed her. She’s chronicled misspelled signs, trailer park life, bar-be-que joints, and taxidermy examples of two-headed mammals. Her images of this largely unseen yet common America are moody, sometimes disturbing, and partially askew. Her untypical camera angles and composition help emphasize a land and a people not wholly content or at peace.
Estimating ninety percent of her fashion and commercial work is shot on film, Rebibo also shoots digitally. Not a fan of retouching, she proudly states, “I don’t use the healing brush and I don’t Liquify at all, ever.” Utilizing Photoshop to only color correct, tweak contrast, and eliminate dust, she says, “I refuse to deform women’s bodies. I don’t use the Liquify filter in Photoshop to make them thinner, make her boobs bigger, make their eyes pop, and then make their lips fuller. I just don’t do that.”
Rebibo finds clients gravitating toward her film photos. “When people are looking at my book and they go, ‘I love this photo.’ Nine times out of ten, it’s a film photo,” she says. Because of this preference of paying customers, she finds the need for accuracy in her exposures to be even more critical. “In black and white and color printing—that’s when you really realize how important it is to expose correctly. When you’re trying to print, it’s not the same as what you can do in Photoshop. When you’re trying to print you really need a correctly exposed negative where you’ll spend hours and hours and hours trying to get the image you had in your head. Because of this, when I went to school it was required you had a light meter.”
It’s an amorphous quality that a well-metered film photograph holds. “It’s just got something you can’t quite put your finger on. It’s not flat, like a digital photo, but there’s something else to it.”
“Something else” might just be the quality her photographs hold. She uses Profoto and Mamiya gear, but she’s especially keen on Sekonic meters. “I use my Sekonic light meter all the time,” she says. “It’s a beast. I wouldn’t mind at all telling people how much I love that product.”
Using a Sekonic Zoom Master L-508, and it hasn’t failed her yet. “When people ask me advice about equipment and stuff, they always make remarks light meters are really expensive,” she explains. “My answer is they have always been expensive and they will always be expensive, but it’s possibly the most sound investment besides your heavy duty professional camera body because you use it forever. I think I’ve had my light meter for ten years. It’s held up the whole time for me. I’ve taken it all over. It’s been to Asia four or five times. It’s been across the United States. It’s been in rain and swamps and sand and all sorts of stuff. It’s slept with me in a tree house in Vietnam. It’s never, ever malfunctioned ever, it’s never had a problem.”
Rebibo has strong feelings about the practical use of a meter by serious photographers. “I think people get too used to looking at the screen with digital photography, and I feel like that’s a big problem because you can’t look at the screen for exposure,” she says. “If you’re street shooting, you can sometimes get away with not using a light meter because you can sort of gaze, but in a studio I think it’s shameful to not use a light meter,” she laughs. “I think it should be illegal to not use a light meter in the studio.”
There is a clear method to why she feels so strongly. “Our studio teacher at the School of Visual Arts made us do these horrible exercises shooting white on white, reflective metal on white, reflective metal on black, and all those types of things to learn proper metering for products and clothes. If you’re shooting a white dress on a white background, looking at the screen is not going to guarantee you that you have the right detail in both.”
Meters and film are not the only two tools Rebibo sees as superior for photographers. “Most digital prints become pretty yellow and gross within three years of printing, no matter what the manufacturers claim,” she says. “You need to print it again, but you don’t ever have a tangible item, a finished product in your hands the way you do when you have a set of negatives.” Referring to very professional labs, Rebibo has been dissatisfied with today’s prints, but doesn’t blame the labs. “It’s the materials they’re sold by manufacturers. Whereas for instance, fiber prints I printed myself in high school still look as crisp and as clear and as white and black as the day I printed them.”
Rebibo shoots several Mamiya cameras, including a Mamiya C330, her very first medium format camera. “I dream of owning an RZ67,” she says, her goal being able to provide film-phobic clients with images from a digital back. A fan of natural light when shooting outside or on location, in the studio, Rebibo exclusively uses Profoto lighting gear. “I shoot really fast, even when I’m shooting film I can kill 30 rolls of film in 45 minutes without blinking an eye,” she says. “One time I was borrowing a friend’s studio, and I don’t remember what type of lights he had, but they definitely weren’t the most expensive professional lights, which is what I’ve been used to using. Every other shot was black because I was firing too fast and the recycle time wasn’t fast enough. I’d end up wasting so much film with black shots that it’s always worth it to just go with Profoto and then I know that won’t be a problem. I can go as fast as I want.”
Leaning towards film and hand-printing her work, it’s not surprising to learn Rebibo’s overall goals in photography. “My philosophy of shooting is getting back to something real and honest,” she declares. “I think that’s probably where my attachment to film comes from. I don’t want to see a 15 year old girl selling me a pair of shoes that’s aimed for me when I’m 28, and then I don’t want for an agency to send me a 15 year old girl and then ask me to Photoshop out her bones because she weighs 90 pounds and almost fell over at the end of a ten hour shoot.”
What bothers her most about the state of commercial photography? It’s what today’s consumers don’t know. “They don’t realize every single image you see, from children on cereal boxes to every other image you see has been retouched. It’s been Liquified, it’s been airbrushed, and people are not conscious of that. I think it’s really dishonest. I definitely say my philosophy is getting back to something that’s real.”
Rebibo won’t be offended if you say she operates from an photographic era in the past. “I’m sort of an old school thinker, I guess,” she says. “My favorite photographers are Richard Avedon and Helmut Newton and Herb Ritts and also Joel‑Peter Witkin on the very fine art side and they’re real photographers. They made their own photos and I think when you have a creative director and an art director that’s designed everything for you, you’re just someone who’s executing someone else’s idea and that’s not necessarily being a photographer. Photographers take pictures of everything they love—not just fashion, not just advertising, not just documentary, not just portraits, not just fine art.”
In the future, we won’t try to pin Rachel Rebibo down. We’ll watch whatever further developments come from the lenses of this photographer who has a vision no matter the subject matter at hand. Bonne nuit.
Written by Ron Egatz