Photographer Betina du Toit is captivating international audiences with her ethereal images of women. Jackie Burger interviewed her to find out what inspires this young creative from the Winelands.
Lock me in a room with a bed and a chair and a desk, with a few of my favourite things and I will be happy. I enjoy spending time alone, a daydreamer who likes to stare into the void while I’m supposed to be cleaning my room. Hyper-critical. Perhaps borderline neurotic. Not a fan of social norms. Maybe perceived as antisocial. I prefer freedom and autonomy to rules and security. I tend to seek out change and challenge. Friends like to tease that I am my own worst slave-driver.
Where do you get your creativity from? Are your parents creative?
My mother lives an all-round creative and sensitive life. My father is mostly creative with numbers. But you can trace back a line of writers and poets and craftsmen in my family. CJ Langenhoven was my great-grandfather’s nephew.
You grew up in Wellington. Tell us about your earliest memories and childhood years.
It was a charmed small-town upbringing in the 1990s. The world revolved around friends and school, and the town, nestled among the mountains, was our oyster. We walked everywhere. Played tennis in the street. And as children our only doorway to international pop culture was through satellite television and Cosmopolitan magazine. I remember watching music videos on MTV, marvelling at the production of it all.
What are your earliest memories of beauty?
The smell of jasmine flowers from the large bush that grew along our fence when I was a child. And the effortless way in which my mother put on red lipstick almost every day.
What was your ‘Kodak moment’?
As a small child I can remember a Kodak pocket camera I won in a local colouring competition. The camera fascinated me. It was like magic. I remember wondering why the images blurred when I took pictures of my siblings running. I was mesmerised.
After working in publishing for a while, a few serendipitous encounters and the subliminal encouragement of my husband, suddenly one day I made the conscious decision to start focusing on what I already knew I loved most. To begin with, to pay the bills, I kept working freelance as a writer and producer for my previous employers while I was actively trying to build up a career and workable business in photography. I somehow trusted that it would all work out if I just kept on working.
I remember the rejection I felt after a big local modelling agency boss didn’t want to pay me for images I took that they felt they couldn’t use. I remember deciding that day I would not stop shooting. I think I instinctively knew I was on the right course for myself. Because it was the first time I felt addicted to what I was working on. Obsessively so.
Are you a self-taught photographer?
I would say so. While studying journalism at Potchefstroom University I did photography as a night class, but I did not actively pursue it and the theory didn’t interest me. Photography was always in the back of my mind. Today I am still learning. A lot of it is just going out and doing it. At the beginning I really didn’t know anything technical. I just pushed the shutter and went with my gut. I’m not a technical photographer and obsessing over the technical details often distracts me from the outcome.
Sometimes, out of frustration, I tell my assistant to stop talking to me while I shoot. Although well-intentioned, they keep telling me of everything I’m doing technically wrong!
Today you are an internationally renowned photographer based in Paris and working for famous fashion houses. How did your path lead to where you are now?
It was working within a number of facets of the media industry that brought me back to what I knew I liked most: creating and directing visual media. Eventually that’s what I began to focus all my energy on. A few years later, an agent in France contacted me and from there things happened quickly. Since the end of 2016, my husband and I have been living and working full time in Paris.
How did you meet your husband, Wouter?
He was the cool guy from the neighbouring town. He knew I always had eyes for him but it was only seven years after our encounters at high school parties and December holidays at the same coastal town that our paths crossed again. This time the feeling was mutual! He is the wind beneath my wings and the colour in my world.
What does the view look like from your apartment in Paris?
Out of my window I look onto a quiet street lined with trees. On the other side of it is an old Catholic school with a big garden that dates back to 1895 and was designed by the art nouveau architect Hector Guimard, who also designed the Metro entrances. Today, the school functions more like an old monument and tour groups often pass by.
What do you miss most about South Africa?
The people, the diverse landscapes, the wide skies, old friends and my family. But often just that feeling of familiarity and comfort from being surrounded by your collective people. That’s still your core identity.
What magic is there for you in photography and how would you describe your style?
It’s an endless effort to capture that fleeting moment when each element comes together. To create feeling. It’s like magic. Maybe it’s a little addictive …
Your imagery has a very emotive narrative, capturing women in an intimate, sometimes vulnerable context. What inspires your art and aesthetic?
To be honest I really don’t know. It’s definitely not one thing. Or even references. It’s probably a culmination of ideas, experiences, things I’ve seen, things I’ve heard before, the things within us, private feelings, a fleeting moment … But I do think it’s very much a reflection of what I sense or what I identify with that instinctively tends to reoccur in my work.
When you are casting, what do you look for?
Something unconventional, character and personality.
What are the highlights of your career so far?
To work with dynamic brands on a regular basis. Last year we shot for a beauty campaign in the summer: one day under the Eiffel Tower, the next day between the Louvre and the signals, and the last day at the Palais Royal. In between work, you sometimes have to look up to take it all in. It was also an honour to shoot Vanity Fair France’s first expansion cover and see some of my work on the walls of the iconic Hôtel de Ville. It was included in the work of five women photographers in Marie Claire France’s exhibition Aux yeux des femmes (In the eyes of women) earlier this year.
Are there any artists who inspire you?
The portrait studies of Modigliani, the pre-Raphaelite era of Dante Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, the bold range of work of contemporary photographer David Sims.
Studio or landscape?
I like working in vast open spaces, in colour, winter skies, autumn colours, in clean lines and with interesting faces. Unaffected and the non-essentials stripped away. It can be a studio – a plain white wall, simple light – but I have an affinity for the freedom of possibility the outside brings with it.
What do you think makes a good photographer?
The ability to capture a feeling.
Which photo are you currently most proud of?
That’s difficult to say. Maybe the image of Lorna I took in Iceland at the end of 2018. Wouter and I visited the country briefly in 2014 and the vision of an image in the ethereal Icelandic blue water kept coming back to me. I wanted to go back and create it. Every country has a different light, a different sky.
In Iceland there is something very magical for me in the air, the vast open spaces, the landscapes, the people, the feeling of aloneness, of quietness. The minimal lines in the image draw you in to the essential, which is the face, the almost ghostly natural allure of Lorna.
If you could have anyone in the world take your portrait, who would it be?
The late, great Richard Avedon
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