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A Tribute to Kate Barry: Photographer of the stars and daughter of Parisian Bohemian Royalty Jane Birkin

Kate Barry was a photographer born into the bohemian royal family of Parisian society. She is the first daughter of actress, singer and muse Jane Birkin and James Bond composer John Barry and was raised by singer Serge Gainsbourg. You may not necessarily recognize her name or be able to pick out her photographs as one would a Helmut Newton or Irving Penn, but Kate Barry is no less adored within the world of fashion, music and film.

Kate Barry was brought up in the mystique and fame of her much photographed family, the legendary beauties and stars of the bourgeois–bohème socialite crowd of Paris’s modern day aristocracy, but she instead chose to place herself behind her camera rather than before it. But this is not as much an action of withdrawal but of empowerment. Through her art she rejected her birth right as the object of public curiosity and took on an active role by taking photographs of the famous and existing within the periphery of these two worlds.


“I was photographed a lot as a kid. It must have made an impression on me. Letting someone take your picture involves a degree of trust and confidence that I don’t have. For a long time, my camera was a defence against the melancholy I felt.” Kate Barry

She began photographing her famous family: her half-sisters Charlotte Gainsbourg, model and muse, Lou Doillon singer and rising icon, Jane Birkin and her mother’s lovers. For a time, Barry was raised by all three of the exceptionally talented men with whom her mother had affairs and who were the biological fathers of her sisters: singer and wearer of many creative hats, Serge Gainsbourg, John Barry and French director Jacques Doillon. Kate’s golden subjects extended beyond her famed-family as she is perhaps best known for her intimate portraits of actors and musicians including Audrey Tautou, Carla Bruni, Helena Bonham Carter, and Catherine Deneuve.

Kate Barry began her education as a stylist, studying at the esteemed Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couturein Paris, before abandoning the fashion industry to take up photography at age 28.  Reflecting on her career change, Kate explains “I first got into styling because there was a school for it, it seemed like a real profession. But everything I learned in fashion I could apply to photography. The majority of the portraits I took were of woman or actresses.” Kate was raised by individuals who chose to follow multiple creative paths rather than subscribe to a single artistic identity. The Gainsbourg-Birkin clan thrived both before and behind the spotlight as singers and composers to actors and directors.  The effect of her surroundings had a clear impact on her art and showed from an early age:

“I began as a child with Serge’s Polaroid camera. He was very obsessive but we were allowed to use it. It was something miraculous for me, the image appeared almost immediately. For a long time, I didn’t realize that photography was a profession, it was always just a game.” Kate Barry

After entering into the art world radar with her first exposition at the Bunkamura Gallery de Tokyo in 2000, Kate showed at the Galerie Leo in Paris, the Basilic Sant’Alessandra in Italy, and at the Mori Art Museum. Barry was the darling of the fashion industry. She photographed for Vogue, Elle, Paris Match, Le Figaro Madame, the Sunday Times Magazine. She was raised by a pack of creatives from all domains and her career as an artist reflected her diverse upbringing as she photographed album covers for French singers like Vanessa Paradis and Carla Bruni. Her style is distinct. The women in her photographs are sexy and real. She captures their beauty without the artifice. She searches for those in between and unsuspecting moments that exist beyond the robotic smile of a star.

Jane Birkin once said that if she were to attribute one adjective to each of her daughters, it would be “curiosité” for Lou, “mystère” for Charlotte and “empathie” for Kate. This empathy burns through her photographs.  Her portraits, often in black and white, are deeply intimate and revealing, while still retaining the childlike playfulness of the young Kate stealing shots with Serge’s Polaroid. She possessed the uncanny talent to break through the barrier between lens and subject to reveal something private and concealed.

The subjects of her photographs extended beyond her portraits and into the realm of the still life where she was able to capture a landscape or the rooms of an abandoned manor or asylum with such an intimacy as if a static space were imparted with the emotions of a living subject. She breathed life into these lost, destroyed landmarks; capturing the white light flooding through a window, the shadow of a destroyed chair or the details of a paint chipped stairway with only a glimmer of its former glory. There is a distinctive melancholy in these photographs, which call for an empathy that could only be a reflection of Kate herself.

“It’s all about capturing what others don’t see, taking something mundane and making it into a beautiful image. One of my other photography friends always talks about ‘making’ a photo not ‘taking’ one – more applicable to him as he uses film and a darkroom, but still – it is about taking what’s there and creating a great image from it.” Kate Barry

Depression and addiction is no stranger to the world of creativity, and Kate Barry belongs to the tragically long list of talented young artists who left this world too soon. In this case, the end of Kate’s life was executed by her own hand when she apparently jumped from the balcony of her Parisian apartment in 2013. Her legacy lives on through her son, family and her photographs; those captured moments which shatter the passing of time and preserve a small part of the photographer’s soul within these immortal moments.

The tragedy of a young person taking their own life cannot be expressed through words. With a suicide, a lasting mystique forms around the individual: they are preserved in our memories as they were, never to grow old. When an artist or creator passes on, a part of them is sealed–injected–into their work. To create is to leave an impression of the soul, and creation is perhaps the sole antidote to mortality. There is poetry in the mirroring of this preserved, lost life with the art of picture taking; it is an art where a moment captured and suspended forever in time.

Kate has sealed others inside her art, and in doing so, she has immortalized herself.  When we look at her photographs, we see more than the image but the eye of the photographer transcending the lens. Both moment and life are passed, but within her photographs they live on.

Creative Mapping © Copyright 2014. All rights reserved. Photography © Copyright: Kate Barry ( Monicca Belluci - Vanessa Paradis - Jane Birkin - Charlotte Gainsbourg - Yvan Attal -  Lou Doillon - Laetitia Casta - Audrey Tautou - Carla Bruni - Amira Casar - Helena Bonham Carter and Catherine Deneuve - Isabelle Huppert and Emmanuelle Béart.

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