Irina Ionesco: from erotica to fashion at 74

Gothic icon and "grande dame" of photographic erotica, Irina Ionesco, is back in the public eye at almost 75 with more of her often-controversial black-and-white works.

A boa tattoo crawling up one leg and another etched into a hand, petite and impeccably turned out Ionesco, eyebrows carefully pencilled and lips smoothly rouged, describes her work as a mirror on her life.

"Eroticism is life, the contrary of death," Ionesco told AFP in her Paris apartment, a dimly-lit clutter of picture-heavy walls and shoes and hats and feathers and other bits of the theatrical memorabilia emblematic of her work.

From circus girl to cabaret dancer to femme fatale before shooting to almost instant photographic notoriety in the 1970s, Ionesco is perhaps best known for erotic stills of her daughter Eva shot from age four to 11.

The why's, wherefore's and moral connotations of those pictures continue to stir debate across the blogosphere. "It was another time, another age," says Ionesco, whose actress-daughter currently plans a movie on her mother, with Irina to be played by French star Isabelle Huppert.

Ionesco's theatrically gothic touch and sensual frames has made her a style icon for many designers. On show in Paris in June and July is a selection of fashion shots for houses such as Givenchy and publications such as Stiletto and Vogue Japan.

Born in Paris to a violinist father and trapeze artist mother, Ionesco was abandoned at age four and shipped off to Romania to be brought up by her grandmother and circus family uncles.

She dreamt of being a dancer but with a tiny frame and supple body wound up a snake-lady contortionist, touring cabarets in Europe, Africa and the Middle East with two giant boas for seven years, from 15 to 22.

"I was a slave to the boas, in the end I'd had enough," she says, recalling the fastidiousness of feeding the reptiles, keeping them warm and hauling them from hotel bath to hotel bath.

Then came a dance routine until a partner accidentally dropped her in a theatre pit in Damascus, Syria. Convalescing, she began to draw, then paint, but before moving to Paris to study art, spent time travelling with a very rich Iranian gambler, who showered her in couture clothes and jewels.

Photography came late - and haphazardly, like much of her life.

The old pre-digital-era Nikon F camera she still uses - along with tungsten lighting - dates back to Christmas of '64, a gift from her partner of the time, avant-garde Belgian artist Corneille.

Self-taught, she took her first shots of friends and friends' daughters using candles for lighting, setting 400 ASA film on 800 ASA, and emptying her cupboardfuls of cabaret costumes and fancy clothes to drape the models.

From obscurity she hit fame on her first show of 1970, featuring women in theatrical and often enticing poses draped in - sometimes very little - lace, beads and fake flowers and surrounded by fetishist bits and pieces.

"Irina Ionesco's sexual world," wrote French surrealist Andre Pieyre De Mandiargues at the time, "belongs to a space where there is no licence to touch. It is the world of dreams."

She says the feminine universe depicted in her frames relates to her loss of a mother, from the age of four to 15 when they met again in Paris.

"My universe repeats itself over and over in my work. It's part of a dream, part of the unconscious," she said. "There are lots of women because it's about me looking for the woman I missed - my mother."

"The women in the photographs morph into dreams," she added.

Addressing the years of controversy over her Lolita-style photos of her daughter in similar poses to adult women, Ionesco said: "When Eva was born, because I'd come from the world of performing arts I wanted her to be part of it too. Nowadays it would be impossible."

Blogs and photographers up until now debate the rights and wrongs of snapping daughter Eva, an actress who has worked with some of France's top stage and film directors.

But Ionesco since has moved on, shooting for UNESCO in Mauritania, on assignment in Egypt, and just back from an exhibition in Brazil to focus once again on a fashion shoot.

"I love doing fashion photography," says the woman whose favourite photographers are Cecil Beaton, August Sander, Richard Avedon, Robert Mapplethorpe and Diane Arbus.

"There're make-up people, stylists, but all anyone asks is for me to be me. They want my universe, my theatrical pictures, my literary memories. Anywhere I shoot, the pictures become mine."

(Exhibition runs till July 31: details at

Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea


In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops


Arts and Entertainment
Full circle: Wu-Tang’s Method Man Getty

Music review

Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game