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 www.artegp.com)

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