When Kate Barry took up photography in the mid-1990s it was as much a defence mechanism as the inevitable outcome of half a lifetime in the public eye. “I was photographed a lot as a kid. It must have made an impression on me,” she said. “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.”
The daughter of the composer John Barry and singer and actress Jane Birkin, she had a knack for putting people, especially women, and especially actresses like Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Sophie Marceau, Monica Bellucci, Tilda Swinton and Helena Bonham Carter, at ease in front of the camera, capturing their essence and beauty. “Photography for me has always been about building a world around women,” she said.
She was in demand for her natural style which worked well in advertising, with campaigns for Lipton Tea, Pierre Cardin and Dior Perfumes and the mail-order company La Redoute, as well as magazines like Cosmopolitan, Elle, Le Figaro Madame, Paris Match and Vogue. She was aware that her family connections had given her an entrée into the world of what the French call les people. “To be fille de [the daughter of...] proved rather helpful. French people look kindly upon my whole family,” she admitted, referring to being brought up by Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg and alluding to the Birkin-Gainsbourg family tree.
One of France’s most photographed couples, and the duo responsible for the controversial 1969 UK chart-topper “Je T’Aime... Moi Non Plus”, Birkin and Gainsbourg met after Birkin’s marriage to Barry broke up. The infant Kate appeared in Slogan, the 1969 film on which they came together. Her extended family included actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg, the only child from the Birkin-Gainsbourg relationship, and the actress, model and singer Lou Doillon, fathered by the film-maker Jacques Doillon, with whom Birkin and her daughters lived after she left Gainsbourg in 1980.
Kate Barry was born in London in 1967 and never gave up her British passport. “I figured that my 100 per cent British identity made me different from my sisters and that to keep it would keep me close to my roots,” she said. Her natural father made contact with her when Birkin split from Gainsbourg: “I discovered a part of my identity I didn’t know I had. I felt more complete.” Gainsbourg felt betrayed but he and Kate were soon reconciled.
She was a troubled teenager with an addictive personality, drinking and dabbling in drugs, and she failed her baccalauréat. Birkin pulled a few strings to get her into the Ecole De La Chambre Syndicale De La Haute Couture Parisienne, where she gained a diploma in fashion design. A spell in rehab in Britain and the birth of her son, Roman de Kermadec, in 1987, helped put her on the right track and she started a prêt-à-porter company, though Gainsbourg’s death in 1991, followed by the passing of her partner Pascal Huon de Kermadec, who had fathered Roman but had not managed to kick his drug habit, knocked her off her stride.
She founded the charity APTE – Aide et Prévention des Toxicodépendances par l’Entraide – with the aim of treating drug addicts with a form of therapy comparable to the approach of Alcoholics Anonymous. In 1994 she opened a free residential facility, the first of its kind in France, at the Château des Ruisseaux in Bucy-le-Long near Soissons.
She remained committed to this cause, even after switching from fashion to photography. “I took a few evening classes to get up to speed technically,” she recalled. “After a while, I realised that being a photographer was a proper job and not a game. I had always fooled around with Polaroid cameras as a child.” Many of her portraits retained a childlike, playful quality.
Her work sometimes involved her half-sisters as well as her mother, whom she photographed reclining for the cover of the 2004 duets album Rendez-Vous. She also shot Carla Bruni in a suitably languid pose for Quelqu’un M’a Dit, her best-selling 2003 debut. Barry’s other pop assignments demonstrated a certain amount of knowingness since they included the 1996 album France by France Gall, whose 1965 Eurovision winning song “Poupée De Cire, Poupée De Son” had been written by Gainsbourg, and shoots with Vanessa Paradis, who had collaborated with Gainsbourg on her second album Variations Sur Le Même T’aime in 1990, as well as Benjamin Biolay, the multi-talented singer-songwriter-producer-actor who has often been called the new Gainsbourg.
She exhibited in Japan, Italy and France and was commended for her striking landscapes and distinctive portraits, particularly of the workers at Rungis, an assignment she completed to mark the 40th anniversary of the wholesale market for fresh produce. Two years ago she collaborated with the writer Jean Rolin on an unusual book, Dinard: Essai D’Autobiographie Immobilière, about the Britanny coastal town where Rolin grew up. Barry felt at home there as it reminded her of the British seaside towns she had visited with her father. Asked to compare herself to a landscape, she replied she would be “a nice little shrub shaking in the wind on a Scottish or Welsh moor.” Barry was found dead after falling from the window of her 4th-floor apartment in Paris. Foul play is not suspected.
Kate Barry, photographer: born London 8 April 1967; one son with Pascal Huon de Kermadec; died Paris 11 December 2013.