Perhaps it’s not unexpected that an actress who’s best remembered for playing a disguised thief suffers from a case of mistaken identity on the internet. In the silent film Les Vampires, Musidora plays Irma Vep, who dons a catsuit for convenience in movement as she commits her crimes. This may be the first cinematic catsuit, and it was followed by many in popular culture. It definitely was the first to have an erotic impact on the public. In a compliment of reverse chronology, Musidora has been called the Brigitte Bardot of her day. Musidora’s catsuit helped whip that fever of appreciation up. Particularly striking are the shots of her navigating the rooftops of Paris. Was she a dream or nightmare about to descend into a home? This most iconic image of her inspired a tribute photography shoot, and thanks to the lack of verification and attribution of images on the net, sites ranging from Tumblr to serious movie blogs to even an academic page accidentally have perpetuated a case of mistaken identity.
One image from this photo shoot appears repeatedly on the net, credited as Musidora:
As soon as I saw it, I knew this photo was not of Musidora. The model’s bone structure is wrong. The make-up is much too intentionally gothic. While Musidora wore make-up in her Les Vampires performance, her make-up looks naturalistic in comparison to this person in whiteface. The black brows are drawn on and do not match the more organic curve of Musidora’s. The model’s eyes are very kohled. The lipstick reads as actually black on film versus red lipstick photographing darkly. Another dip a little too far into the exaggeration of Musidora’s image is the black beauty mark. Musidora did not sport one in the film. Even the outfit is not quite correct. The model wears lace gloves reminiscent of a style popular in the 1980s. In the film, Musidora wears more practical opaque gloves. Maybe in honor of René Gruau‘s portrait of the actress in her most famous role, the model clutches beaded necklaces, something the character of Irma Vep does not do when jumping rooftops in the film. She’s stealthier than that. Plus, the photo looks too modern and crisp, even for one that might have digitally restored.
Here are some images of Musidora as Irma Vep in the catsuit for your comparison:
My first step in solving the mystery of who took this photo of whom was to Google. I searched the web via text and via image, and I finally used the correct search words with the picture. I found that while Tumblr was the most guilty in attributing the photograph incorrectly, it also held my answer of the image’s origins. Lys Reygor’s Tumblr shows multiple copies of this image. Under one, a Tumblr user going by the name Jadé Antoinette credits Lys Reygor as the model and Béatrice Tatareau as the photographer. The photo shoot site is listed as Bordeaux.
I then used those three names as search terms, and I eventually found Béatrice Tatareau’s Musidora-inspired photographs on a French site called Wizzz. There was a whole gallery of them to scroll through. Off to the side was a citation of model (Lys Reygor), place (a rooftop in Notre-Dame, Bordeaux), year (1985), and photographer (Béatrice Tatareau). I had found proof of Jadé Antoinette’s claim! In doing so, I proved what I knew was true–That’s not Musidora!
My excitement at being right was moderated by the artist’s biography on Wizzz:
“Deux de mes photos de la série Sur les toits, rue Notre-Dame, Bordeaux, 1985 sont légendées à tort sur internet sous le nom de l’actrice Musidora, Irma Vep dans Les Vampires, le film de Louis Feuillade (1915) © Gaumont. Je tiens à préciser que je suis l’auteure de ces œuvres, épreuves argentiques N&B datant de 1985. Je signale ici l’appartenance de mes photographies au patrimoine de l’ADAGP. Merci de votre visite.”
Roughly translated by Google into English, it says:
“Two of my photos from the series on the roofs, Notre Dame, Bordeaux 1985 are wrongly captioned on the Internet under the name of the actress Musidora, Irma Vep in Les Vampires, Louis Feuillade ‘s film (1915) © Gaumont . I want to say that I am the author of these works, B & W silver prints dating from 1985, I note here of my photographs belonging to the heritage of the ADAGP. Thank you for your visit.”
I initially took up my search to disprove the the photograph’s authenticity. I did not want Musidora incorrectly identified anymore. There is not as much available documentation on the actress in English as there is in French, so I was going to assist with that in this case. I’m now asserting the authorship of the photograph and the others in its series as well. Tatareau is in the odd position of having a photograph become widely distributed online, which could be seen as a mark of success for her piece, yet not getting credit. It must be an odd position to be in as a creator! Film fans often get excited about potent photographs and share them quickly and frequently. Tatareau’s is a good example of making sure what you share is genuine. It’s, also, a reminder to give credit to photographers when we can. We’re sharing their work and creativity.