From 15 December 2012 till 17 March 2013, Huis Marseille exhibited a retrospective of Viviane Sassen‘s fashion photography: Viviane Sassen / In and Out of Fashion. In the run-up to this exhibition, curator Nanda van den Berg interviewed people from the fashion industry who have worked with Viviane Sassen. What is fashion photography, anyway? In what ways does Viviane Sassen’s fashion photography differ from the autonomous work with which she has built such a solid reputation in recent years? And most of all: what makes her fashion photography so special?
Interview with Emmeline de Mooij, artist and stylist, with whom Viviane Sassen made series for Purple, Dazed & Confused and KUTT.
Nanda van den Berg: How did you first meet Viviane?
Emmeline de Mooij: Through my ex, who worked with Hugo [Timmermans, Viviane’s husband]. It was in 2001, my last year at the Rietveld Academy. We made friends and started doing things together pretty soon. We made some work as part of my graduation project.
NvdB: What did you study at the Rietveld?
EdM: Fashion. We took the clothes I’d made for my graduation project and made photographs of them in the building I lived in at the time. It was a pastorate – it housed some clerical institutions, and a centre for Spanish-speaking immigrants, and there were crazy spaces full of things that people had brought in. The place had a very special atmosphere, with all kinds of South American stuff on the walls; it was a bit chaotic.
We made photos of girls sort of hiding in cupboards and bookcases, or half concealed behind net curtains, or between plants on the windowsills, or under blankets on the couch. With their faces hidden. And for my graduation project I made an installation that showed those photos.
NvdB: And then you went on to make more series together.
EdM: Yeah, pretty soon after that we made a series for Purple, in La Palma. And something else for Dazed & Confused.
NvdB: How did you go about it? The series looks rather as if it was a sort of ‘performance’.
EdM: We would think up some things in advance and make some sketches, but it wasn’t like we set out to carry them out to the letter. It was really all about form. The ideas behind everything were very simple, but in a new context they could work in a very alienating way. For props we used ordinary domestic objects we found in cupboards. Sometimes we bought a few flowers. We worked in a very intuitive way and it wasn’t always clear exactly who did what job. It was always very organic, we just sort of clicked. Things happened because the two of us worked as one – things you couldn’t make happen on your own. It was really magical. And it was always loads of fun. We would always get deeply involved and enthusiastic about it.
NvdB: Were your sketches inspired by anything in particular?
EdM: Sometimes we were inspired by something, for example a book on alchemy we found somewhere. But I think most of it just popped into our heads.
NvdB: Why do you call it ‘fashion’?
EdM: Most of it was made on assignment. For a magazine, with clothes made by designers. A series like that was really about clothes and the body. But we also made a series we called Wood Nymphs. Those images were less obviously about fashion; that was free work, really. But we were always researching into clothes, how you could use clothes in relation to the body. That always played an important role.
And we also looked at objects in direct relation to the human body and its surroundings. We started making literal connections between the body and furniture or clothing, so that they formed an organic whole. By diving completely inside the object, or binding it to someone as if it were a sort of extension to the body.
NvdB: There’s quite a lot of nudity in these photo series. What role does this nudity play in the work?
EdM: It often has to do with a sort of liberation. Dropping all that ballast, or perhaps cultural codes. And it can also be really oppressive, you know, all the stuff we surround ourselves with so obsessively. Yes, it was a sort of liberation, I think. That was the connection.
NvdB: Whose idea was it to go naked?
EdM: Oh, that happened so naturally that it must have been both of us.
NvdB: Can you still see a connection between the work Viviane does now and the work you did then?
EdM: Definitely, especially the sculptural element. That’s something we did back then too. And linking the body with objects, so that they become a sort of amorphous whole. Which everything is linked to.
NvdB: Yes, that’s an important aspect. Where did that come from?
EdM: That was intuitive, we didn’t think it up. There were no firm theories or clear concepts behind it; it was just instinct. Organic, really. But there’s also something very childlike about it, actually. You’re just playing with materials. And we weren’t bothered about current fashion trends or ideas about how things ought to be shown.
NvdB: And you were both international from the start.
EdM: Yes, I think most of our work was international, really, rather than for Dutch magazines. We did one thing for Jop van Bennekom’s Re-magazine. That was Dutch, of course, but very internationally-oriented.
NvdB: Why not for Dutch magazines?
EdM: Oh, they were much less experimental. It was mostly for Purple and Dazed & Confused. But the advertisers got more power there too, and you had to put more and more of their clothes into the series. I thought that was a real pity. Preparation turned into a huge amount of work. Even getting hold of the right clothes. And you didn’t get paid for it, either, you had to invest in it yourself. So the work got less free, because you had to take account of lots of factors just to keep the advertisers happy.
NvdB: Was Viviane always the one who took the photographs?
EdM: Yeah, in those days I did hardly any photography – I do more now – and she did nothing else. So the job division was logical. I built up the image. Literally, because I was putting things together. Then we would both look at the composition. If we made a contact sheet, we chose images from it together. But she was the one who held the camera.
NvdB: What is her gift? How would you describe it? Why is it that people trust her completely?
EdM: It’s just that Viviane has no preconceptions about what a body should be. There’s nothing forced about it at all. She has a kind of admiration for all the forms that the human body can take, in all its imperfection. A kind of fascination, and a very respectful one. Perhaps it’s about form, about sculpture; it can also be very erotic, but it’s never just coarse or sexual. And I think it makes a difference that she’s a woman. Not another male photographer taking photographs of women. Perhaps that also creates a sort of trust.
NvdB: You’re one of the models in the pink series in KUTT. Tell us more about how that came about.
EdM: The concept had existed already, really, because the series was based on the Miu Miu campaign [which Viviane shot in 2001] but apart from that it was free – the location, and I’d brought all sorts of clothes for it.
NvdB: Where was it shot?
EdM: At Martien Mulder’s home in Amsterdam. It was all about two bodies that were so intertwined, or so blended, that you couldn’t really say what belonged where any more. With what looks like extra limbs growing out. And very mysterious, too, because you don’t always see the faces.
NvdB: Who was the other model?
EdM: Marlous Borm. Viviane wanted to do the Miu Miu series again, but this time naked. The poses were more or less the same. I think it was for KUTT, but I’m not sure.
NvdB: Why do you think the series has become so iconic?
EdM: Perhaps it’s because it has all those aspects. Concealment. You’re looking at someone’s back… you see arms doing something but you don’t know what, because you can’t see the hands, but something’s definitely going on. So there’s suspense in it. And there’s the sculptural qualities of those two bodies merging into one, with extra limbs.
NvdB: Was this purely Viviane’s work, or was it part of your collaboration?
EdM: Perhaps this was more her work, because she’d already made the Miu Miu series and had an idea of the poses she wanted to use. She had something in mind in advance.
NvdB: Looking at it now overall, do you think this was an important moment in Viviane’s career? That a direction emerged, which she has since followed and developed?
EdM: Hm, I’d have to think a bit about that one… but it’s certainly true that we weren’t that concerned about exactly what was going on around us. We used it for inspiration, but we weren’t afraid to go right outside it. The way we worked was so intuitive… almost a dream world. Things would just bubble up. It was so free. And that’s something Viviane really sticks to – that completely intuitive way of working, which gives her so much pleasure. Not forced. She has a sort of pleasure and honesty and admiration that is completely independent of all sorts of codes and conventions. And that’s also because she’s so relaxed about it. She never gets stressed out. She goes along with things, but she keeps experimenting, so in the end there’s always something of hers in there. And that’s because of her completely relaxed way of working.