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?
A conversation with Vanessa Reid, stylist, fashion editor & fashion director at Pop Magazine.
Nanda van den Berg: One of the galleries in the museum will only contain photographs that Viviane took before the fashion shoot starts. You see abstract pictures of people – stylists like you, hairdressers, make-up people – working on the model. Viviane calls this series ‘Foreplay’.
Vanessa Reid: I like that she calls it ‘Foreplay’, because when you work in fashion it is definitely all about play. You can start a shoot, with lots of different tantalizing ideas, and suddenly you realize you just don’t know how the whole thing’s going to come out. And before the shoot, too – the whole process, really – there are lots of exciting moments when things can go either way.
NvdB: Viviane said ‘You should see us – we work very fast together.’
VR: That’s the thing, you know, when you start a collaboration, and you have all these ideas, surreal, subconscious visuals, and she says wow, and OK, what shall we do? And there are restrictions – of time, of taste, all these things. There are all these limitations, and you have to work fast and think intuitively. There is an incredible energy between us, when we literally work instinctively, automatically. I put together what I need to do and she does what she’s going to do, we both know we’re going to make pictures, and it’s like 100% instinct. I mean, she’s got a sense of colour, and form, and all these things I am really into… we share an aesthetic because I also think in colour, I need textures, I need shapes, so I guess that helps the process, because we both get it. So we build these images. When she’s building a composition it’s like painting a picture, you know? The colours, all those elements start coming together.
NvdB: The work you’ve done together, like ‘Hoover’ in the Pop editorial, is very strong.
VR: That’s lovely to hear. When we work together, there’s an openness to experiment and a willingness to be free and to let it all flow. That’s not easy to find, you know. A lot of people in fashion are really uptight, really controlled. And some of Viviane’s images might seem controlled or look a bit contrived, but they aren’t at all. There’s just a moment, ‘boom’ – and I think that this approach has been completely lost in fashion photography, in the whole fashion industry. When I started out I was anxiously looking for people to work with, people I thought would be like-minded. And she definitely stood out from the crowd. Not that I would ever consider her a ‘fashion photographer’, she’s much more than that. She covers so many aspects of photography. We just have a similar perspective.
NvdB: How did you meet?
VR: The first time was at a shoot in London. She wasn’t really shooting much at that time. She started shooting a bit for editorials and fashion and I called her up and spoke to her about doing a shoot and Pop… I’ve known her work from back in the day, with Purple and that whole period of her work. With Pop I wanted to create something new, I guess.
NvdB: When was this?
VR: About 5 years ago.
NvdB: can you tell us something about your own background?
VR: My own background is more in film. I didn’t study fashion, so I came from a different perspective altogether. I ended up living in Paris. I lived with a fashion photographer and that is how I was introduced to fashion. My eye was never trained in fashion, but then I got quite into it. At first I worked with French Vogue – I was up there working with people from all different brands. That was a different time… I felt I was ready to go out and explore other things. I didn’t feel ready to jump right into that kind of world. I wanted to experiment more, and be a bit more free. There’s a time and a place for everything, and Pop basically gave me that freedom. I remember that I really wanted to do things differently. I didn’t want to sit back and recreate images which meant nothing to me whatsoever.
The digital revolution kind of came in through fashion photography, and suddenly everyone thought they could be a fashion photographer. I found it numbing, how little thought and consideration and love was involved… the picture was right in front of you, and that changed perception. I’m not saying the digital thing is not amazing – Viviane works digitally – but I find that fashion photography on the whole just lost the sense of the moment. This is a huge generalization, but finding people to collaborate with what I wanted to do got very, very hard.
A lot of magazines now are so controlled that fashion is losing its sense of self. It’s a real shame, because it never used to be like that. When I started out, my generation was brought up by The Face, i-D, those kinds of magazines. And suddenly it got lost in translation. Things should be questioned more, and that is what Viviane does with her images. They make you stop and question beauty, question yourself, how you feel about something. Obviously they are different and strange and abstract, and sometimes it really does your head in. You think: my god, what is this, is this beauty? It makes you feel alive. These days you can look at images in magazines and everything has been retouched in a generic way and everyone chooses the same models and likes the same clothes. Styling has gone out of the window. With Viviane you feel alive, you look at the pictures and you don’t know what’s going on. They are so distinctively hers. You can feel the mystery. It’s not like a straightforward thing.
I guess that’s what images should be, in a way – especially now that there are so many images, there’s internet and if you get something into print, especially in a magazine, you’ve got to have something to say, because images are everywhere. You need something to excite people more, because they see so many different images. They are interacting at such a visual level that sometimes images in a magazine don’t mean anything. I think that if you look at an image by Viviane it’s arresting. You feel seduced, whether in a good or a bad way. You’re definitely left to interpret the image in any way that you want. You know?
NvdB: Viviane no longer does more commercial magazines. Do you think it will stay that way?
VR: Well, I did some commercial work with Viviane too. We did some advertising together. It’s a different process. Again there’s limitation and restriction because you can’t push it as far as you would like to. Sometimes with Pop you can really take it to the next level. We go right beyond, and we’re just lost in the fantasy of it all. That’s how I think it should be. It should be a place to play around and to experiment. Each project is different. But with the advertising we’ve done, you’ve got to adhere to a lot of different requirements, and different desires. You’ve got their expectations, and it’s a different thing. Sometimes it’s difficult. They want a girl to be projected in a certain way. You always have to come to a certain compromise, but it’s still a valid exercise and I think that when people are brave enough to take on Viviane – because she’s not the obvious choice – it’s a great company. They may feel threatened by it, sometimes people find her too much. But she’s very flexible. She’s such easy company, she’s so easy to work with, there’s no confusion with her. It’s funny, that’s why you can put her in any kind of environment. She can work really well with a team, and clients love that.
NvdB: OGT says she needs time to recuperate and work on her art between fashion shoots.
VR: Yes, when you’re in this kind of industry and you’re doing back-to-back shooting, you can get lost in a kind of Hoover. I love what you told me about that fashion image. It’s a fashion Hoover! You get sucked up! And you’re like: hang on a second. You have to stop and retreat, and with anything you do you need to have a certain distance. There’s an ongoing dialogue between me and Viviane. We’ll be doing a shoot, and we’ll have an idea and say “OK, we’ll do that on the next shoot.” It’s like a conversation that doesn’t stop. There are so many ideas and things we want to do together. It’s just a beautiful relationship like that. One idea sparks off another.
NvdB: What would be the ideal scenario for you two?
VR: Vivian shoots amazingly on location. On location you really don’t know what you’re going to get. A magazine shoot feels so different on location. The other day it was impossible, it was raining, so we were shooting in a hotel room the size of a box. And you have to get creative and think outside of this box when you’re actually inside it and thinking: what are we going to do? That’s another thing that I appreciate about Viviane. When something crazy happens and you think: could this get any better? Like ‘Boom’. We went to Mount Kilimanjaro, and it turned into an incredible shoot. It was also for Pop. But it was much more intimate because we had local casting. I had eight big suitcases of clothes and I flew to Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, of all possible places. It was a nightmare. When they arrived I only had two days left, because I had a back-to-back – I wanted to stay in Kilimanjaro, but there was no way. I said to Viviane: “You’re here, so let’s make it happen. Let’s do Pop Africa. Let’s go and do the kind of spirits. The weather is looking a bit dodgy.” It was one of those African torrential rains and we were in and out of pockets of light. That, and also the fact that they’d lost about four pieces of my luggage, so we didn’t have the clothes. We were just waiting, calling the customs people in Africa. I had my husband on the other line in Paris and we were kind of tracking it down for ages. But we did it, and it was amazing, and somehow everything panned out. It was another amazing, iconic story. I was really in her territory, you know, and it didn’t feel like a fashion story at all, much more like a beautiful project, and it was our project, it felt like a Blair Witch movie.
That was ‘Digitech’. There were times when Viviane and I were so impatient we ended up doing hair and make-up ourselves. We definitely start building like that. And as you say: it is quick, instinctive, and also about not being so precious about things. Being creative and free is not like that precious control that a lot of people tend to have. It is only fashion, so let it go. It’s about being free in your head to let it all flow. Because otherwise you block things, and then it looks like you’re blocking things, like you’ve got one big barrier. Because you’re trying too hard. I think you have to switch off reason and logic, and that’s what Viviane and I do. It all goes out of the window.
NvdB: is it really always the case that creative people are working for nothing, even in Numéro?
VR: Even in Numéro. All of these magazines think they’re doing you a favour because you’re getting an outlet, a creative outlet, to expose your stuff so people can see it. It’s crazy; you work extremely hard. But what I find terrifying is that styling has gone out of the window.
NvdB: What do you mean?
VR: Well there are so many restrictions now, when people like advertisers want you to shoot certain items and their designers get uppity and want you to shoot their total look. So instead of being able to play around with different shapes and textures and building something else, suddenly it’s all about someone else’s total look. So the whole exercise of styling, which for me is about reinterpreting a collection – reinterpreting it in a way that you can take it to the magazine and single it out – that’s all gone. People are taking the total looks that you see on the catwalks to the magazine, and it’s boring, it’s boring. Who wants to see the same look that has obviously been all over the internet before the show’s even finished? Stylists need to play around, we need to have fun, to propose and question and experiment with fashion – and that’s gone, really.
NvdB: Do you think Viviane will stay in fashion?
VR: The thing about fashion is, it’s very all-consuming and people can often be rather aggressive. And Viviane is not like that as a person. She is really down-to-earth. Fashion can be very soul-sucking. You have to be allowed to balance it out, to feed your soul and keep your balance, if you want to keep being inspired and keep loving it.
Fashion is fun! If you can find a collaborator, if you can find a dynamic with somebody like Viviane, you’re just really excited to be shooting. Again, it’s a beautiful relationship. You’re on a poetic journey together; you’re carrying on a dialogue. It’s very exciting because you know this shoot will let you discover something new. It’s a great experience. I think Viviane will get to the point that she gets to edit what she wants to do. To decide what’s best for her. The more you work, the clearer you have to be…
NvdB: She’s very much in demand.
VR: Oh God, yeah. And you have to understand each other, as well. That’s the main thing. It’s so much about collaboration. You have to have a connection. If you work with a bad stylist, you’re going to get a bad image. You have to get the aesthetics right. You have to decide if it’s right for you. There has to be a point of view.