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?
One answer often given to these questions is that ‘fashion’ is a fleeting concept that can be defined only with difficulty, if at all. Fashion is a phenomenon closely related to the way we live, and this extends to much more than clothing alone. Within this larger, overarching sense of fashion in the world, the so-called ‘fashion world’ is just a small, albeit iconic, aspect. The fashion world ‘governs’ the clothing, the brands and the media that the public see, as a ‘translation’ of the broader concept of fashion. This ‘fashion world’ consists of a small group of people moving all over the world. It is a merry-go-round of individual professionals who together define the domain and slice it up into appropriated subdomains. Within this fashion world Viviane Sassen has adopted a very unusual position, a fact which gradually becomes clear as you talk with the various people she works with in creating her fashion photography. For in contrast to ‘autonomous’ art photography, fashion photography is something you never make alone. There is always a team of professionals involved which includes models, stylists, clients, agents, designers, art directors and publishers.
The epicentre of the photographic image is always ‘the girl’, the model. ‘The girl’ is very important: in any given season, there is always a particular model that everyone wants to work with. Sometimes a model will have been working for some time and suddenly she becomes ‘the face of the moment’. Sometimes she appears out of nowhere, vanishing just as quickly by the next season. Very rarely, she will keep her star status for decades, as Kate Moss has done. Clients have a preference for a certain model, but so do photographers. Viviane Sassen values the rapport she has with the model; that fact that she and the model understand and can anticipate each other.
Viviane Sassen enjoys this rapport, for instance, with the 23-year-old internationally successful Dutch model Anna de Rijk. At the age of 15 Anna was advised by a photographer to present herself to the Dutch agency Paparazzi Models, and since she had only a badly-paid job in an organic food shop at the time, she did so. She first worked only at weekends, but after finishing secondary school at 18 she started modelling full-time, living first for a while in New York and then in Paris.
Anna de Rijk appears in many of Viviane’s photos, but she is by no means always recognisable. Sometimes we see only her hand, or her breast, or she is no more than an anonymous, shadowy, bodily form. Her specific facial features – features that define a model in ordinary fashion photography – seem not, in Viviane’s work, to be of primary importance. So what constitutes the special relationship that Anna has with Viviane Sassen?
Nanda van den Berg: If you look at Viviane’s fashion photos you can see that she often works with a few specific models, like you for example. It’s as if she has a special relationship with certain models, one that helps her get the best results.
Anna de Rijk: That’s right. If you have a relationship with someone, the photos become more personal – and more powerful, too, I think. You get to see what that person has going on inside. They’re not just an empty shell in the photo.
NvdB: How long have you been working with Viviane?
AdR: The first time I worked with her I was still very young, I think I was 18, and I didn’t yet have any special relationship with her – it was just a quick job between shoots. The second time was a couple of years later, I was 21, and we shot another series together and we really hit it off – we made some beautiful photos. I worked with her more often after that, for Double magazine, for Numéro…
NvdB: Because she asked specially for you?
NvdB: How was the first time, ‘a quick job between shoots’, when you were 18?
AdR: There were two other models besides me. I arrived, and hair and make-up were done very quickly. I was rather shy, she was taking photos pretty fast. I had no idea what she was up to. It didn’t really feel as if we had any contact.
NvdB: And what was that series for?
AdR: I think it was for Swarovski, for Crystallized. They were pretty strange photos, legs in odd places and so on.
NvdB: Did you find that strange?
AdR: No, I didn’t find it strange at all. I thought she had made some really great series. I thought her photos were special, different, from the beginning. ‘Normal’ fashion photographers get their inspiration from other fashion photography. They’re always looking for poses that have already been done. They end up going over the same things again and again. They get lots of their ideas from films or old fashion series or film stars. That’s how the fashion world stays in its own ‘bubble’… As a model you’re often shown photos and given instructions like “we want you to do this or that, with this feeling, and you’re this character.” Viviane Sassen works in a completely different way, much more from an abstract image, she’s much more of an artist. And it’s as if it all comes much more out of her. She never shows me example photos, or says “I want to photograph something with this kind of mood today.” She looks hard for forms and she never hesitates, and it’s as if everything comes to her immediately. Composition is a very instinctive thing for her, and she is confident about her instincts, she works pretty fast. She seldom gives me any coaching about showing emotions with my face; she usually leaves that to me. And sometimes I play, too: it’s a collaboration. I look for a movement or a form. It’s something that sort of comes out from the inside; from inside her and inside the model.
When I work with her, it’s as if there at pure force at work that she shapes. You can feel straight away that there’s a clear point to the story. And it can be quite sensual sometimes, but it’s never cliché-sexy. It’s a kind of sensuality that is a bit rawer, a bit ruder.
NvdB: Tell us about the photo with the blue nipple, for instance. That’s a very sensual photo. How did that come about?
AdR: Well, I’ve been saying that she works intuitively and feels her way through a shoot, but I know that she often makes little drawings in advance of what she wants to do. So she asked me: “Would you mind being topless in a photo?” They’d asked me this in advance and I’d said that would be OK, but then she said: “Would you mind having a blue nipple in the photo?” That was a bit of a surprise but then I thought: well, that’s not so bad; at an artistic level it would make for an interesting image.
It’s very inspiring to work with her, because it’s very creative work for me too. It feels rather like mime: I can really look for movement and form, and I think it’s just terrific that she has such a sharp eye for form. And that she’s so open to other people’s opinions. She’ll ask: “What do you think of this, what do you think of the image?” And she takes your opinion seriously.
NvdB: There’s lots more of your collaboration with Viviane in this exhibition selection, for instance the session with Peter Phillips [make-up artist for Chanel].
AdR: Yes, and he’s another artist in his own right. I think that Viviane and Phillips had talked a bit first about what they wanted it to be. He did the make-up first – it was make-up that sort of evolved, and grew across your face – and then Viviane searched for the image that suited it best. The stylist – Marie-Chaix – also plays a large role, as a kind of art director – because that’s the one who has to find the right clothes.
NvdB: Are there any other fashion photographers that you enjoy working with? Is that a comparison you can make?
AdR: I work a lot with Inez [van Lamsweerde] and Vinoodh [Matadin]. They’re friendly and gentle and professional. They work very differently from Viviane Sassen. They make ‘real fashion images’, inspired by icons, by famous people. They like making ‘powerful women’. In an interview they said “We want to create heroes”, and that’s just how it feels. Inez has a very calm voice, she guides you in a very nice way, and she knows exactly what she wants. She can really see something in you that goes beyond your outward appearance, and she turns that into a photo. OK, it’s not always like that. But her photos have a certain kind of strength. Lots of different kinds of strength. Inez and Vinoodh see a kind of Charlotte Rampling in me. That’s almost always how they shoot me. With that kind of hair and make-up. Viviane Sassen shoots me in a wilder kind of way, I’d say. Inez shoots me as I am sometimes, too, but with a layer of make-up, with much more glamour.
NvdB: Viviane sometimes says: “Listen, I don’t like fashion.”
AdR: Yeah, that’s her all over.
NvdB: But how am I supposed to take that? She’s up to her ears in fashion work.
AdR: She is so not fashion. She works with fashion, but she’s really only concerned with form and image. Fashion just helps to make the image interesting and surprising. But she has no need for glamour. She wants to get her images quickly, and the process itself has to stay exciting for her. It needs speed, energy, liveliness.
NvdB: You said that the first time you worked with her you hadn’t ‘clicked’ with her yet, so what made the difference the second time?
AdR: The second time was in France, two years ago. Three nights, and two days’ work, all of us staying together in a French country house with a vineyard. That’s where the blue nipple comes from, and the photo where I’m naked, with gloves on, and a curl in my back. That was the first time I’d ever done that – posing naked – so that was rather… that photo is really…
NvdB: …it has a raw quality.
AdR: People have different opinions about it. One says: that’s a porn photo. Another says: it’s a baby being born.
NvdB: It does have something animal about it. The important thing is that you you were at ease making it.
AdR: Yes, Viviane is very good at making me feel at ease. And she was the only other person there. The fact that the naked person in the picture is me was a bit hard to swallow at first, but I also find it liberating to be naked, because I can stop worrying about how I look. It sounds crazy, but when you’re naked there’s a moment when you just let all that stuff drop away. I think it has something beautiful and natural.
NvdB: In lots of Viviane’s photos of you, your face can be recognised.
AdR: Yes, that’s true. I can really be myself in her photos. And that animal side is very present in me, too. If I can relax, it just comes right out. I have a sense that when she makes a photo of my face, that it’s simply my face. She’s obsessed with body and with form, but not with unnatural form. I have the feeling that we have a kind of instinctive connection, and that the photo is a form of mutual contact. We simply make an image together.