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 Jonathan Schofield, artistic director at Stella McCartney.
Nanda van den Berg: How long have you known each other?
Jonathan Schofield: I’ve been working with Viviane for a while – we’ve done five or six Adidas-Stella McCartney shoots together. I first came across her work when I saw the book Flamboya – and coincidentally, the producer I was working with at the time was a friend of Viviane’s agent. At that point I had no idea she did fashion work. I only knew of her work through Flamboya and I absolutely loved those images. So I wasn’t aware at that point of that kind of commercial capability in her work. So my friend said “Well, I know Viviane’s agent and she shoots fashion,” and I was like “Oh, fantastic!” So we made contact and I met her shortly after.
NvdB: And this would have been about four or five years ago?
NvdB: Of course, that’s the thing about Viviane – she has this wonderful photography, autonomous work, and then she turns out to be also a very accomplished fashion photographer.
JS: Yeah, that’s so interesting to me. Obviously, as artistic director I see lots and lots of work. It’s incredibly interesting to me when a photographer has something going on outside the work. That had a strong appeal for me, I thought it was fascinating that she could do that.
NvdB: Viviane’s work has many strong qualities. Which of these qualities would you say work for you at Stella McCartney?
JS: First of all, she’s a woman. That’s obvious, I know, but I think it’s quite important. Obviously, with so many male photographers shooting fashion the work can be rather typical in its approach – in terms of, you know, how they approach the model or how they view the woman in the image. What’s interesting about Viviane is that she doesn’t objectify. She finds something else in the picture, other than a kind of sexuality, or a certain interaction between the photographer and the model. I love that kind of formal abstract eye she has. She uses such unusual compositions and colours; I love that. She’s quick, as well. She’s a very quick, unfussy shooter. She’s not complicated in terms of set-up or lighting. She takes a very direct approach, and as an art director I find it very exciting to work with someone like that. It’s very spontaneous and quick – very alive.
She has a very unusual approach, an ability to make something unusual compositionally and formally, and a great colour sense. I think of her as a sort of painter.
NvdB: Have you worked before with photographers who also make art?
JS: We commissioned Ryan McGinley, an art photographer, and again he’s an interesting person. Very different, but he also has a very interesting eye and a very fresh approach so I’ve worked with him. I tend to look for people who are not just straightforward fashion photographers… we work with those too, but it’s always nice to have something else, another dimension to the photographers we commission.
NvdB: Why’s that?
JS: I think it’s because fashion advertising especially is very conservative, there seems to be a narrow set of rules and parameters for making imagery for fashion advertising. There seem to be four or five very good photographers who switch between brands and work almost on rotation… and it’s almost as if there is an accepted number of models this season, and an accepted number of photographers, and you know, although they all produce work at a very high level I sometimes find it quite restricting. I also think there’s a huge proliferation of fashion photographers; it feels like there are more fashion photographers than ever. Sometimes I feel like everyone is a fashion photographer. And to find a voice that’s authentic, a bit different, and good for us as a brand – Stella McCartney – it’s very important to have a unique voice and a fresh, different approach to making images.
NvdB: Is Stella McCartney herself also involved in the choice of photographer?
JS: Yes, she’s very much involved. I present photographers to her and she has a very strong viewpoint on the photography and art, she has very definite tastes, and she loves Viviane’s work. She finds it very unusual and interesting. So yes, she is very involved, and we would never shoot a campaign without Stella seeing it.
NvdB: Just now you said “There’s more fashion photography than ever.” Do you mean to say, perhaps, that the quality of the work is getting lower?
JS: No, it’s more complicated than that. I actually think the quality on average is very good. And some of these huge fashion bibles – Pop Magazine, AnOther Magazine – publications with huge, fifteen-page editorials – they give designers and photographers a lot of pages to work with. The quality can be incredibly high and people are making some amazing images. Ambitious images, quite formally complicated images, with lots of references. But I also think that while the standard is high there is a certain uniformity of approach. And when I look at a lot of photography I feel like there are the same kind of references, the same pool of references, just going around in a circle. People are looking at the same kind of things and then making images out of them. And then you get someone like Viviane, who I think has a totally different image pool. Her images come from a different place. When you get a voice like Viviane’s, it’s very interesting to me, as someone commissioning photography, because as I said it’s fresh, it’s different, and kind of beautiful. It’s complicated… When you look at magazines of twenty years ago, today’s audience would find them very boring. There were a few very strong practitioners, you know: Herb Ritts or Bruce Weber, or Avedon, there were maybe ten of them, and now there are huge numbers of people doing it very well, it’s all confident work. But confident does not always mean satisfactory. You want to find someone who goes further, and I think Viviane does just that. She’s one of the few people able to make fashion imagery that feels exciting and modern. She’s not obsessed with the past. She’s not constantly referencing Helmut Newton or Guy Bourdin or Penn, you know? Her work is very ‘of the moment’ – it’s modern and not locked into a kind of game of referencing the past. Does that make sense?
NvdB: I completely agree with you. Everyone I talk to tells me things are so restricted in fashion. Now it’s only Viviane and maybe a few others who stand out as being creative and inspiring, and she chooses work where she can be free.
JS: Yes. I think that’s true, and I think that’s what I mean when I say that for me, fashion at the moment is almost a kind of schizophrenic world – in the sense that on the one hand you have more editorials, more opportunities – you have an incredible forum to be creative and get the work out and that’s what you do. But at the same time it feels very conservative and very ‘rule-confined’, you know? Confined by a narrow set of dogmas. The designers insist on a ‘total look’. When you hear about Avedon and the others… they would do hair and make-up, or would be involved in it. Bailey would almost be choosing the clothes. It was more of a ‘total process’ in the past. And in a sense less professional, which sounds odd, but I think that what we’ve ended up with is a very professional process but one in which people like Viviane are rarer. When you find someone with a voice like hers, you want to hold on to that and work with her. There are other strong image-makers, but they are getting difficult to find. It’s also down to brave editors and people who are willing to rock the boat a bit.
NvdB: Yeah, otherwise it tends to become very boring. And Viviane’s photography is not boring at all, it’s very exciting. I have the feeling that she’s very much in demand. Which is rather contrary to the other development you just mentioned, that people tend to be very referential and so on, and yet her star is rising. How would you explain that?
JS: When someone comes along who is authentic and consistently fresh in their approach, people start to realize it. I think for any artist to succeed, no matter how good they are, a consensus needs time to form. They have to do consistently good work for a few years, and opinion accumulates. No matter how good the person is, even from the beginning. I think Viviane’s in this position now, where people are recognizing this about her and starting to treat her as what she is: an original image-maker. If I feel a bit bored sometimes by the way photographers reference from the narrow field of references they work with, I don’t think I’m alone – well, she’s had 60 pages in Pop Magazine, for example – obviously other people are also feeling that her voice is worth celebrating because it is so unique.
NvdB: I couldn’t agree more. Do you think that it’s a signal that things overall may be changing again?
JS: I hope so. I hope she’s part of the beginning of some changes in fashion photography. A lot of it has reached a saturation point, with an ever-decreasing circle of what you can do, and I think that some new people need to come through – people like Viviane – who are maybe, you know, less conventional in their approach to the work. I like the fact that Viviane draws, and I think she’s very in touch with her own imagination. That’s what I love about her work and why I think of her as an artist. She’s very connected to her own sense of image-making, rather than just trying to be cool or trying to find the perfect reference or the perfect girl. She’s using her imagination, and that’s always lovely to work with – when someone’s in touch with their own sensibility, and it’s theirs, it’s no-one else’s, it’s not a rehash. I can never identify the references I know are in there, but I know it’s a part of everything she looks at and sees.
NvdB: She tells me “Of course I have references”, but I can’t see them. She looks completely original to me. And it’s wonderful that ‘old-school fashion photography’ is coming to an end.
JS: Yes, and I think digital has a lot to do with that. I notice a lot of younger photographers now – though they’re not like Viviane – they shoot on film and they are trying things out, they are not retouching everything to ridiculous degrees. They’re trying things out to make imagery more interesting again, and I think that’s exciting. There is a younger generation coming up and there are a few people doing some very interesting work. Although superficially it might not look anything like Viviane Sassen’s work, I think she is part of a more interesting strand of fashion photography. The thing you need to hope for is that brands, and people like me, too, are open enough to try things out. In the commercial world it’s all about commissioning, and you need to have the guts to commission and then not kill the imagery. You could easily take Viviane’s images and retouch them, and you would ruin her vision. So I think it’s up to magazine editors and those commissioning photography for brands to be a bit braver, not be so conservative. There are a few brands that push things, but I think it’s often in the hands of people who are less visual, marketing people or brand people, and their concern is…
NvdB: They blame the imagery when sales are bad, and not the other factors.
JS: Yes, exactly.
NvdB: They criticize the imagery, not even the design.
JS: Exactly, and I think that people like Viviane can only flourish – no matter how fantastic they are, and Viviane is fantastic – if they get a bit of luck, if they meet people who are willing to commission and to go out on a limb and to make those images happen commercially. I am not talking about only her work; I think everyone needs to have a bit of luck with who they meet. If you look at the history of fashion advertising, it’s often about certain people… the director and the photographer need to have a good relationship too. Look at Guy Bourdin and Charles Jourdan. Obviously their art director must have been a great person, they must have been interested in him enough to let him shoot season after season. I think that’s the other thing that happens, photographers get commissioned for one season and then they’re dropped. Like I said, it’s a merry go-round and people aren’t given the chance to grow. I’ve done five or six shoots together with Viviane and they’ve all been very different, which I think is interesting.
NvdB: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
JS: It’s lovely to work with Viviane because she’s just such a lovely person, she’s a very alive person, and it’s a pleasure to work with her. Yes, the images are important, but it’s more than that – she’s a great person to work with. I love her eye and it’s just very exciting to work with Viviane.