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 Guillaume Henry, lead designer at Carven.
Guillaume Henry: For me it is a real honour and a real pleasure to work with Viviane. And she is a proper artist. You’ve been speaking of her as a fashion photographer, but for me she’s an artist. I never saw her work as just fashion photography; for me it is more than that. It’s about fashion, of course, but normally, when we think of fashion, we think of obvious beauty. Viviane is not working with an idea of obvious beauty.
She could be working with the most beautiful model. But she’s thinking of this model not as a human beauty, but more as a texture, a volume. She makes a new form of beauty with it.
She wants to create volumes, abstraction. I actually forget that her work is photographic. It could be a painting, it could be a collage, it could be… for me it goes beyond skin, pose, and attitude – it’s more about colours, volumes, lines. For me the body is as important as the shadow, the background, the light, it’s the sum of all these things. She sees things that she is the only one to see. The thing I love about working with Viviane most is that I never know what the result is going to look like. Because… it’s spontaneous, it’s so intimate, you’re always surprised.
Nanda van den Berg: How did you find her?
GH: It’s a long story… a long and happy story. I collect images and I love pictures. I adore photos and have collected them for a long time. I cut out pictures I like from magazines and collect them. Sometimes some of these pictures – like this one, from a magazine, it’s not one Viviane made, it’s just a picture I like – they stay with me for maybe six or seven years. There is a picture that Viviane did – maybe ten years ago – that is super precious to me.
NvdB: Which one?
GH: It was a campaign for another brand. This image – I won’t tell you the brand either, because it’s not the brand I saw, it was the artist. It was the artist’s work that inspired me, that interested me. I hung on to this image for a long time. Then there’s a stylist I really adore, Belén Casadevall, a really great stylist, and she was contributing to the French magazine Numéro, and in the magazine I saw photographs that I loved, and again – because it was not about showing a dress, but more like showing an emotion – the photographer was recreating beauty. Those pictures in Numéro gave me the same emotions as those in this campaign, which I kept for many years. Then I did some research into the photographer.
NvdB: Which series was that?
GH: All of them. There’s this one of a black girl, with a huge shadow in front of the face. I like the one she did at La Défense with a white background, very graphic. I like the one she did amongst the stones, by the sea. There are so many! I like some fashion shoots she did – I remember one very well, in Purple – exotic, in a Parisian flat, super weird. She plays with the clothes as if they were a bouquet. A skirt, the fabric and the colour…
NvdB: that was the series in Dazed?
GH: I love the Dazed one, but this was in the field of flowers. It’s incredible, that one. It’s real art. It’s beyond impressionism. And you forget about the girl. The girls are not…
NvdB: Not very important.
GH: Yeah. You don’t see her, even though she’s in the centre of the image. I love that; it’s so human. It’s pure poetry for me. And I did some research into the photographer and discovered that it was the same one who did this picture that I had kept for ten years. I’ve always believed in that kind of thing. I’m really intense about images in campaigns, each season, about really encapsulating the message you want to give. I never force myself and we never force ourselves in Carven to show a dress. I don’t like campaigns that are like “this is a dress, buy this dress”. I like an image when it’s about humanity, creativity. The idea is to make people see this emotion, more than just having them think “I want to buy that dress”.
That comes through Viviane’s work and Viviane’s eyes. She’s a photographer who puts people at ease. The way she moves around girls, for example – sometimes I see her asking the girls to do something, and I wonder whether they might hurt themselves. But she knows her limits. She never forces any of the girls. When I see Viviane at work it seems as if she uses a kind of child’s instinct. You know? Like when you see a child playing with colours and so on. When the models work with Viviane they have to feel secure, of course, but they abandon themselves. It’s quite magical. I don’t know if it’s voodoo or childishness…
NvdB: Does that happen with all of the models?
GH: I saw it twice, because I worked with Viviane twice and it happened both times. The girls lose their self-control and Vivian doesn’t try to make them vulnerable, she just asks them to forget about being a model. And what I love about Viviane’s pictures is that they look like they happened by chance. Like beautiful mistakes. You ask yourself: why is there this end on the screen, why is she hidden by a shadow, who is this shadow, is she flying or lying down…?
And you don’t know why. Because you know she asks the girl to move around, but it’s not you behind the camera. When I worked with Viviane, we seldom asked her anything. And when you’re not behind the camera, you don’t know what the pictures are going to look like. Is it luck or a mistake?
NvdB: Did you work with other photographers in your campaigns?
GH: Yes, I can give you the names because I love them as well. I love them very much. Marton Perlaki, beautiful photographer. And Max Farrago. I can show you his work. I always love anonymous pictures, and there is something anonymous about Viviane’s work that I adore. I love pictures that seem to have happened by chance, you know what I mean? I love identity pictures.
NvdB: It has something of Viviane’s style.
GH: It’s not the same, but he has that ‘by chance’ thing I love. We did three campaigns together: the first, the second and the third.
NvdB: They seem to show a comparable sensibility.
GH: Yes. Again, the girl is not on show. I love it when you can’t really see the girl properly.