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 Olivia Gideon Thomson, Viviane Sassen’s agent and founder of We-Folk.
Nanda van den Berg (director of Huis Marseille): When did Viviane join your agency? It seems like this was an important turning point in her career.
Olivia Gideon Thomson: I met Viviane in 2004 and for one reason or another we didn’t start working together then, but when I started We-Folk in 2009 I saw a big feature on Flamboya and I suddenly remembered about Viviane and I thought I should give her a ring and see what she was doing and so yes, she responded and we met and we talked from there. At that point her fashion photography was still very much a big part of what she was doing but she had been very much concentrating on her work for that book, Flamboya, with Hugo. So she was at a point where she was still working in fashion, still had some very big connections in the fashion industry, but for the last three years had been concentrating on her personal work.
We quickly decided that her personal work – although important for us to talk about – wasn’t where she needed the support from us. She really just wanted the support in the commercial application of what she did, which was obviously the fashion editorial and the campaign and we sort of got started from there, really.
NvdB: Her career has developed over the last few years, hasn’t it?
OGT: Yes, she describes it as having “carved out a language”, and spent many years working for publications like Purple and magazines like that which gave her the freedom to create stories that weren’t particularly ‘creativity-driven’ but were a creative way for her to play. She told me recently that she really did carve out her own visual language in terms of her fashion photography, and I think that’s why she is so popular – it’s fresh and unique, and it’s consistent. Although it changes, it’ll deviate, it’s also very consistent: you can tell it’s Viviane, which I think is attractive in a commercial practice. Even though fashion is obviously very commercial, it’s important to have a voice.
NvdB: And how would you describe your own bureau, working in that field of tension between the commercial and the creative? You two are quite well matched, I think.
OGT: I think that we both feel very privileged to work in the way that we do within the fashion industry. I feel very strongly that the people I work with should have a very strong voice – I am not very interested in having a photographer who can apply lots of different styles. I like it when a photographer comes to me and already knows what they want, because I find it a lot more fulfilling to be working on a whole career rather than on just part of a business. I think that is probably why we connect, because she is the same. In the same way she’s not particularly impressed, she’s not particularly interested in just doing fashion – she has a different relationship to it. So I think with Viviane we’re just in a very privileged position because the people who want her are also like us. They come to us with a confidence and a strength of vision, and they see something in her work and want to work with her for that reason. I think that’s probably what I try to do with the agency across the board, with all of the artists I have – and not all of them work in fashion, but the same sort of reasoning and ambition applies to other areas within the commercial field. I’ve got some very strong photographers working in very corporate advertising and some very strong photographers working in lifestyle – so it’s kind a community of voices, I suppose, rather than one thing that we do over and over again.
NvdB: When was the first assignment for you, and how did it come about?
OGT: Hm… let me think… we started working with Jonathan Schofield and the Stella McCartney Adidas people quite quickly. So that was the first real commercial fashion campaign that we did together. That was the most relevant, I suppose, to her having an agent to introduce her work to somebody who picks up on it and loves it. And they still work together, you know.
NvdB: So you might show her work to someone because you think they might like her style?
OGT: Yeah. It’s selling, in a way, but it’s quite subtle. You have to introduce the work to somebody in the way you imagine they would want to see it. Because of her profile and Flamboya we had a fantastic opportunity to introduce her work to people in a very uncommercial way. And then you back it up by giving them a bit more of the story, which is that she was also a fashion photographer. Not only is she a great artist with a clear vision, but she is also someone who worked in fashion. And has gathered a cult following – which they like, they need to know that she can fulfil her brief and collaborate but that she’s also someone with a strong vision.
NvdB: How does this vision correspond to their vision? What is that ‘click’ that they pick up on? Her visual language gets picked up. You see that it works. That she can work with a commercial language too.
OGT: Yes, it’s fascinating. I think that the industry as a whole has perhaps been waiting for the new generation and that the time was right in many ways – that the disintegration of economies around the world has helped free up the industry in some ways. All the way from 9/11 until about 2008 the industry was extremely narrow. There were five or six photographers who were doing everything. The editorial scene was very narrow, people weren’t experimenting, there wasn’t much exciting work out there and then, when the iPad… when digital got so big, people were worried that magazines would no longer have any relevance, or no-one would want to shoot with them, all that sort of stuff. So I think a lot of people were waiting, and I think there has been an explosion of creativity and people have really wanted to see new stuff. And because there is a huge cult following for Viviane – because she publishes, she exhibits, she has fans around the world – I think that helped the social media aspect of her name and her profile – that really helped disseminate her name amongst the younger audience who just loves what she does.
But in terms of the establishment, and people in positions of power – they can see that digital also enables a brand to have lots of different sorts of activities. You can still do an above-the-line print campaign but you also get to do look books, film, digital, online, special projects, you get to do editorialized projects – you get to do all sorts of different things for a brand now. They might look at a photographer like Viviane and say: well she’s very creative, very unique, she’s got a special language, let’s work with that language on this part of our campaign. And so while many people thought there would be less, there’s actually a lot more work you can do now. And the iPad helped, because it’s a photographic format, really, in many ways. I think that’s probably why she’s having such success now. I also think that people like someone to be clear. They want somebody to be confident about what they are doing. That means that while she’s not always going to be right for something, she chooses what she wants to do. And because she has this other very rich part of her career – one that is very fulfilling for her – she doesn’t lean on the industry so much, she doesn’t have to make so many compromises, and that’s where it becomes much easier to represent her, because she’s very clear about what she wants and what she doesn’t want.
Viviane has incredible energy, but she’s very instinctive and I think that’s quite exhausting for her. She has this intuition which is the basis of everything she does. And she works – like the Parasomnia and the Flamboya pictures she made – with no plan at all. She arrives in these places and starts work, but she’s unprepared in many ways; not like other photographers we know who plan everything down to the last minute. She arrives and she expends all this energy – so she does need to rest, she has to conserve her energy. And I think we’ve learned how to protect it in many ways.
NvdB: How would you describe the role you play in her career? Do you discuss her growth process?
OGT: At the moment I am just making sure that she is adequately protected. She’s so popular, everybody wants to shoot with her. Editorially, she has people wanting to shoot with her all the time. She has decided that she only wants to do a few magazines, and she has been very careful about which magazines they were, and then again with the commercial process you try to support her as much as possible in that. Because really I see her at the moment as needing space. I think we’d like to introduce her to a wider audience and try to find more people out there in the industry who will work with Viviane in the right way for her and for them, so we need to find those very sensitive commissioners who have an understanding of the creative process and who can really work closely with a photographer in developing a brand language. You can see that with Carven, for instance. She’s developing something with them.
NvdB: That’s fantastic work.
OGT: Yes, they understood each other right from the start and found a level where they could do something interesting – and it’s so simple, it doesn’t have to be complicated. That’s the other thing. You could look at this work and think it’s a big concept, but actually her process is very simple. It’s not complicated at all. And I think what we need to do going forward is to try to find more people who have the patience or the time or the interest, the love for what they do, in the same way she does. Keep her away from the heavily commercial stuff. Make sure that what she does for magazines is strong, time and time again, just keep on collaborating with like-minded people. At the same time I feel there’s always a period of time when fashion photographers are used and then art photographers are used in fashion. I’ve seen it happen twice. Fashion looks to art and art looks to fashion, so people like Ryan Mcginley, Roe Ethridge, Alex Präger… all these guys doing ‘artwork in fashion’. What we are trying to do is make sure that she is not commissioned by the fashion world just because she’s considered to be ‘an artist’. She has her own very strong fashion language, so we try to run those two things separately. Although they talk to each other – the two sides of what she does – we try to run them quite differently. Each has its own life, and one shouldn’t depend on the success of the other. We do use that success, of course, but we’re trying not to. She doesn’t want to be – and I don’t want her to be – some sort of ‘artist shooting fashion’. But you can see what we do: we think about her, about people’s perceptions of her, we think about the quality of what she’s doing, we make sure it’s always 100% for her. We’re just trying to support her in her process. And it’s easier with her because she knows what she wants.