A model tired of being photographed in the usual clichéd poses, Viviane Sassen knew she could create something better. Now her stunning images are used by some of the world’s top fashion labels
The girl stands in a field of candy pink tulips. Her arms flip back above her head and, thrown up into an organic shape like a cuttlefish’s fins, her bright yellow pleated skirt obscures her face, leaving just a halo of pale blonde hair.
Another image is even more surreal. At first glance, it resembles the rippled surface of water, but on closer inspection one can identify a mirror propped up in a grassy field, which disjointedly reflects the heads and elbows of the people that surround it.
The former picture, In Bloom, was taken as part of a fashion story for hipster magazine Dazed & Confused and the latter, Foreplay, is from a series of pictures that were captured just before a shoot. They are both by 41-year-old Dutch photographer Viviane Sassen, and will be shown at In and Out of Fashion – a retrospective of her work at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, which runs from today until 9 February, 2014.
As part of the gallery’s commitment to show contemporary international photography, this exhibition will feature images from the Viviane Sassen: In and Out of Fashion book, published by Prestel last year, 200 or so of which will be projected on to an installation in the centre of the room. Others will hang in a more traditional manner, and there will be vitrines containing Sassen’s sketches and ideas.
In 2007, Amsterdam-based Sassen was awarded the Prix de Rome – the Dutch equivalent of the Turner Prize – for her series of striking photographs taken in Africa. However, this show, which arrives direct from Amsterdam’s Huis Marseillin Museum, will be focusing purely on her fashion portfolio from 1995 onwards.
“I’m managing two careers – art and fashion,” says Sassen, talking to me from her Amsterdam studio. “The artwork is done in Africa, and my fashion is shot throughout Europe. I keep the two practices separate. Of course, they do feed from each other and for a long time I have financed my personal work with my fashion jobs.”
Indeed, over the last decade or so, Sassen, who cites the work of photographers Man Ray, Paul Graham and Wolfgang Tillmans as inspiration, has created the campaign images for some major international fashion labels, from M Missoni, to Stella McCartney, Carven, Miu Miu and Louis Vuitton, some of which will be shown as part of the exhibition. As her style of work is rather avant garde, you wonder if she has to temper those leanings in order to keep these big brands happy.
“That’s the skill,” she explains. “I don’t mind working for a commercial client because I like to solve the puzzle for them, and there’s always a puzzle that you have to solve. You have to make the product look good and amazing, and that’s part of the fun.”
Have they ever complained that the resulting pictures are too “arty”?
“Sometimes, but most of the time it’s a collaboration between us. The clients pick me because they are interested in my vision,” she says.
The resulting shots include dynamic-looking images for French fashion house Carven with a pair of models in sweetie-coloured dresses appearing to merge like Siamese twins. Her photographs for another client, Miu Miu, manage to sell some rather lovely handbags while depicting a young girl with what seems to be a disembodied arm holding her hand, or stroking the expensive calf leather.
Sassen’s images are certainly more sophisticated than the hyper-sexualised and rather anodyne adverts that we’re usually bombarded with. However, it’s natural that this artist would rebel against the traditional aesthetic, as she took up photography after a stint as a model, when she found herself posing in the usual clichéd manner.
“At some point I was sick and tired of the male gaze,” explains Sassen. “I found that photographers would picture me and other women in a not-so-interesting way. It was one-dimensional, so I wanted to experiment with different ways of showing the nude female body.”
The fact that Sassen sees each shoot as a democratic collaboration, in which the models, stylists and make-up artists work as part of a team, means that she’s less likely to objectify her subjects. Sometimes, as with the Foreplay series, the lines are blurred between those who are on set in order to work behind the scenes and those who’re there to be photographed.
“Foreplay happened because I’m always very impatient, I always want to start shooting right away, but of course hair and make-up needs to be fixed or the stylists need to sort something on the clothes,” she says. “So when people were still working on the girl, I started taking pictures. Those moments in-between, that’s when the real shooting happened”.
The exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery will also include a series of photographs, Nudes: a Journey, in which the female body is photographed almost as if it were a piece of sculpture. These include Mimi, in which a girl sits on a beach towel thrown over black earth, pulling a striped towel over her head, with the shadow of Sassen layered over the top. Colours are saturated, and bold pattern contrasts with glossy pink skin. As with most of Sassen’s enigmatic shots, faces aren’t part of the frame. As she explains: “That would tell you straight away how to read the image. If you don’t see the face, there’s much more mystery.”
However, it’s a slightly different story when it comes to the intimate portraits of Sassen’s French stylist “model and muse,” Roxane Danset.
“I don’t know why, her face is just very intriguing to me, as it can tell many different stories. Sometimes if you shoot a very young girl, there’s not that much life experience, and I like to make pictures that intrigue or surprise me,” she says. “I’ve photographed Roxane a few times over a few years as a collaboration between us. I find her personality super intriguing and she looks very amazing, like a movie star from the Twenties. She’s an interesting, strong character.”
The Nudes: a Journey series also features some early pictures that Sassen took with stylist and collaborator Emmeline de Mooij in the 1990s for independent fashion magazines Purple and Kutt. It’s clear that even at the beginning of her career, Sassen had a well developed aesthetic. So, how has her work changed since?
“I think it has just grown more professional,” she says. “I’ve become more experienced because I don’t have that anxiety anymore before a shoot. At some point you realise that you can trust your own instincts and your own intuition. I think that’s the biggest advantage of growing older”.
• Viviane Sassen: In and Out of Fashion is at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (1 Queen Street, Edinburgh, 0131-624 6200, nationalgalleries.org) until 9 February. Admission free.