Cool & Noteworthy 2012: Viviane Sassen’s fashion work gets the acclaim it deserves

Viviane Sassen studied fashion design for two years before she got into image-making, and worked as a model for designers such as Viktor & Rolf while studying photography in the mid-1990s at the Hogeschool voor de Kunsten Utrecht, Netherlands.

In and Out of Fashion, the three-month show at Huis Marseille Museum for Photography (15 December 2012 – 17 March 2013) in her hometown of Amsterdam, is accompanied by a book of the same title, published by Prestel. While Sassen is very happy about it, she’s also a little wary of the attention, arguing that fashion photography is a particular genre with its own language and economy, and that putting it into a museum can sometimes be a mistake. 

“I find exhibitions of fashion photography within the context of a museum rather problematic,” she says. “Most fashion images aren’t art, they’re fashion photographs, which is fine, but if you put them in a museum, enlarged and in a frame, they become something else. They aren’t meant to be that way. Art photography doesn’t have to serve any purpose, fashion photography does, and that makes a difference. It’s a kind of puzzle that has to be solved. 

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For Double magazine. Image © Viviane Sassen.

“There are people who work with fashion in very interesting ways – I like Juergen Teller a lot, for example, and Guy Bourdin really pulled it off in the early years. There are images which are really between art and fashion, which I hope I do myself. But it’s very different. I chose different ways to show the work [at the Huis Marseille] – most of the images are shown in a projection on the walls, which still has this kind of disposable feel.”

As she points out, fashion and art photography also require different approaches. For her fine art, she works with film on a Mamiya 6×7 and usually travels to Africa with just one other person – often her husband – while in fashion she works with a large team, and usually shoots in digital. “They are separate worlds, so different from each other,” she says. “But I love them both – I love the group dynamic [in fashion] and collaborating with other people.”

Even so, she’s happy to concede that there are many similarities between her fashion and art photography, “mostly in the formal aspects of the work”. Her fashion imagery has a distinctive visual signature; a creative freedom of expression she’s worked hard to carve out for herself. She worked for years on small, innovative titles that gave her creative space – small Dutch magazines such as RE-Magazine, Butt and Kutt (all founded by Jop van Bennekom and Gert Jonkers, who have gone on to find critical acclaim with Fantastic Man and The Gentlewoman) – plus independent international titles such as Purple and Self-Service.  These days, if she takes on a commission, it’s with brands such as Carven, where she works directly with the “inspirational” designer Guillaume Henry. “It took me quite a long time, but I took the time to develop my style,” says the 40-year-old.

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For Numéro magazine. Image © Viviane Sassen.

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For Numéro magazine. Image © Viviane Sassen.

In an interview published by Huis Marseille, her agent Olivia Gideon Thomson at We Folk says: “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, [her visual language] will 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.”

For example, she often obscures her subjects’ faces. Sassen says she’s not sure why she does it, she just finds the images more intriguing that way. She’s also suggested that doing so takes the emphasis off the individual models, allowing their bodies to become more archetypal, or even sculptural, in the overall image. When the Aperture Foundation invited her to respond to one of its publications recently, she picked out Edward Weston’s Nudes because of his similarly sculptural approach. “I sometimes say I’m more like a sculptor than a photographer,” she says. “I’m just joking, but there’s some truth in it.”

In fact, Sassen includes a lot of nudes in her fashion stories, and considers this work much closer to her artwork, so she’s happy to present these images in frames at the Huis Marseille show and is devoting a whole room to them. Some of them are erotically charged, but despite this, and the fact that they also tend to obscure the models’ faces, they feel fresh and sexy rather than objectifying. Sassen is unwilling to be drawn on whether this is down to her gender, but will say her own experience of modelling makes a difference. 

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For l’Empresse. Image © Viviane Sassen.

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For AnOther magazine. Image © Viviane Sassen.

She told Camera Littera that an early shoot for Purple was inspired by Helmut Newton and Araki, adding: “I was being photographed as a model by numerous male photographers who wanted to depict me as a sexual object. Maybe I had the feeling that I had to empower myself, to put something next to these male visions of women but still using their own visual language.

“I have an idea how the model might feel – I kind of click with her because I know how she might feel when I ask her to pose,” she says. “Being a model was not for me; I was miserable because I knew I wanted to be behind the camera, not in front of it. But later on I described myself in that period as a shy exhibitionist. It’s a weird contradiction but I think maybe there was something in it – my nudes also have this exhibitionist thing, but they’re also shy in that the models don’t show their faces.”

Sassen works closely with her models, often singling out a favoured few as she does with the magazines and brands she collaborates with. She’s worked closely with young Dutch star Anna de Rijk over the past couple of years, for example, and although de Rijk has featured in some pretty raunchy shoots, the 23-year-old says she always feels appreciated and included on set. “She’s so open to other people’s opinions,” de Rijk told Huis Marseille. “And she takes your opinion seriously.”

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For Kutt magazine. Image © Viviane Sassen.

In fact, Roxane Danset has served as both a model and a stylist for Sassen; as with her other partners, the photographer tends to work closely with a handful of stylists. Early on, she collaborated with a good friend, Emmeline de Mooij, for example; more recently she’s clicked with big names such as Vanessa Reid. “A good stylist brings something amazing to a picture that I couldn’t have thought of beforehand,” says Sassen. “I do a lot of fashion for Pop with Vanessa; we have this kind of energy that is really interesting.”

These collaborations mean Sassen has to get organised before a fashion shoot, seeking out interesting sets and sharing visual references. Even so, she prefers to keep shoots loose and intuitive, working out a few parameters, then seeing what happens on the day. She laughs that it’s difficult for more commercial brands and magazines to accept, particularly as she doesn’t like her images to look too perfect. “I don’t plan everything in advance – that makes things flat and dull,” she says. “For me the shoot feels like a kind of explosion.”

Visit www.vivianesassen.com.

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