Into the shadows: Edward Steichen and Viviane Sassen’s fashion photography as art

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Edward Steichen, Actress Mary Heberden, Vogue, 1935

When Edward Steichen started shooting forVogue, in the more carefree years between the wars, he took it upon himself to reinvent the very idea of fashion photography. Constantly wondering what sort of images might be created with only a model in a studio, his experiments whisked the form away from its traditional kingdom of luxury and towards art. People are flattened and teased asunder inside his camera: bodies and clothes are dropped into his minimal sets, bathed in his artificial lighting setups, and arranged into monotone compositions.

Most importantly, he opened up all sorts of new perspectives on the body, shooting it from unusual angles – he was an aerial photographer during the war – and often fragmenting it through the use of harsh lighting, shadows, or mirrors. Since then, of course, contemporary fashion photographers have stretched the body even further. Steichen’s experiments have been taken up by the likes of German fashion photographer Daniel Sannwald, who plays with bodies as objects, even three-dimensionally scanning his models and melting their avatars apart with his computer. Watch what he does, for instance, in his video for John Legend’s Made To Love.

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Edward Steichen, Models Mary Taylor in a chiffon gown and Anne Whitehead in a moiré dress; mirrored stairway designed by Diego de Suarez, 1934

Now consider Steichen’s image above of models Mary Taylor in a chiffon gown and Anne Whitehead in a moiré dress. It was taken for Vogue in 1934 and veers wildly between a society portrait and an abstract painting. Noticeably, it looks like Marcel Duchamp’s notorious Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, which was exhibited in New York in 1913, and indeed Steichen knew the French conceptualist as he had taken his portrait in 1917. Its mirrored stairwell with its broken bodies and imaginary spaces also recalls one of my favourite shoots that appeared, many years after, in British Vogue in 2004. Shot by Nick Knight and titled Technonature, it reflects supermodel Gemma Ward towards infinity in a dreamy mirror-world.

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Nick Knight, Technonature, Vogue, 2004

A clever use of mirrors, of course, is just one of many ways in which Edward Steichen’s work overlaps with Viviane Sassen’s. Occasionally, she’ll carry them out into the wilderness and shoot her models through a looking glass, as well as using mirroring techniques at the post-production stage of her projects. The two photographers share a lot of similarities in their work and also in their lives. Both were brought up abroad: Steichen was born in Luxembourg in 1879 and brought up in the US; Sassen was born in the Netherlands in 1972 and brought up in Kenya, opposite the polio clinic where her father worked as a doctor. As a youngster many of her neighbours were unfortunate children stricken with polio. These were her friends and they would play together. “I was fascinated by their shapes, which I wasn’t able to imitate with my own body,” she once said. “I didn’t even realize they were ill, we were simply having fun.” Often her photographic compositions appear to echo these children’s deformities, in the way she stretches out her models’ otherwise perfect bodies and twists them into the oddest forms.

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Viviane Sassen, Moon Rocks, POP magazine, 2012

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Edward Steichen, Model posing for Beauty Primer on hand and nail care, 1934

Just as Steichen would have his sitters contort themselves into poses and, in the example of the the image above, twist her fingers over her face like a mask, so will Sassen decapitate her subjects with close crops, or thick shadows, or tight angles. Alternatively she’ll add another head, shooting two figures from a strange angle to make an alluring model-hydra. Her images make fetishes of unusual body parts, and the unexpected silhouettes she creates are echoed throughout contemporary fashion. Think of Thom Browne’s oversized hunchbacks in New York, or J.W. Anderson’s free-floating shapes in London, or Comme des Garçons’ oversized, malformed, candy-coloured confections in Paris.

Also the way in which Viviane Sassen sometimes paints her models – for instance, lime green – has often been played with on the runway, most notably in the vivid Autumn/Winter 12 show of designers Meadham Kirchhoff in London. Her use of very bright colours and, especially, her transformation of her subjects into living sculptural assemblages has also been taken into new territories by photographers such as Lorenzo Vitturi, who has just closed his solo show at The Photographers’ Gallery. After printing out a portrait he’s taken on the street, Vitturi will heap on colourful mounds of pigment and photographs it again to make a new image.

Neither Steichen nor Sassen started out as fashion photographers. He was a painter of gloomy landscapes and an acclaimed photographer of portraits prior to joining Condé Nast, and she was educated in clothing design and had herself worked as a model before working as a photographer for magazines such as POP, Purple and Dazed. Indeed, she still works on photography projects of her own – without any fashion angle – and was exhibited in the Central Pavilion of the Giardini at last year’s Venice Biennale, which is a luxury afforded to very few fashion photographers.

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Edward Steichen, Actress Gloria Swanson, Vanity Fair, 1924

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Viviane Sassen, Kinga Rajzak for POP magazine, 2012

Compare the two photos above. While Steichen has laid a pattern upon his model’s face using fine black lace, Sassen has drawn one on with light. Rather than exalting the model, both are subsuming her into their own arrangements of light and shadow, and trying out new forms. They’re making their own artworks, and this is especially apparent in Sassen’s work. One photograph shows a girl holding a Louis Vuitton holdall made in collaboration with Yayoi Kusama – that mad Japanese painter of pumpkins and polka dots – so Sassen has her assistant leaning into frame and daubing extra dots onto the model’s exposed breast. Another photograph shows a Céline sweater with a primitive Picasso-face motif, however, rather than celebrating that, she obscures it through a translucent jacket, collages in a couple of colourful extra arms and conjures up a horror-movie monster of her own imagination.

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Viviane Sassen for POP magazine, 2013

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Edward Steichen for Vogue, 1930

While Viviane Sassen approaches a fashion shoot as if it were a sculpture or a performance, Edward Steichen was more preoccupied with making a painterly composition of light and shadow. Both strategies, though, continue to blur the boundaries put up between fashion and art. Following in their footsteps, treading this careful balance between glamour and aesthetics, between money and expression, is surely the most important role of the fashion photographer today.

Dean Kissick

@deankissick

The exhibitions Edward Steichen: In High Fashion and Viviane Sassen: Analemma open at The Photographers’ Gallery on Friday 31 October 2014. £4.50/ £3.50 Conc. Free Admission Mon – Fri, 10.00 – 12.00. Further info and images here.

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