Bright Star: Charlotte Cotton on Viviane Sassen

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Viviane Sassen, Untitled, Carven, Spring/Summer, 2012. © Viviane Sassen. Courtesy of the artist and The Photographers’ Gallery

Fashion photography is the most mercurial genre of photography. Within each era of its hundred-year history, a mere handful of image-makers have truly informed and expanded fashion photography’s lexicon. They are the timely visualisers of a cluster of militating factors within their epoch that give cultural meaning to fashion. The capacity to breathe new relevance and photographic visual charge into fashion is not a precise science but more a sentient dynamic of capturing collective desires and creative consciousness that represent a moment in time. We invariably get the fashion imagery that we culturally deserve, for better or for worse. Throughout the history of the genre there have been characters who have been dominant for more than a decade (which equates to many lifetimes in the evolution of fashion) through ambitiously controlling methods and mindsets. But equally necessary to the lifeblood of fashion image-making are the dazzling stars that brightly illuminate the possibilities of the genre. Their experimental proposals often mark the end of periods of conservatism in fashion photography and, in their wake, what have become over-rehearsed formulas and stifling conventions become transparent and then redundant. In a matter of a season, an innovator of image-making can reset the course of the fascinating and pervasive genre of fashion photography.

Viviane Sassen’s daring and idiosyncratic approach to fashion photography is creating just such an axis shift in the genre. Her images are complex, unexpected and breathtaking, and they are many conceptual leaps away from the mainstay approaches to fashion that have dominated the 21st century so far. What emerges most strongly from surveying the sequence of images in this book is the substantive and convincing way in which she renders her own vision and that it acts as an alternative to the dominant and current paradigm for fashion. We are just beginning to analyse the dynamic of fashion photography since 9/11 and in these turbulent final stages of late capitalism. What is generally understood is that the 2000s were a consciously and systematically conservatising and self-referencing phase of fashion image-making, perhaps logically obsessed with attempting to normalise consumerism and prompt desires through old ideas of glamour and celebrity. This phase of extreme entrenchment within fashion photography is one of the militating factors that enable us to recognise Sassen’s vision for fashion as both timely and incendiary.

The core of the magic of Sassen’s fashion imagery is her deep understanding and constantly experimental use of the way in which photography both asserts and transforms its subjects. To a significant degree, Sassen is a master of unreconstructed modernist formalist photographic devices. You feel this in her interplays of two- and three-dimensional pictorial space within an image and her playful utilisation of photography’s wonderful inability to efficiently record scale or simulate human vision. In her hands, photography is the tool of intelligent, gorgeous subversion. Every image in this book is an exercise in photographic experimentation. It feels as if each aspect of a picture and its subjects is consciously put out of (conventional) kilter and it is only on the final printed page that the internal logic of her version of photography is fully and perfectly realised. Sassen’s models contort themselves far beyond the polite and traditional gestures of contemporary fashion photography. They appear as wild and strange performers of the semblances of primal rituals. They evade becoming obvious objects of acquisitive desire, by completely ignoring us in their self-consumed acting out of deep and spirited emotions. Any trace of bourgeois affectation is covered up with masks, coloured gels and heavy blocks of coloured stage make-up, and the models become symbols and props no different from the fashion itself within Sassen’s images. In these hyperreal visions, nothing is functioning normally, nothing is what it appears to be.

The vantage points of Sassen’s camera are always, somehow, optically surprising and complicated, and constantly iterate the ‘smoke and mirrors’ magic of photography. Sassen’s trademark strategies include making her ostensible subjects oscillate between being read as three-dimensional physical forms and graphic gestures. She repeatedly makes figures become two-dimensional patterns by obscuring them with heavy shadows, adorning them in fashion that reads as flat blocks of colour in a still image, and surrounding her models with dense patterns and geometries. Mirror reflections confuse our sense of where the subject is in relation to our gaze, and we are often placed above or behind the focus of these photographs. Similarly, Sassen lays out her images for the printed page without much respect for the original orientation of the camera capture – images are moved onto their sides or upside down, adding yet another formal device that knocks the gravity of conventionalism out of play.

Nothing in Sassen’s fashion photographs makes any sense except in our act of looking. She makes a proposal to us that we are the participants rather than mere viewers of her visions and we are conscious of them as constructs. She gives us a direct relationship with the photographic and not the fashionable. Her photographs are not obviously illustrations of fashion per se, nor do they illustrate a plausible narrative for the aspirational lifestyles in which fashion’s products function; this is not the nature of Sassen’s coercion. Instead, all of the elements of her fashion images – the models, location, technical choices, the production values of the printed page, and the fashion – are in the service of photography. In this respect, Sassen recalls with brilliant timeliness the power of photography to make us desire the image and its creative space far and beyond our desire for the literal fashion product of a given season. As we have seen at other times in the history of fashion photography, including the early 1970s and again in the early 1990s, the most audacious innovations in the genre have the greatest impact when they stand in contrast to a conservative norm. Sassen provides us with the necessary and regenerative stark relief for contemporary fashion image-making; she is its bright star.

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