While I’m interested in the cultural role of fashion photography, I have to admit that on an aesthetic (or, dare I say it, artistic) level it’s a genre I often struggle to get excited about. Despite this I was pleasantly surprised by Analemma, a new installation by the Dutch fashion photographer Vivian Sassen at The Photographers Gallery. I found the images in Analemma to be far from conventional examples of fashion photography, and to be a source of lots of interesting ideas about the genre and the industry it supports.
Not unlike the Lorenzo Vitturi show which appeared previously in the same space, Analemma is one of those rare shows where the installation deserves almost as much discussion as the photographs themselves, indeed the two are inseparable in this case. There isn’t a single physical photograph on display in the gallery, instead a rolling stream of projected images are bounced off mirrors and cast across the floor and walls at strange angles, cropping and distorting the photographs in the process. For all the disorientation it causes you as a viewer (and the frustration it causes for writers trying to identify single images to talk about) it’s a surprising and rather refreshing way for a photographer to treat their work.
More importantly it’s all in the cause of making a point about the frenetic pace of fashion and photography, the constant demand and turnover of ideas and images, and the essential disposability of it all. Viewing the projection is initially an elating experience because of the speed and glitz of it, but over a longer curve of time it starts to become rather deflating and tiring as image washes over image and the eye is overloaded. Whether this is intentional or not isn’t quite clear, but even if not it seems like a rather apt effect, as I imagine this feeling isn’t far off the experience had by many who are embedded in the fashion world itself.
Turning to the images themselves then. Sassen has built up an enormous reputation and a price tag to match for her photographs, which combine a number of motifs to strong effect, and I just want to quickly examine three of these here. The first motif or trope is the way she uses and frames the bodies of her models. Sassen’s images tend make use of unconventional, and frankly often uncomfortable looking contortions and poses, which result in many little visual riddles for the viewer to unpick. I enjoyed these very much, the array of tricks she employs is incredibly wide and there’s little repetition of the same ideas, a tough thing to achieve in any area but particularly so with something so extensively photographed as the human body.
Another trope in her photographs is the tendency to mask any sign of her models as individuals, for example by physically covering or photographically distorting their faces. This approach is pitched rather as a conscious strategy on Sassen’s part, intended to remove the potentially dangerous cult of celebrity from the fashion genre. She’s maybe successful in that regard, but the resulting images take the popular view of fashion models as little more than ‘human clothes hangars’ to a new level of truth. The models are literally that, models, not people, and there’s a level of depersonalisation here which at times verges on the fetishistic. I imagine this is part of the success of the images in a fashion context, but it is a little more complex in the setting the photographs now find themselves in, and a rather deeper examination of this than I have space for is demanded.
The final motif in Sassen’s images is the use of bright colours and shapes which she traces back to her upbringing in Kenya, somewhere she recalled in an interview as a place of ‘vivid colours and strong contrasts of light and dark’. It’s easy to see this visual influence in her use of shape and colour, but the influence of Africa runs deeper in her work than this, and there are traces of it evident in things like the selection of models and sets, and the way that these are dressed and lit (the photograph I’ve used to illustrate this piece was picked with that point in mind).
Sassen’s style of photography is enormously influential, so much so that some high street chains have attempted to copy her signature style, albeit rather less effectively. With this in mind I think it’s irresistibly tempting then to ask why it’s taken a Dutch photographer to popularise this sort of ‘African’ imagery in the fashion world when one imagines there are indigenous African photographers working with similar visual references. This question seems particularly pertinent given Sassen’s Dutch nationality, a country with quite some colonial history in Africa, and beyond. Viewing her work and mulling over these thoughts I couldn’t help but see something of a parallel with Vlisco fabric, a product which seems quintessentially ‘African’ but which is produced in Holland for lucrative export back to the continent (the thought of it was particularly strong because Vlisco was a key motif in the Lorenzo Vitturi show I mentioned earlier).
There’s something at work in these photographs, something which I think reflects the much larger practices of the fashion industry, and in capitalist consumerism more generally. That is the tendency to appropriate, homogenise and repackage aspects of a culture which are for whatever reason perceived as appealing, often with little respect for the culture itself or it’s custodians, but with a singular view to making money. Making this point this isn’t exactly to accuse Sassen herself of a sort of cultural appropriation, I think the connection she feels to Africa is most likely genuine, but I think it may be at least a small part of her success in this industry. Sassen’s work is very interesting, and this show comes highly recommended, but it also I think rather inadvertently highlights some of the difficulties of transplanting photographs primarily produced in the service of profit, and viewing them instead in the context of art.
Analemma: Fashion Photography 1992 – 2012 is on at The Photographers Gallery from 31 October 2014 – 18 January 2015