The Photographer’s Gallery presents the works of two iconic fashion photographers, Edward Steichen (1879-1973), the man whom Vanity Fair called “the greatest living portrait photographer” and award winning photographer Viviane Sassen, born in 1972.
At first the idea of combining these two artists’ works in one exhibition sounded a bit odd, given the fact that a good decade separates them.
Starting off with Viviane Sassen, who exhibits her work with the focus on fashion photography for the first time in London, taking a multi media approach. Shown on two large walls in form of video feeds, the scrolled images (about 350) which include her work for award winning campaigns, luxury brands, and magazines, transfer through the space by use of mirrors and projectors.
Analemma, the name of this exhibition, refers to an astronomical term pointing out an eight-shaped curve which maps the position of the sun in relation to time and symbolises the seasonal flow of fashion. It is moreover realised in the artist’s photographic aesthetic; she creates geometric and abstract shapes using the human body and placing it against the light, introducing a strong contrast. Most of her photographs are taken in nature. Although perfectly composed, there is an organic feeling to each of them. But above all, there is colour – bold, vibrant, screaming – resulting in images that capture the energy of nature, of the moment, and of the artist (who is strongly influenced by her childhood spent in Kenya) herself.
“For me, fashion is one big playground, a place to experiment. But I have always had this love/hate thing with it.”
Altogether, this dynamic display accurately communicates the essence of Sassen’s work, which is experimental and unconventional, and therefore killing off all preconception of what fashion photography is – or rather what it’s perceived as. By drawing our gaze away from the model’s face, focusing more on shapes and the body as a sculpture; moreover using garments as props and diverting our attention away from the main product that is being advertised, Sassen exceeds our expectations of the fashion world.
Leaving on that note, the viewer is led to the next floor, the Edward Steichen exhibition, which presents his body of work during the Conde Nast years 1923-1937.
On display is his American prints collection featuring noted artists and celebrities of the time, ad campaigns, and a selection of rare copies of Vogue and Vanity Fair presenting Steichen’s photographs in their original context. As a whole, this exhibition conveys Steichen’s role as an advocate of Photography, redefining it both as an art form as well as a means of mass communication. His photographs not only capture a period in history and define the culture of his time, but more than that, they show how the artist transformed the Fashion Photography world with his innovative approach.
Steichen incorporated the clean geometric style of art nouveau and played with sharpened focus, dramatic lighting, and stark contrast, resulting in bold compositions that have an almost cinematic feeling to them and create a characteristic art deco style. The artist understood that in order to get his work into the world, to communicate to the masses and have an impact, he needed to make photographs that could go on the printed page – this is when Steichen embraced the idea of shooting famous people and with that he marked the birth of celebrity and paved the way for celebs in ad campaigns.
What connects the two exhibitions and the work of these two photographers is that they are tearing down the confined barriers built by the restrictive forms and guidelines of the fashion industry. Both Steichen and Sassen share similarities in their use of form, texture, light, and contrast and their works have a significant affect on the aesthetics and expectations around the fashion image.
Finally, both their works challenge us, the viewer and consumer. We are left to wonder: What is Fashion Photography in a world less about fashion but all about celebrities and lifestyle, where advertisers love you when you can tell a story. In a world of photoshop and recreated, saturated images, what really is originality and moreover, is Fashion Photography (still) a form of art?
Edward Steichen and Viviane Sassen are at the Photographer’s Gallery until 18th January 2015. For more information on Edward Steichen In High Fashion, The Condé Nast Years 1923 – 1937 go to thephotographersgallery.org.uk/edward-steichen-in-high-fashion-the-cond-nast-years-1923-1937. For more information on Viviane Sassen Analemma: Fashion Photography 1992 – 2012 go to thephotographersgallery.org.uk/vivianne-sassen-3.