Very few photographers can be credited with broadening the visual language of their medium. The conventional arena for fashion imagery is dominated by a handful of photographers who are asked again and again to capture the season’s defining images, but Viviane Sassen – though steadily becoming a household name – breaks this mould.
“No idea!”, exclaims Sassen when I ask her why she’s so in demand as a fashion photographer. “Maybe because I don’t care about what’s ‘in fashion.’ I don’t look at fashion photography any more. I simply do what I like. I guess that gives personality to my pictures. I’m in it for the photography. I truly love to take photographs and fashion photography has always been the perfect playground to experiment.”
For Umbra, a new show at the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam, Sassen seized the opportunity to try something new. “Other exhibitions are often about subjects outside of myself. And even though I view all of my work as a kind of self-portraiture, I hadn’t yet had the chance to examine my own shadow.”
Characteristic of Sassen’s imagery is the way she draws the viewer’s attention to form, colour and composition. Her models take on body-bending poses, contrasting colours and cleverly positioned mirrors allow her to play with two- and three-dimensionality, and shadows obscure the human form to create amorphous shapes that capture the imagination.
"Even though I view all of my work as a kind of self-portraiture, I hadn’t yet had the chance to examine my own shadow” — Viviane Sassen
“The shadow has always been a huge element of my work”, affirms Sassen, and it was while working on Umbra that she found time to ask herself why this is, and what it means. “I don’t feel that I’ve found the answer”, she says, “but the process has helped me to gain more insight into my own psyche. There are always shadows from the past, old fears, sorrow. I’ve shed new light on those – or should I say different nuances of shadow.”
Sassen achieved this new perspective by creating completely new work and showing it alongside archive images – but also via the exhibitions’ unique spatial presentation. Installations, videos, moving images, mirrors, light and audio all play a big role in the set-up. This focus on art rather than fashion photography was a welcome break from her busy schedule on the fashion photography circuit. Sassen’s extensive portfolio includes editorials for AnOther Magazine and Dazed & Confused, and this S/S14 season, she shot campaigns for Acne Studios, Hunter, Missoni and Carven. “I don’t shy away from that aesthetic”, she says, “which is not bon ton in art.” But she admits to being increasingly selective. “I still enjoy fashion photography, but I don’t get the same kick out of it as I do with creating art. To produce an interesting fashion campaign, you need a client with guts and vision. They are hard to come by.”
Sassen operates outside of the set of rules and parameters of fashion editorial and advertising. Her guts and vision are what make brands and museums alike come to her with commissions. Her job is to follow her intuition. “The experiment is a game. It’s not pre-meditated”, she explains. “The formal aspects of my work are just a reflection of the way I see the world, how my eyes are tuned to my brain. I love to create images that both seduce and confuse, and I hope others too will experience it as such.”
Umbra is at Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam until June 1.
Text by Siska Lyssens
Siska Lyssens is a London-based fashion journalist.