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Photographer Viviane Sassen on art, fashion and intuition

Photographer Viviane Sassen on art, fashion and intuition

July 08
13:29 2018

As a child, Viviane Sassen drew a lot. Whether in Kenya, where she lived aged two to five, or back in her hometown of Zutphen, in the Netherlands, the pictures always began the same way. “I would draw little figures with my black pen on white paper because that feels like the idea of a human being,” she says. “The concept of a human figure for me, in essence, is black, it’s not white.”

Sassen is now 45, and her figures — no longer drawn but photographed — have become famous not only in the world of fashion, where she works for brands such as Miu Miu and Stella McCartney, but in the art world too. A new solo exhibition — Hot Mirror, at the Hepworth Wakefield — concentrates on her art photography, but four years ago, her show at the Photographers’ Gallery in London, Analemma: Fashion Photography 1992-2012, crossed a boundary, exhibiting commercial fashion images in a gallery setting. She recalls that when she won the Dutch Prix de Rome in 2007 — praised by judges for breaking through a medium in “deadlock” — there was grumbling from other artists who thought it “just ridiculous” that someone with such a hybrid CV had won an art prize — “not just a photographer, but also a photographer who worked in fashion and commercial photography”.

Sassen’s studio, just off Prinsengracht, one of Amsterdam’s three central canals, does not appear to reflect a vivid imagination. The space is light, large and rather blank: the few prints on the walls were hung to gratify visiting trustees from Amsterdam’s Foam photography museum, and a large section of her bookcase is arranged with the spines facing inward — a curator recently asked Sassen to send a snap of her shelves for an exhibition on photo books, but she didn’t want to reveal the titles in her collection — “It’s quite personal,” she says. When we first meet, she is sending emails about a trip to Madagascar, eating a peeled carrot and drinking green tea (she has, she cheerfully apologises, no idea how to make the coffee she offers me). She is tall and blonde, affable and straightforward. Even without the slight accent, you would bet on her being Dutch.

‘Red Vlei’, from the series Umbra, 2014 © Viviane Sassen; Courtesy of Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa
‘Miró’, from the series Pikin Slee, 2013 © Viviane Sassen; Courtesy of Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa

It was Kenya, not Amsterdam, that set a light under Sassen. When she was two, her father moved the family to a remote village in the west of the country, where he worked as a doctor. The three years that Sassen spent at the local nursery would be, in retrospect, the most significant for her professional formation. Three decades on, the photographs she took on return trips to Kenya and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa — first published in Flamboya (2008) — established her as an art photographer. The series consists of vivid, elaborately staged shots of black Africans (not professional models, although she is drawn to the same qualities of youth and smooth-skinned slenderness that the industry favours) whose bodies are teased out into almost abstract shapes and often contrasted against brightly coloured backdrops.

These images have not been universally well received. In an essay for Aperture in 2015 (a good year for Sassen: she was nominated for the Deutsche Börse photography prize and had a solo exhibition at the ICA in London) the artist and writer Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa criticised her for reducing people from the African diaspora to “still lifes”. “Sassen’s photographs are characterised by the solubility of blackness into shadow, or by its vivid difference from garish color,” he writes. “[She] frames the black body as an object and not as an individual.”

Sassen is eager to respond to criticism of her work but can be vague in the way she does so. She says that, growing up in Holland at a time when the country had little in the way of post-colonial dialogue, she only became aware that her photography would be handled politically quite far into the making of it — in 2010, the year she joined the South African gallery Stevenson and had her first exhibition in New York. As Joost Bosland, a director at Stevenson who has worked with Sassen since she joined the gallery, puts it: “I think Viviane had been sheltered . . . In our part of the world those debates were had more vividly and productively — and, ultimately, a lot earlier.”

‘Axiom GB01’, from the series Umbra, 2014 © Viviane Sassen; Courtesy of Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa
‘Sterkwater’, 2018 © Viviane Sassen; Courtesy of Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa

Sassen says she has since familiarised herself with the “problematic and violent” history of colonial and post-colonial photography. “Over the years, I’ve become much, much more politically aware . . . I know that especially with the work I make in Africa it just comes with the topic — it’s part of the deal, and rightfully so,” she says. But she struggles to effectively counter the politically embedded reading of her work because she didn’t set out to make it with politics in mind. A few years ago, she decided that the only solution was to absent herself from the debate entirely by no longer photographing dark-skinned models — “because whatever I do and however I do it I will be criticised”. But she has since rowed back on this position — in part because she believes that “if you take some of the current criticism to its logical conclusion, we end up in a world where artists may only make self-portraits”.

Sassen argues that the depersonalisation that Wolukau-Wanambwa criticises in her images of African subjects is also a sort of “cherry picking” because all her photographs strive towards depersonalisation. She will obscure faces with shadows and angle bodies in configurations that don’t immediately scan as human because her goal is to extract “something that is not about the personal but more about the universal” from each shot. She says she feels comfortable extending this method to Africa because of her personal biography; “It’s not just something out of the blue,” she points out. “My childhood years in Africa were very formative in terms of colour and light and shadows, et cetera.” Does that childhood memory really make an intellectual difference? “I don’t know. Maybe it’s nonsense,” she says cautiously. “I always question these things.”

Viviane Sassen in her studio in Amsterdam, April 2018 © Hanneke van Leeuwen

Post-childhood, it is possible to pinpoint two pivotal moments in Sassen’s formation. The first was her father’s suicide. Sassen, who had studied fashion design at the Royal Academy in Arnhem and then switched to photography in Utrecht, was 22 at the time. She was working as a model, having learnt after a shaky start that “you can just flick a switch and become that other person who is just fearless and strong and beautiful and ****”. Then her father — suffering from chronic pain after brain surgery five years earlier — killed himself by jumping from a window. Pre-empting the age of constant self-documentation, Sassen used a timer to take a photo of herself with his body. Afterwards, she knew she couldn’t return to modelling: “I felt like an onion which had all these layers ripped off,” she recalls.

Sassen fixed her efforts on photography — a medium that allowed her to experiment with intimacy from a position of slight remove. She got an internship with Carli Hermès — a photographer specialising in hyper-glossy images — but found personal inspiration in photographers who “took pictures as if there were no masks involved”: people like Nan Goldin, Nobuyoshi Araki and even Terry Richardson. (Since the fashion industry blacklisted Richardson after repeated accusations of sexual assault on set, she has found herself questioning her early impression of his explicit work: “First [his images] felt kind of liberating and now they became grotesque,” she says.)

The second pivotal moment was a trip through parts of Africa in 2002 with her now-husband Hugo Timmermans, an industrial designer. Up to this point, Sassen had been mainly shooting for grungy and (then) underground youth-culture magazines, Purple, Dazed and i-D among them. But when she returned to the village in western Kenya where she’d lived as a child, a road map for a new way of taking photographs revealed itself to her. “It kind of clicked,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘Well I have all these vivid dreams at night, I wake up with images in my head, why not stage them?’”

It wasn’t a coincidence that the breakthrough happened during a return trip to her childhood home. “Children have this phase that’s described in psychology as magical thinking,” she says, referring to Jean Piaget’s theory of pre-logical cognisance in children aged roughly two to seven. “In a child’s mind [things] can become gigantic.” Sassen suspects that because she left Kenya aged five, she was able to retain a clear memory of a way of thinking that normally leaks away as we age. When she returned as an adult, she found she could tap back into a child’s vision of the world.

‘DNA’, from the series Flamboya, 2008 © Viviane Sassen; Courtesy of Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa
‘Ivy’, from the series Parasomnia, 2010 © Viviane Sassen; Courtesy of Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa

The resulting collections — Flamboya and Parasomnia (2011) — remain Sassen’s most widely recognised. Her manicured, slightly surreal images represented a hard break with the documentarian tradition favoured by European photographers shooting in Africa at the time.

“I felt like, I think I have something here that hasn’t really been done before,” she recalls, though she concedes that the South African photographer Pieter Hugo and the US-born photographer Jackie Nickerson made a similar and contemporaneous switch. “And now it’s everywhere. At least, I see it a lot on social media.”

The cover image for the Flamboya photo book shows a man standing on a beach with a small boy balanced on his head. Arched backward into a “C” shape, the boy’s body casts a crisp shadow down the man’s torso. On the cover of Parasomnia, a man floats face down in a milky body of water, arms outstretched as if preparing for a watery crucifixion. Between them, these photographs (both in the Hepworth show) condense Sassen’s visual vocabulary to its essentials. When I ask what selection of images she would choose to display as a summing-up — at her funeral, perhaps — she gives the following list of visual elements: bright blue sky; two people embracing; a very dark shadow; a reference to death.

It is ultimately a mood, not motifs, that yokes Sassen’s portfolio together: the desire to strip a person, or a thing, of all conventional connotations and rebuild it as something fantastical. She points out that she strives towards the same effect everywhere — even in her fashion shoots, where she uses clothes to evoke personal transformation.

Indeed, she worries that the conceptual similarity between the fashion and art images will risk the two worlds collapsing into a messy continuum. “People come to think that the art images are also fashion images, which they are not,” she says, when talking about her ongoing collaboration with Pharrell Williams on his Adidas Originals campaign — a commercial project that veers close to the type of images first seen in Flamboya.

In the studio © Hanneke Van Leeuwen
‘Háti’, from the series Pikin Slee, 2013 © Viviane Sassen; Courtesy of Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa

For Hot Mirror, Hepworth curators have made an explicit effort to frame Sassen’s photography as fine art. The exhibition has been organised so as to generate “image poems”: each photograph hangs next to neighbours that “rhyme” with it. So, “Belladonna” (2010), which shows a man half-suspended in a flowing white sheet, hangs next to “Book” (2014), whose breeze-blown pages echo the sheet’s furrows. The double-vision of “Marte 2” (2014), in which a woman’s legs are reflected in a mirror, is repeated in “Ivy” (2010) in which two children embrace around a big leaf.

In terms of method, Sassen’s approach is a mix of freewheeling spontaneity and exhaustive rigour. Among the things she says she pays little attention to is her striking use of colour: “It’s just something that I do which comes from my intuition,” she says. Her 2014 photo book Umbra, which deals with shadows, is one of the few collections of her work in which an overarching concept preceded experimentation. “I have a way of working which is very intuitive and I hardly think about things beforehand,” she explains.

Act first, rationalise later is a method that has freed Sassen up to work in a way that feels uninhibited. “A lot of students . . . they think and think and think and in the meantime they could have done a hundred pictures and learnt a lot more,” she says. If she was giving advice to young photographers working in politically sensitive situations today, what would she tell them? She says she wouldn’t advise anything (she doesn’t envy young photographers, because of the “overload” of information and opinions that the internet grants access to) but if she were to press reset on her own career, she knows what she’d choose: “If I would have to do it again, I would probably do it the same way . . . You can sit back and read all the books in the world, but then what have you experienced truly?”

“Viviane Sassen: Hot Mirror” is at the Hepworth, Wakefield, until October 7;

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