Black + White Photography, UK, 2012

by Max Houghton
The Art of Fashion

Taking haute couture fashion as her starting point, Cathleen Naundorf creates exquisite narratives that go beyond their subject into storytelling. The resulting images enter the world of fine art.

Max Houghton reports

My favourite photograph by Cathleen Naundorf carries the evocative title The Evolution of Fashion. Shot in the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, a sumptuously-dressed woman strikes a swan-like pose, as though an artefact herself in the Gallery of Anatomy. Behind her, and to one side, slightly out of focus, are skeletons following the evolutionary process from squatting beast to striding man – or woman. Some are held captive, behind glass; others are separated by a mere rope from the exquisite feminine form, lending their crouching presence a sinister and uncanny air. To play with this theme for a moment… should these skeletal creatures come to life one bewitched hour before dawn at the museum, this adorned woman would be rendered helpless, unable to run away, killed, even, but not by the marching cadavers. Her restricted body, trussed up and hemmed in for beauty’s sake, would meet its death at the hands of haute couture. She would, of course, make a beautiful corpse.

The dress, weighing 16 kilograms, was created by John Galliano for Dior, and is the epitome of haute couture, fashion’s ultimate expression. To qualify for this tag of luxury, a couture garment must be entirely handmade by one of only eleven registered couture houses. Although it is estimated that only 4,000 women worldwide buy couture, it is used as fantasy fuel for consumers, who might feel that the brand, named through a mass produced lipstick or handbag, carries the same connotation of unbridled glamour. What I love about this photograph is that it seems to suggest that fashion in one sense has not evolved since the Belle Epoque, when the S-bend corset shrank women’s waists, thrust back their hips and made a mono-bosom of their chests…all of which made it impossible to even dress oneself, never mind walk unaided (this model is wearing 19cm heels).

But this is my interpretation. For Naundorf, as graceful herself as her photographs might suggest, this image is simply a ‘provocation’, a word, along with ‘elegance’, that peppers her fast-moving conversation.

‘Of course it is not a critique,’ she says, on the phone from her Paris studio. ‘I have been working in haute couture for seven years. I am close to some of the designers, and I respect the people who make these dresses, and I appreciate their work. The same families have been embroidering since the age of Napoleon. These crafts are very important to our culture. I think haute couture is the last possibility for creative liberty; look at the work of Philip Treacy, that kind of beautiful craziness, it’s so experimental. I see the pieces I have photographed as art, not as part of a fashion catalogue.’

So when fine art photography meets haute couture, sparks should fly. Cathleen Naundorf is that firestarter. Although the photographer delights in the sartorial creations – works of art in themselves – she is not satisfied with merely capturing their beauty on film. She brings her own artist’s sensibility to the dress, to the model, to the moment, and immediately begins to create a narrative. Working with Polaroid to create works of art as unique as the subject matter, her black & white work follows a lineage from her mentor Horst P Horst through Avedon and Newton. It was Horst who taught her a crucial lesson: never crop afterwards. She harnesses the power of natural light to sculpt the faces and torsos of her models in the manner of Renaissance painters. Despite her attention to detail, it is in fact the integral imperfection of Polaroid that attracts Naundorf; the knowledge that it’s an original every time. Her colour work, often utilising a Polaroid transfer method, is much more layered and ethereal, and possesses, as it should, a totally different aesthetic to her monochrome images. Naundorf is almost superstitiously taciturn on the subject of her archive of traditional materials: its size and location remain a mystery.

There is an edge to Naundorf’s idea of beauty, a darkness straight from the most compelling fairytale. It’s not Gothic – that would be too easy – instead, it’s a highly original take on a world that some dismiss as conspicuous consumption. Look, for instance, to the sculptural Mimi-San, with its homage to Japanese shadow play and Samurai warriors, the better to show off the Dior dress. The drama of this image comes from its simplicity, made all the starker by use of a white background. La Parisienne is another ‘provocation’, mixing the stereotype of the very sophisticated Parisian woman, who walks the Seine with her little dog each morning, with a much racier depiction of French sexuality.

Her long-standing collaboration with the biggest French fashion houses means that Naundorf knows the designers personally, and has earned the great privilege of being able to select a dress from a specific archive, and have it brought to wherever she is working. She also works with only a few models, and once she finds the right one sticks with her. The same model – a young Russian called Julia – appears frequently in the pictures printed on these pages, yet, fascinatingly, never looks the same twice.

Says Naundorf: ‘I have long relations with people. A good model, like Julia, is also an actress. She knows exactly what I want; which is why we have worked together for five years. I am drawn to beauty, but not just simple beauty. I look for la classe, for elegance, mystery, not empty beauty. It’s a question of translation, to draw out charisma, aura, people’s personality. I am fascinated by that challenge and it has touched me always. I am influenced too by the beauty of the natural: flowers, swans, horses. I am not interested in ‘the perfect body’. My models are not really beautiful; they are chosen for their character and the way they move.’

The results she elicits from the models is borne of her collaborative working methods. She will ask her models to watch Fellini films, or to study the spirit of Nouvelle Vague in order to get the look she desires. Naundorf cites the fashion icon Daphne Guinness as someone she would love to photograph in the future. A collaboration between the two women would indeed be explosive. I can imagine a portrait of Guinness reclining in an art deco armchair, profile tilted away from the camera, invoking the memorable portrait of Coco Chanel by Horst. Though Guinness is more muse than designer, she epitomises couture today in the same way Chanel did almost a century ago.

Yet fashion is not the whole story. Naundorf has travelled widely, to the Gobi Desert, Mongolia and Siberia, where she has photographed the people who live there, and makes no distinction between the beauty of their form, and those of Western models. She says she will never leave fashion, and with the publication of her Polaroid collection in book form later this year, and her solo exhibition at the prestigious Hamiltons gallery in London, Naundorf looks set for a long and successful career.

Her engagement with narrative will no doubt flourish in her work. The ancient art of storytelling comes naturally to naundorf, as is evident in many of the titles of her photographs. A mirrored image of a Chanel creation is named simply The Soul. The garment, somewhere between a coat and a dress, is a highly complex structure, of delicate fronds of white fabric enrobing and thus animating the human body in its endless concentric tiers. How fitting, then, that Cathleen Naundorf should have described the photographer’s art thus:
‘A photographer always photographs herself; she is always expressing her soul.’

EXHIBITION AND BOOK Cathleen Naundorf’s work is showing at Hamiltons, 13 Carlos Place, London W1K 2EU; 020 7499 9493/4 until 31 March Haute Couture: The Polaroids of Cathleen Naundorf is published in May by Prestel at £40; ISBN 978 3791351551