by Morag Bruce


Cathleen Naundorf eschews digital cameras in favour of large-format Polaroid film. Drawing inspiration from the great auteurs and mentor Horst, her photography is cinematic and complex, and reveals a great love for her subject – the finest haute couture / By Morag Bruce

“Where is the magic?” Photographer Cathleen Naundorf is questioning her industry’s slide into a digital world (she prefers shooting with large-format cameras and Polaroid or negative films). “I couldn’t work like that. It’s too fast and so many pictures. Why do we need so many?”

Good question. Like vinyl versus MP3s, analogue photography has a warmer atmosphere than digital, perhaps because it feels closer to the human experience. Its existence in the physical world is proof of an investment of time and care – every click must be considered, rather than relying on quantity to result in quality. Less really is more, because Naundorf ’s images of haute couture have magic in spades.

Naundorf was in born in Weissenfels, in what was then East Germany, and studied painting and photography in Munich. She now lives in Paris but, not unusually for someone with an eye for wonder, has travelled the world 10 times over. Here ALTO highlights her work in fashion, but Naundorf’s first paid gig was actually in travel reportage – in the Nineties, she was commissioned by several publishing houses to travel to destinations including Mongolia, Siberia, the Gobi Desert and the Upper Amazon to photograph indigenous peoples.

It was growing up with the restrictions of life behind the Iron Curtain that would encourage this curious nature. “We were in a kind of physical and psychological prison; travel was forbidden,” she says. “In 1985, with quite a bit of luck, I moved with my family over to West Germany and into freedom. A new world was open to me and I was hungry to discover the planet.”

In the Nineties, she met fashion photographer Horst P Horst, currently the subject of a major retrospective at the V&A, who became her mentor and friend, leading her towards fashion. From 1997, she was backstage at Paris fashion shows shooting for Condé Nast. For her aptly named series Un Rêve de Mode (2005-2011), couture houses including Chanel, Christian Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier, Valentino, Elie Saab, Christian Lacroix and Philip Treacy granted Naundorf special access to their archives for her elaborate and cinematic productions. This series was published as a book, The Polaroids of Cathleen Naundorf in 2012. Since 2011, she has worked privately with Valentino Garavani on several projects, including documenting his collaboration with the New York City Ballet. Naundorf currently has a show running at Los Angeles Gallery Fahey/Klein, while the Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York will mount a solo exhibition of her work next spring.

That her images are so effortlessly beautiful, despite complex productions, must be down to Naundorf ’s confidence in her instinct. “My parents bought me a little camera when I was 12 and my grandfather was my first subject,” she says. “After seeing my little prints, my parents asked me, ‘Why did you cut a bit of his head off?!’ I replied, ‘Because it looks more interesting.’

“I’ve always had pictures in my mind. When I was a kid, I was fascinated by the old Hollywood films. Later on, I became influenced by the Italian productions from Visconti, Fellini, De Sica or the big classics like Hitchcock and Fritz Lang. I call them photography films. The main constructs of these films are very similar to those of photography set-ups.”

Along with the strong visual techniques of these auteurs, her work is also woven with Horst’s influence. “He was an artist. His mastery of dramatic light is the difference between him and other photographers,” she says. “In his still-life photographs, you find classical elements sitting with an aspect of the Thirties such as the Bauhaus; old school and modernity.”

Naundorf ’s images have this combination, too, which results in their timelessness and, despite their fairytale mood, their tangibility. Which brings us back to the effect of working in analogue. “The virtual world is exhausting,” she says. “It has the ability to create hysteria and stress. When shooting in this way, there’s an assistant who downloads the images during the shoot, another has to archive them, then someone else immediately retouches. Where is the time to look with your eyes, to enjoy creative team work?”

While Naundorf has clear vision of the look she wants, this team is vital in building her intricate and other-worldly sets. “Preparations are quite quick but intense,” she says. “I begin by creating the full picture in my mind. I see an object or a gown and a story starts to play. Then I build storyboards and drawings with all the details. Details are vital. Pulling everything together can be a real adventure. We might be running around Paris to gather all kinds of props – it could be lobsters, it might be birds. But I like this kind of ‘stress’.” That’s a good thing, too, because this careful, considerate and hugely imaginative artist couldn’t work any other way.

Cathleen Naundorf ’s work is available at Hamiltons Gallery in London; Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles (where her Haute Couture show runs until 11 October); and Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York (where a solo exhibition begins in April 2015). See more at

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