In Conversation with Cathleen Naundorf
Cathleen Naundorf’s long-term photography project, Un Rêve de Mode, features models posing with some of fashion’s most iconic garments. Collaborating with couture houses include Valentino, Christian Dior, Chanel, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Christian Lacroix, Elie Saab, Philip Treacy and Stephane Rolland, Naundorf was given access to their fashion archives, producing timeless images that reflect on classical painting and of modernist photography.
Naundorf began her career by photographing in a documentary manner. She captured diverse ethnic groups throughout her travels in Mongolia, Siberia, Malaysia, Gobi Desert and the Amazon, going as far as to photograph the Dalai Lama. After photographing backstage at fashion shows during Paris Fashion Week in the late ‘90s, it was not until her meeting with the iconic photographer Horst P. Horst that Naundorf transitioned to fashion photography, sparking a mentorship that led to the two speaking by telephone almost every day for years. Through her friendship with Horst, Naundorf was influenced by the master photographer’s interest in light, composition and shadow, and his ability to surpass the standardised fashion expectations in order to create timeless works of art.
Naundorf’s photographic images feature elaborate gowns, constructing a dreamlike environment to interpret their designs. She creates a cinematic quality within her portrayals, referencing the antiquated and the vintage. Naundorf uses large format cameras, Polaroids and negative films, with a play on fabrics and exotic props. Her photographs are often unique and hand-pressed, revealing the imperfections and inconsistencies of the chemical photographic process. It is a testament to the quality of her images that she was able to get such unprecedented access to major couture collections. Oftentimes creating sculpture-like representations of her sitters, Naundorf plays with ambiguous mythologies to evoke a unique sense of nostalgia of a bygone era.
Moon Man: Over the past two decades, you have worked alongside fashion’s most untouchable creators, ranging from the highest couturier houses in the world. To mention just a few, you have worked with Chanel, Dior, Gaultier, Valentino, Saab, Lacroix and Philip Treacy, where you have gained access to their most-treasured archives, with the creative control to document their work within your cinematic images. How did your project first begin, and how has it developed through the years?
Cathleen Naundorf: I was never planning to do a book about haute couture. In 2004, I started to work with large format cameras and Polaroids. I liked to play with material, the camera and the lighting for my own pleasure. So I asked Jean-Paul Gaultier in Paris if he could lend me one of his haute couture dresses for my private project. I showed him three Polaroids that I recently shot and I was quite nervous waiting for his answer. There was a silence and I was thinking that they would throw me right away on the street, but instead, I got an answer: “There is something interesting in your Polaroids. We will open the haute couture archives to you, do what you want, whenever you want.” The project started like this.
I shot for years for Jean-Paul Gaultier, I couldn’t stop. It was amazing to see all those collections hanging together. Next was Christian Lacroix, and after I photographed the collections of Elie Saab. Philip [Treacy] is a friend of mine, I did it a long while ago already, followed by Valentino and in the end, Dior and Chanel proposed to me to use their entire archive. It was a dream, and I knew it was my chance in fashion. I concentrated on those fashion houses and studied their history, the petit main [the backstage worker] of each haute couture house. It was enormous, a lot of hard work, but I was happy. I created sets, did drawings of each shot and communicated it with the designers. I am very precise; every detail is important in a setting. But the designers understood me and left me the freedom to work with their collections because we spoke the same language. After seven years of shooting it was the time to publish the 150 settings. Still, a lot of photographs never saw light. I could do one or two books more with all the material. 2012 was a big year. Finally, we all saw the work, and it as a huge success in New York and France.
You first met the legendary photographer Horst P. Horst in New York in the 1990s, which spawned a long-term mentorship and friendship that has inspired the direction of your work. It is truly amazing to consider that you initially reached out to him by locating his contact details in a phonebook and then… well… phoning him! How were the early days of relocating to New York, and was initially inspired and advised by Horst, changing your main focus from documentary photography to staged fashion? What are some of your most memorable moments working alongside Horst? What were the greatest lessons you picked up from your time together?
I have been in New York regularly since 1986. It was during this time that I met Horst. I was impressed by his lighting, he’s a legendary photographer. It’s not about fashion, he is a true pioneer and one of the finest photographers in history. I was interested in arts, I studied it, I worked as a painter—that is the reason I was interested in meeting him. During that time I was already a travel photographer, but he saw something in my photographs and said, “why don’t you try fashion? You have something.” So I did. Horst was my mentor, he deeply influenced my work. I was very lucky to meet him and I’m grateful that he pushed me to try fashion photography.
Your background in photography started with a career in photojournalism, photographing local communities in South America, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Siberia. What was one of your most pivotal moments within your documentary photography?
It was a very exciting time to travel as a photojournalist. I lived with the poorest and the richest in those countries. I crossed the Gobi Desert in the heat. I lived with Indians in the jungle of South America. I worked on the coldest plain in Siberia. It was a very exciting and adventurous time. I still go on travels, disappearing for some months to survive the fashion tribes.
Tell us about your photograph, An Ordinary Day, from 2008. What is the story behind this image?
I called this An Ordinary Day because it is an ordinary day in fashion—meaning crazy! In 2008, I lived in a huge, eighteenth-century villa in Cité Jandelle in Paris. It was a living, shooting, meeting place. People came in and out, shootings, decorations, parties—very bohemian. I loved it! One day, my jasmine bushes were blooming into thousands of little white flowers. It reminded me of the embroidery of a special haute couture Valentino dress that I have seen during the haute couture fashion shows in Paris. I saw the picture already in front of me—a Chinese girl, posing in my garden in this Valentino dress, like old hand-coloured postcards from the nineteenth century. I thought that I must have this dress immediately. So I called the press office of Valentino and asked if I could have it. They answered me: “Cathleen, mais noooo impossibile donna! The dress is in Rome for a fitting for a client.” Then I said: “Mais nooo, mais nooo I really need for the picture, you will see it’s very very beautiful with the flowers.” They replied: “You are impossible.”
The day after I had the dress and even got another one, to get more inspired. I was in heaven. But I felt I missed something on the head, so I called a friend at midnight and asked if they could do me a little bibi [hat] with the same colours of the Valentino dress. The hat was finished in the morning. My Chinese paravan from 1920, which I bought once in an auction house, found his place in my garden for this setting. Et voilà! La dolce vita on an ordinary day!
Each of your images suggests an implied narrative through carefully constructed art direction and set design. What is your relationship with your creative team while constructing a new idea? How important are wardrobe stylists to you within your personal projects?
I am the art director in all my settings. I work like in a film, meaning I draw storyboards for each shot and each angle. Horst told me, prepare yourself well before the shootings! Well, if you see my large-format camera, which is 8 x 10 inches, you will understand why. I work mostly like an art director or film director. I know exactly what I want, where and when.
Reflecting on the endless stories brought about by each individual image within your Haute Couture: The Polaroids of Cathleen Naundorf book, what is the most memorable experience you have had on set? Spare no detail! Please.
There is so much to talk about. One day I will publish a book about the backstage stories from my shooting.
What have been some of the most challenging projects to execute? (Be it documentary or fashion photography).
There have been so many exciting projects, like the shooting for the V&A Museum in London, the shooting with the Dalai Lama, the shooting in the King’s palace in Bangkok with the queen Sirikit collection, shooting the Erin O’Connor Dior special or Stella [Tennant] in Chanel for Harper’s Baazar UK, shooting on the roof at the Grand Palais, shooting Dior at Musée Rodin, shooting in Siberia for my book called Taiga, photographing Kazakh people hunting with eagles, or photographing Valentino Garavani in his castle.
Your images embody a surrealist quality, that suggests mystery and fantasy. They also reference modernist photography and the classic, black and white era. While they are contemporary creations, due to your signature Polaroid style, the images appear lost in time. What intentions are behind this direction within your work?
I want to show the time we are living in. We all come from somewhere and are going to an uncertain future. This open space gives all possibilities of imaginations. Photography is between reality and imagination, which I use to create my own world.
Within some of your work you chose to display elements of the background, equipment or wires within the photographs construction. What is the conceptual reasoning behind this?
It’s shooting a picture in a picture. It is like the spiral in a spiral, the endless wheel of life.
Do you have a particular muse in the past?
I am a muse myself.
You have mentioned before how important photography is to your existence, but in a parallel universe what would Cathleen Naundorf be doing?
All my pictures are personal, so it’s a part of my life, Cathleen is always Cathleen.
How do you feel about the moving landscape of commercial fashion photography, alongside art photography, and your place within it?
People call me the art photographer. I don’t like the word artist very much because nowadays everybody calls themselves an artist. I have always lived a creative and bohemian life since I was a child. If the society calls me an artist, then I am fine with it, but it makes no importance to me. I exist as a photographer in the art market, but not very much in the fashion industry. Maybe it is a statement by itself.