by Steve Appleford


The wildness of haute couture fashion inspired Cathleen Naundorf’s Polaroid photographs

It was more than beauty and elegant design that drew photographer Cathleen Naundorf deep into the haute couture archives of Chanel, Dior and Gaultier. There was a wildness to the pieces that she rarely saw in the larger fashion world.

“Haute couture is still the last freedom for designers,” says the German-born Naundorf, who has photographed the hand-made clothing for nearly a decade. “They can do something crazy. It’s not about selling. I like craziness.”

Naundorf photographs these one-of-a-kind designs in large-format Polaroids, carefully composed in black-and-white and pastels. A vivid selection of the pictures can be seen in her first Los Angeles exhibition, “Cathleen Naundorf — Haute Couture,” at the Fahey/ Klein Gallery through Oct. 11.

The images are elaborate set-pieces: often a model in extravagant dress and headpiece, posed against a painted backdrop, forest or museum, suggesting an entire drama within a single frame. In one photograph, “The Modem Bride I,” a model in profile wears a billowing Gaultier headdress that’s equal parts wedding veil and alien entity. The black-and-white “Evolution of Fashion I” has a woman in an ornate Dior dress amid endless rows of animal skeletons.

“You have to get into this crazy, artistic, nearly Fellini mood,” says Naundorf, comparing the process to making a film. “I shoot very fast, but I take time for the preparation, and I take time for the model. For me, it’s not somebody coming in, get dressed and you leave. She has a soul. I want to know where she comes from.”

The project began in 2005, and Naundorf aimed high from the start, approaching Jean Paul Gaultier with a request for just a few pieces. To her surprise, Gaultier opened the archive.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she says now. Other designers followed over the next several years, offering dresses stretching back to the 1990s. “The Chanel archive — you could shoot all your life!”

Naundorf became a fashion photographer after a decade working as a traveling magazine photojournalist, with stops in Mongolia and Siberia. She met renowned portraitist and fashion photographer Horst P. Horst in New York, and he became a crucial mentor.

“I was a little bit lost because I wanted to change my life. He said, ‘Listen, why don’t you try fashion?’ ” she recalls. Horst’s work was deeply inspirational. “This was not fashion photography. This was art for me.

She embraced Polaroid (and Fuji instant film) as a personal signature just as the format was beginning to be phased out. “I’m not in a panic,” she says of her preférred film. It helps that she maintains a huge stock of the material in storage.

“Sometimes something happens that I didn’t expect,” she says of the pictures. “This kind of imperfection I like. Maybe digital is more perfect, but it has no soul in .it. I want my pictures to keep the soul of humility.”

“Cathleen Naundorf – Haute Couture”
Fahey/Klein Gallery, 148 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles When: Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday through Oct. U Info: (323) 934-2250, www.faheykleingallery.com

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