Painting with Light
Cathleen Naundorf is a thinking person’s photographer and as learns, she creates images that become indelibly etched into the fashionable consciousness
Your work has been exhibited around the world…tell me about your latest accomplishment of showing at the Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York and what that means to you.
My work was shown long ago in the USA, but this marks my first solo exhibition in New York. After all those years of exhibiting around the world, it feels wonderful to finally be here. It’s not just about the location – to be on 5th avenue with the Edwynn Houk gallery in Manhattan, it’s also about finding your place in New York, a city which does not always welcome new artists easily. It’s a kind of recognition. Then, there is this personal aspect. I love NY. It’s an honest city. It’s dirty, noisy, and tough, but it never pretends to be something else. I like that. Edwynn Houk has taken me under his wing, and presented my work in big shows in NY and Zurich, Switzerland. He is representing my work in the USA from now on. In the NY exhibition, you can see a lot of my colorwork in several series I photographed over the course of a number of years.
Poloraids are often considered a lost art – what attracted you to them to incorporate it into your photographic art?
I use 4 x 5 inches Polaroid and Fuji Film and 8 x 10 inches Polaroid film – both are professional films for photographers and I shoot on film and instant film in large format with large format cameras. But why I have chosen it? Because it often resembles paintings and captures the light in a very unique way. I photograph my commercial and my private projects mostly with large format. The posing needs time, which is a process I like in this hectic world in which we live.
What has been your greatest triumph in photographing in an environment that had always been a dream of yours to shoot?
The Grand Palais in Paris is an amazing location. When the office called me to tell me, “Cathleen, it’s free. Do you want to use it?” I knew they must really love me. I have done several photoshoots there, but every time I arrive, that place has a wow effect… you arrive with your camera truck and suddenly the door of the Grand Palais opens, and it’s empty… just for you! completely empty. Like I said, wow!
You’ve traveled with the Dalai Lama, photographing him on your journey. How is shooting fashion a similar experience for you?
I fell if you are a bit interested in life, go out and see what’s going on around the globe. To meet, and later to travel with, the Dalai Lama changes you and you start thinking about life. I did it when I was 21. I got this chance that was powerful and rich. Since this time, I started working for Tibet, for Amnesty International, and the WWF. My first professional travel was to Mongolia and the Dalai Lama wrote me an official letter protecting me, which opened the doors to the Buddhist temples in Mongolia. It was very touching. I still have it framed at home.
Your work has been influenced by 20th-century fashion photographer legend Horst P. Horst – how did he inspire you?
I was not interested in fashion at all. When I saw for the first time the photographs of Horst, I was blown away. That was not fashion photography, there was this blurring of settings like in paintings or film, and then that dramatic lighting. It was real photography. Painting with light is what the word photography means. I would say that he encouraged me to try it.
In 1997 you started photographing backstage Paris fashion shows for Condé Nast. How did that lead to choosing gowns from the couturiers’ archives (Chanel, Dior, Gaultier, Valentino, Saab, Lacroix) for your elaborate and cinematic productions that would follow?
Backstage is tough because you have to take pictures, but nobody wants you there. Everybody runs around, stressed, because every minute counts to make sure the models are in the dresses and ready. I did that job for a long time and I met designers, make up artists, models, and I saw how things worked. I got a great feeling about the collections after a while. It’s always great to be there. I still go to all the shows, but now I get to sit and enjoy the defilés.
When you personally select gowns to photograph, what qualities in the clothing do you most seek?
I shoot Haute Couture and high luxury Pret-â-porter. You can see these, for example, in the projects I did Harper’s Bazaar UK. I like dresses. They tell us something, which is important to me.
Go back in time and tell us the four fashionable people from the past you’d love to dine at your perfect dinner party tonight.
I think it would be absolutely fun to have Diana Vreeland, Karl Lagerfeld, Valentino and Marilyn Monroe at the table.
What’s the next fashion photography mountain you want to climb in your career?
There is already a very big one… starting shooting very soon. I’m so excited about it. You will see…