Cathleen Naundorf understands innately that each fashion house has its own culture. Before launching into fashion, the German photographer worked in travel, photographing different ethnic groups from the Yanomami in the Amazonian rainforest to the Mongols and the Kazakhs in the Altai Mountains. An encounter with Horst P. Horst, whom her grandparents eulogized during her childhood, was a defining factor in her decision to put away her suitcases and settle down in Europe. Having originally studied painting. Naundorf found herself taking a pictorial approach to image-making as she switched from using a 35mm camera to working with a large-format camera on a tripod. Featured across these pages arc exclusive images of an Elie Saab haute couture shoot that Naundorf, now based in London and Paris, made at the Musée Rodin in Meudon.
WHITEWALL: What appealed to you about photographing fashion after focusing on travel?
CATHLEEN NAUNDORF: I started travel photography at 23 and did seven books. Then I wanted to settle down, come back to Europe and arrange my shoots. If you do photography outdoors, you wait for the right moment m a situation because of the weather. Now’ I work more like a film director. 1 did some fashion photography to try* something different and for fun. and I liked iL But 1 don’t know where I’ll be in seven years.
WW: How did meeting Horst P. Horst in New York inspire you to start shooting fashion?
CN: When 1 met him. he became my idol, like a hero. It was extraordinary* having a living legend telling you that you have talent and that you should try. 1 felt motivated and I jumped in. 1 felt as if I was going back to painting. Suddenly 1 came back to my childhood—drawing, drawing, drawing. Setting up a picture, thinking about how to crop it, how to color it, and how to set up the lighting; it’s like a sitting for a portrait. But 1 didn’t choose to go into fashion photography just because of meeting Horst, but because there was something inside me. It was the right moment, and I moved to Paris because it was the right place for fashion. But 1 still go backpacking and disappear for several months somewhere.
W W: You originally1 studied painting. As you create elaborate sets and backdrops for your shoots, do you have the impression of working in a similar way to a painter?
CC: Horst was never just a photographer; he was an amazing artist and painter. Cecil Beaton was a painter. There’s a strong link between painting and photography. You do preparations in your head, you develop your ideas, you cancel your ideas, you get around things to understand the thing. I didn’t know’ that I was doing a senes about Noah’s Ark until I’d finished it. I can’t get enough of using animals in my work and incorporating crazy ideas, like you do in painting. My storyboards arc full of drawings and collages; it’s concrete brainstorming. During the shooting, I’m always open if something happens to make the picture more interesting and I give that moment the chance to breathe.
WW: In some of your images we see elaborate furnishings and you obviously love using birds. Where do you find and keep everything?
CN: 1 go to flea markets and I have a storage space near Pans of archived things. I’m looking for a warehouse in London. 1 first rented a bird for a Hitchcock-like shoot in 2011 and got completely obsessed by birds. 1 started renting them, then started buying pigeons, and you see this absolutely developing as a process in my work. Our office became like an opera piece with all these backdrops.
WW: Your exhibition, “Haute Couture,” at Edwynn Houk Gallery’ in January and February features images from your 2012 “Haute Couture Polaroids ** series. Which houses did you photograph and what story did you want to tell?
CN: I photographed Dior, Chanel, Valentino, Elie Saab, Jean Paul Gaultier, Christian Lacroix, Philip Treacy, and the corsets of Mr. Pearl. For me, haute couture is the last freedom of a designer, un rêve de mode [a dream of fashion].
WW: What can you tell us about photographing Elie Saab’s Autumn/Winter 2013 and Spring/ Summer 2014 haute couture collection at Musee Rodin in Meudon, near Paris, culminating in the images published here?
CN: In 2012, I took pictures in the Musee Rodin in Pans with Dior haute couture dresses. I have a collaboration with the museum, and they gave me this private atelier in the Musee Rodin in Meudon, which was once his private house and atelier. A lot of people don’t know about this second Rodin museum. When I was invited to photograph in the Musee Meudon, I wanted to wait for the right story. Three years later, I was ready. It’s a very touching place for me. Rodin lived and created there. As I come from painting, I know all his masterpieces and I’ve read all about him. The soul of the artist is so present in the space that I became set on doing something there. It meant a lot to me personally.
WW: You’ve collaborated with Valentino on several projects, What can you tell us about meeting him?
CN: I met Valentino when I shot a campaign with Natalia [Vodianova] and I met Giancarlo Giammetti and did some projects. Valentino loved what 1 did and gave me his private castle and complete freedom to shoot his dresses. It all came together so beautifully and naturally, and they supported my work.
WW: Your way of working, such as making Polaroid images, seems antithetical to the fast-paced nature of the digital age. How do you see yourself fitting into all this?
CN: My gallery has handmade prints and digital prints of mine! I’m a fan of romantic settings and of modernity. It’s important to keep culture and tradition. Nowadays we arc losing our culture because of the virtual world. I ramble a lot, I don’t have a car, I cycle and 1 walk because 1 can sec and discover things. This is how I discovered Great Britain—the gardens, the parks—so much beauty, fantasy, patience, and love put in it! It’s a must to shoot that. And I love the beauty of French culture and seduction. I still travel a lot to go and shoot on locations.