Viviane Sassen At The Photographer’s Gallery
Spurred on by my visit to the Horst Exhibition at the V&A earlier last year my tutor made me aware that Viviane Sassen was exhibiting at the Photographer’s Gallery. With one thing and another I made it just before the exhibition closed on January 18th 2015! It was very definitely worth it.
Throughout the entire duration of the exhibition admission was free from 10am – 12pm, an added bonus. There are five floors to this very striking brick building which is tucked away off the main and very busy Oxford Street, down some steps between two shops, opening out into a small walk through plaza. Very old London Town.
This was a visually physical moving exhibition across two sides on the top floor of the gallery. In the first side of the exhibition you are greeted by slide show one, vertical images like super models on a catwalk in a continuous loop.
The second side had blocks to sit and view a 45min show which was much more attention grabbing. I took the opportunity to video it as others around me were, not only to remind myself of the plethora of images I had seen but to capture the clever design of the exhibition display which lent itself perfectly to this slide show. Again this was fashion show style but this time it was in both landscape and portrait orientation. I shot two videos hand held, the second one is on this link.
The first thing that impacted me was the sheer volume of images that I was about to witness. I was left wondering over what period of time these were produced in, something I could have asked her myself if I had got to the “Breakfast Artist Talk” she gave at the gallery at the end of October 2014!
There have been many comments about the riot of colour she uses in her work, some I think reflecting her early life in Kenya, where clothes can be brightly coloured. I wonder if this use of dark and light becomes almost natural to the eye when it is constantly part of your surrounding environment. Many of the images contained a noticeable unmissable dominant colour, whether it was a splash or an accent. I saw that she wasn’t frightened of using this, not only in the backgrounds or clothes, but actually as paint on the models themselves. Other times she adds colour post-production. I was inspired to see so many different ways that she brings or sometimes excludes colour from her pictures. I wished I had seen her work during my previous module in TAOP, especially when I was working on the colour section. It would have made it so much clearer how to use colour and I have made a good note of this for future consideration, not just the amounts of colour used but the contrasts, complimentary colours, items of colour, use of natural colour and just the different ways you could use it.
I couldn’t help thinking whilst watching the show that if I was one of her models I would feel she worked me really hard! Although this would probably be a welcome change after walking the catwalk as stiffly as possible and without expression. I got a sense of her constantly pushing the boundaries of what you normally see when looking at people photography. Models are shown in a variety of poses, but none of them looking artificial or contrived more organic and interesting, even challenging.
It is not just the positioning of her subjects but the different views and techniques she uses that give her images such impact and make them so inspiring. This includes the use of double exposures, post-production using overlay or light painting, using silhouette, mirror, juxtaposition, combining bodies to make one, nudity, contrast (colour and B&W), orientation (taking a picture one way and then displaying it another to create illusion) and so it goes on. You will not be bored when looking at her work and I expect she wasn’t when she was shooting it, or the models when posing I suspect.
Although there are many images where the subjects features are clearly visible there is also a great use of anonymity with the use of different techniques to make the face not the focal point. This is something that has inspired me for my project making figures anonymous in the People and Place module.
A lot of this is done through the position of the model, or through the use of the clothes, or very much like Horst with shadow and silhouette, toning and positioning.
Some of her work I feel can be almost quite classic, for example the image below is almost “Old Dutch Master” in its look and would not look out-of-place amongst oils in an art gallery, I first thought of Vermeer’s “Girl with the pearl earring” but feel that actually it was even more like some of the work by a more modern Photographer Hendrik Kerstens, I wondered if in fact Sassen had been inspired by some of his work when “experimenting with her own ideas, leading to this final image.
Since 1995, Dutch photographer Hendrik Kerstens has been photographing his daughter, Paula. Kersten has commented himself that he was inspired by Vermeer but brought his own unique twist to some of the images he produced
All I can say is loved it, and I have taken so much on-board from seeing this style of photography. Experimentation and being fearless in trying new techniques and angles of view in producing images is what I’ve taking forward into my own work. There I was trying to be taken seriously as someone who produces “good formal images” and actually I see now that it is more about becoming your own artist.
As Ansel Adams famously said, “You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”
I was left wondering when considering the volume of work that I saw at this particular exhibition, how many images were taken and how many were rejected before arriving at the final selection. Now that would be telling wouldn’t it? I suspect Mr Adams would have famously quoted again: “You may need to go back again and again until you get the shot you want”.