Cathleen Naundorf: Refined Fashion and Stylish Tales
What is your personal background and what drew you to photography?
I come from a family of painters and musicians so it was already in my blood. I grew up in this environment. I had different studios and I did a lot of painting, which is what you see in my photos – the decorations, lighting, poses… In the beginning, I attended many different art schools in Munich and ended up doing graphic design, among other things. There was also a class on photography. The professors found my style interesting, especially in photography. They encouraged me to continue down this path. I’m not a very patient person and painting requires that you work alone in a studio before having a real artistic result; that didn’t interest me. I prefer to live, travel, take pleasure in my work and do things as quick as possible. I also chose a career in photography for these reasons. I always loved traveling, I think partly because I come from East Germany, which I was able to leave before the wall fell. Living under that government didn’t allow me to travel freely and I felt the need to discover the world. So, I dove into photojournalism and started by interning with various photographers, as is done all over the place. I began working for the ‘Knaur Verlag’ editions and right away I appreciated being able to travel around the world. I took part in a project about Mongolia and stayed there three months. I prepared for this trip for three months with in depth research. I saw professors of ethnology and learned the ethnic languages. I worked with many different editors until the day that a well known editor asked me to do a project on Russia. No body wanted to travel to Russia, but at that point in time, I still spoke fluent Russian, since I had lived in the GDR. So I took advantage of the opportunity. I left and worked on a book about the Siberian summer and winter. I really enjoyed doing the preparatory research and I learned about the people’s lives and about other perspectives. Early on, I incorporated the notion of travel into my work. After that, I went to Greenland, Iceland, the Amazon, Australia and Malaysia. I was very interested in the liberty of people in ethnic groups, specifically the nomads. I was never interested in artificial things like large cities but I was fascinated by people, and groups of people, that could live in the capitalist world and keep their own identity and even their pureness. I did eight books on these subjects for various editors. Every once in a while, I would get a request from a newspaper to do a fashion photo, but it didn’t really strike a cord in me. I need time to prepare my subjects and requests like that impose a rhythm that didn’t allow me to take my time.
How did this beginning impact your personal work with fashion?
I don’t respond to an order in my personal projects. I kept an aspect of “travel” and I never chose the clichéd beautiful blond for my photos. Instead, I prefer women of ethnic descent, or of mixed race – someone with something extra. Agencies often refuse to work with these women but I like them. Before we begin shooting, I like to meet the person. She needs to know who I am and I need to know a little about her. If there isn’t that “something special” between us, then I can’t make the photo.
So there really is an exchange between you and the model?
Yes, there’s a real exchange. It’s one of the reasons that I often work with the same women. Even if the agencies send me 100 books per day, I can’t do anything. I want to ask them “Why”? That’s not good for me or the model. I have this exchange with women like Julia or Maggie, with whom I work regularly and thanks to them, I have the same feeling as when I travel. Do you think that travel, as a way to expand one’s world-view, is a necessary element or experience for all photographers? No, I don’t believe so. There are famous photographers that never traveled. During travel you take a photo of a situation that you find yourself in. You must adapt to the environment. With studio photography, for example, you can create everything, like lighting, but to create the universe, that is a whole other story. There are good studio photographers that never travel. It’s rare actually for photographers to be talented in both the studio and in a travel setting. The only one I know in Irving Penn. He was incredible at everything.
Did meeting Horst P. Horst change your photographic outlook?
He was my mentor. He was also someone that I really admired and someone who gave me a lot of advice. Since our first meeting, he influenced my work. I met him after nine years of travel, right when I was wanting to do something else and to have a little more calm in my life. He was very welcoming the first time we met in New York – we do share the same origins after all. I was fascinated by this man and his work, consequently, I learned a lot from him about lighting and poses. Thanks to this meeting, I had the desire to work with fashion. His style wasn’t just about fashion though, it was the great fashion photography. At the time, I didn’t know that that existed, but I knew right away that it was what I wanted to do. I felt that is was possible to make strong images in the fashion world.
How do you explain this new interest in fashion?
It was a desire stemming from research. I was ready to slowly make the transition, to suffer through the mixing of genres. After all that travel, I moved into the backstage in “fashion travel” for ten years. It was only after 2004 that I started to use fashion in my personal art with a Polaroid. Today, I feel like I found my place with this kind of photography. In some ways, I feel like I’ve come back to painting. I didn’t go looking for this though - it just came naturally. Life is like a circle, one day everything fits together.
What characterizes your style and makes us think of a connection to paintings?
I don’t know – that is for you to say! One shouldn’t over-explain the photo. You need to see that photo and each person feel what they will. Evidently, the lighting and the pose count for a lot, but you have to let the photograph speak for itself. The images that stay in our mind are the ones that have something special in them, much like in a painting. It isn’t the technique that counts.
What methods do you use to achieve these wonderfully worn looking effects?
I don’t really like to talk about technique. It’s instinct and being able to capture a moment that give a photograph that something special – that is why I use Polaroid, large format like 4×5 or 8×10. It is opposite of travelling – you need to use a tripod and you must take your time working with this material. When I set up a photo shoot, I begin by talking with the model. We have to prepare the shoot and know exactly what we will do. Then, all that is left is just to capture the perfect moment and make a beautiful image. I don’t take very many photos at each shoot: maybe 20, but sometimes just 5 or 6, and thus, the models are really concentrated and they put a lot into the image.
What motivates you to physically manipulate your image?
I don’t work the photo over. It’s actually a kind of Polaroid transfer that does it all, but it also requires a certain technique that takes years to learn. The colors found in Polaroid film are reminiscent of painting. I work a lot with shadows; I like somber things. Sometimes, the colors are different from one roll to the next. You can’t control everything. All of this attracts me to this technique. The boarders around each photo come from the original Polaroid. They are each different and none of them are perfect. This method gives a certain charm to the photos. During an age where everything is uniform, controlled, verified, retouched, and genetic, I think we should let our images live with their mistakes.
You say that you tell a story with your images. How do you use this idea during a photo shoot?
For the costumes, I work with my assistant, stylist Laurent Seguin. We make a familial team. If I have an idea about making a photo that deals with plaster, or white dust, I put together a storyboard and sketches. If we have to work on a particular subject, like we recently did for the Dolce Vita, then I give everyone a DVD so they can watch or re-watch the Fellini film. Sometimes we will even go to exhibits to become inspired. Everyone has access to the storyboard before the shoot. We bring all the ideas together. It really is teamwork. For the shoots, Laurent gives me advice, or finds the actual locations. I adore the sort of unknown or hidden parts of Paris. I really like the environment of trade workers, who do great work. I also like visiting antique shops, or plaster stores (there is only one left in Paris and it dates from the 18th century), or visiting Jean-Paul Gautier’s place – he really likes my work. I like to share in this world and it’s the same for the models – I try to give them a maximum amount of respect. It is my liberty that gives energy to bring the world together.
How did you establish your relationship with the top fashion designers who lend you their clothes?
In the beginning, I asked Jean-Paul Gautier if he would lend me one or two dresses so that I could photograph them. I went to his studio, showed them a few of my Polaroids and they didn’t say a word…I was a little worried and tried to make a quit exit, but then he finally said: “It’s magnificent. Give her access to all the collections.” The manager pulled me aside and told me that they didn’t do this for just anybody… Since that visit five years ago, I have been photographing Gautier’s collection. For two years now, I’ve been photographing the Chanel collections. I recently gained access to Dior creations and I worked with Valentino until the line stopped, but I’m still in contact with their new designers. I have also been elated to work with Lacroix for two years. Their collections are really vast, inspirational, and their dresses are very beautiful. Philippe Tracy also loans me some of his marvelous hats and I’ve photographed the most recent Ungaro collection. These designers love my work so much that they never ask for anything. They just let me do what I want. It is luck but it’s also a sign of confidence. Valentino recently sent me two dresses from Rome because I needed exactly those two dresses, even though they were already being fitted for a client. It is wonderful working with people who are passionate and professional. Laurent Seguin: Cathleen knows how to connect places, designers and environments. There is an energy devoted to the esthetic and a “savoir faire” both French and world-wide.
Do you choose the designers according to your personal taste? In other words, would you do a project with a designer whose work you didn’t like?
I’m interested the most in the haute couture and the luxurious “ready to wear” category. I began by working with the very talented, less known designers and now I work with the biggest names out there. And so I can work with whom I choose. I’ll continue this project until 2010 and then in 2011 I will release a book with all my haute couture photos. I really like photography when it is printed in a book format. It leaves something behind for the future and that is important to me. It will be a compilation of six years of work and of my ten year presence in the fashion world. Needless to say, 2010 will be a very busy year for me. Galleries, designers and hotels are already interested in this project. Finally, I’m happy with my life because I do what I want to do. I have total artistic liberty. I can fully express myself. Getting to this point wasn’t easy. Photography is a hard professional, but it is good for me. Now I can start some new projects and be less restricted by a budget.
Is there any designer with whom you’d like to work with, but haven’t as of yet?
Even if Yves Saint Laurent is no longer alive, what exists of his work is truly beautiful. I’m in contact with his house and our initial exchanges seem promising. Besides the big names, I would also be interested in working with an up incoming designer that makes magnificent creations.
Interview by LG & RD, translated from the french by LG lesphotographes
Check some amazing works of Cathleen Naundorf: