In an installation conceived just for SCAD's deFINE ART event, going on all this week, Dutch-born photographer Viviane Sassen brings elements from her staged photography — things like mirrors, collage, and color filters — into the museum space.
The result is "In and Out of Fashion," on display now at the SCAD Museum of Art and based on her book of the same name.
Though Dutch by birth and background, Sassen spent much of her young childhood in Kenya. We spoke to her prior to deFINE ART.
CS: What's most striking to me about your work is that your subjects seem to be captured in motion, even when they're just sitting or standing.
Viviane Sassen: I never thought about it like that. I think maybe it has something to do with the way I work and how I approach subjects. I work quick — I don't like long, dreadful photo shoots. Some photographers like a long process. Adjusting lights, things like that. I don't do that. I'm really quick. The other thing is I always somehow try to make sculptures out of the human body. I love the human body and all its shapes. I like to mold it into an interesting position and with the composition slightly off in a way.
CS: Where did that come from, you think?
VS: I've thought about where did I get this fascination. Maybe it's from when I was very young in Kenya and there was an orphanage next door. I always played with the kids, and some of them had polio. At the time of course I was too young to be aware that it was a very serious disease. They were just my friends. At the time I didn't have a clue, but there must have been something about them that intrigued me. You're not supposed to think about it like that, but when you're that young you don't know any better.
CS: There's no way that didn't have a formative influence on your sense of aesthetics.
VS: That's very true. Those three and a half years there were very formative, from age 2 almost to 6. That's the time you experience so many things for the very first time. It becomes part of your hard drive almost.
CS: Seems like a natural background for a photojournalist or documentary filmmaker, but you chose fashion photography. Why?
VS: I was always drawing in school, and I was very sure I wanted to go to art school, and thinking about graphic design and fashion design. It was a big teenage dream, the fashion world and all the models in the beautiful glossy magazines. I was intrigued and also scared of the idea of becoming a real artist, a fine artist.
Then I started in fashion in art school and began modeling as well. That's how I met a lot of photographers. Pretty soon I found out I didn't want to be a fashion designer — it's not for me. I just wasn't interested in clothes and making clothes. I was much more interested in creating an atmosphere and an image.
I thought maybe I wanted to become a stylist. But the photographer in the end is the one who's pushing the button. You're in charge, you determine the exact image. So I switched to photography, and at the same time I had all these friends in fashion who I asked to take pictures of for my collections.
That's how I always had one foot in fashion and one foot in photography. What interested me a lot was independent magazines like Purple, i-D, and Dazed and Confused, all of which showed a kind of photography I didn't really know before. This was in the mid '90s, the time of grunge. It was a very interesting time.
CS: You're unusual in that you're a photographer who's done a lot of modeling. Usually photographers don't want to be in front of the lens.
VS: Yeah, but I was never very good at it (laughs). I enjoyed it, but on the other hand I felt not completely confident about myself. There was also this idea of photography as always being through the male gaze. That annoyed me. I wanted a different voice.
I think you see that in my photography, that notion of exposure but also something introverted. Sometimes you see bodies which are strong but don't see faces. Someone might be nude, but you don't have the feeling that they're exposed.