Theatrical scenes and imaginative fashion stories. Everything about Cathleen Naundorf’s images is grand and spectacular. Even her camera.
Text: Caroline Hainer
Photo: Cathleen Naundorf
If there is a world somewhere in between fashion photography, art and reportage, that is where Cathleen Naundorf lives. Together with various exotic animals and beautiful models that seem to have walked straight out of Paris in the 1930’s. A typical image created by The German-French photographer shows a model in an extravagant evening dress and an eye-catching headdress of some kind (a hat made of feathers, a white fur ball, a wreath of living lobsters …). The model is posed against a painted background, much like the set design of the theatre: An enchanted forest, a deserted museum, a forgotten island. Sometimes, the edges of the set are clearly visible, we should not be fooled to believe that this is reality. But at the same time the details are so distinct and intricate that you may think the place must be real after all. And a lot of times it is, although in imagined form.
– I carry a sketchbook with me wherever I go. I take in my surroundings, describe them and draw them. From there they develop into stories and then images, says Cathleen Naundorf.
Both traveling and storytelling are close at hand for Naundorf who was a photojournalist throughout the 1990s, before moving into fashion photography in the 00’s. On top of that, her background is in fine art.
– From painting and photojournalism I have learned the art of observation. And that an image must always tell a story.
“It is about giving as well as taking.”
As a photojournalist, Naundorf visited such isolated places as Mongolia, Siberia, the Gobi desert and Greenland. She lived with the Yanomami tribe in the Amazon, with shamans in Siberia and with the Dalai Lama himself in Tibet while documenting their lives. The pictures ended up in several prestigious publications, such as National Geographic well as several photo books.
During her decade of travelling, Naundorf discovered two things: A deep reverence for ethnic groups and their cultures, and that she herself enjoys life as a nomad. Because just like the nomad, Naundorf can feel at home everywhere, as long as has her most essentials with her (a camera, that is). The restlessness, her appetite for adventure and a longing for the undiscovered is visible in her art as well: The imaginative places and secret worlds. Her respect for the crafted, detailed and culturally significant also derives from her time together with various indigenous peoples. This is what eventually brought her to fashion, especially the world of haute couture, which focuses on the exact same values.
– When working outdoors you have to observe the situation and press the shutter at the exact right moment. Sometimes you have to wait for days or weeks to get it right. During a fashion shoot I control the light, the setting, the whole situation myself. But I still have to find just the right moment to take the photo.
Fashion vs art?
It was particularly the project “Un rêve de mode” (“A fashion dream”) that took Naundorf’s fashion photography to a new level. Focusing on six couture houses: Chanel, Dior, Gaultier, Valentino, Elie Saab and Lacroix, Naundorf photographed haute couture creations from their archives. She, of course, chose the model, the setting and the look herself and the result is timeless images where the garments are part of the art. Naundorf herself sees no distinction between fashion and art photography, both are the same. However, there is a difference between photographing men and women.
– Men are easy to photograph, they are casual and happy with themselves. Women want to look beautiful and I help them look even more beautiful with the right light, pose and setting. I usually use the same models over and over, it is more intimate and you learn to communicate and trust each other. If that trust does not exist, I am not interested in taking the photo. It is about giving as well as taking.
Her photos require careful preparation involving sketches and technique. In film terms, Naundorf is the director, scenographer, screenwriter and photographer all in one. The images, the settings and the moods all originate from her and her imagination alone.
– I paint and prepare how the light should fall, the background, the setting, the model’s makeup, yes everything! I use a large format camera and only film or polaroid. It’s a fine old fashioned method, it’s real photography.
But bringing out the dreamlike quality that characterizes her images requires a time-consuming technique. Not only do the preparations take a long time, some of her large format cameras and films are not even in production anymore (she has large stocks in her studios in Paris and London).
– I enlarge my pictures, sometimes up to 1.80 meters and I only use a special print paper from Japan. I paint on the photo with a brush, by hand, until the picture is perfect. It takes a long time but the result is astonishing. It’s like a haute couture dress: Everything is done by hand and perfect down to the smallest detail. It’s unique.
Cathleen Naundorf was born in Germany, where she studied photography, art and graphic design. During the 1990s, she traveled to remote and isolated places such as Mongolia, Siberia and Greenland as a photo journalist. She was particularly interested in indigenous peoples.
In 1989 she met the photographer Horst P. Horst who came to be her mentor. He got her interested in fashion photography, which is still her primary focus even though Naundorf herself makes no difference between fashion and art photography.
Her work is represented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Musée Rodin in Paris and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.