photographer viviane sassen on working with frank ocean and her playful next chapter
Sassen discusses her current show in San Francisco, which showcases her Pikin Slee series, and the importance of spontaneity.
Viviane Sassen is feeling a fresh energy. Many shots in one of the Dutch photographer's most recent series, 2015's UMBRA, were shrouded in shadows, representing dark themes of death and loss. But today, at a coffee shop in San Francisco, Sassen is avidly explaining the new techniques she's using to make art. She calls this moment in her career an opportunity to be "playful."
Sassen's work draws heavily on the vibrant colours and people she encountered during her youth living in Kenya. She often uses flashes of brilliant pink, orange, and green, graphic prints and textures, mirrors, and natural shadows. Her approach transforms mundane scenes — whether the subject is a person, a flower, or a plank of wood — into nuanced, frequently surreal ruminations on corporeality, personhood, and the dissonance between darkness and light. Sassen's several books and numerous gallery shows (not to mention her fashion photography for publications including i-D) have garnered her international praise, netting her such prestigious awards as the Prix de Rome, for her photo series, Ultra Violet, which she shot in Ghana.
Today, she sips on a chai tea latte as she discusses how she frames her photographs, noting the unpredictability of real life, and how essential that is to her work. "There's always little flaws: the lights, the situation — it's a combination of those two," she says. "I like to leave some room for the unexpected and see where it brings us."
Between working with photography students at San Francisco's California College of the Arts and showing her series Pikin Slee alongside work by her friend Elspeth Diederix, at a new gallery show in the city, Sassen sits down with i-D to talk about her current work, collaborating with Frank Ocean, and the importance of spontaneity.
When you meet with young photographers like you did at the California College of the Arts, do you advise them to use their own past experiences as you have with your work?
I don't really tell them that because they're so young. If I do studio visits, I try to get into their world and understand what their work is about — their core. Because of the programme they're in, they kind of over-theorise things. We all kind of make self-portraits in the end and a lot of people try to cover that up — a lot of academic talk. I'm not really up for that. So I try to peel off those layers and see what's the essence of what they are, who they are.
What are the risks with over-theorising? What do you lose?
The spontaneity. The intuition, and for some of them, the joy of just making work. It does serve a purpose — it's very important to try to explain what you do and how you do it and why you do it, so [you] make the right steps in your process. But sometimes they get caught up in that and they need to let go and be more spontaneous.
The UMBRA exhibition was very dark and heavy, but there was a light installation at the end of it. Did you feel like you wanted the visitors to leave on a happy note?
That show was about shadows, and some were really dark and some were uncanny and sad. It was about loss and death. But I also did a series of very abstract photos with mirrors, and in the process of working on the whole project, I was experimenting with light and I came to this RGB thing. The red, blue, and green lamps make white light if you put them together, and I thought it was a nice conclusion to the show. People loved it — they took a lot of selfies.
You've talked about the difference between your fashion work and your artwork, but I feel like your editorial work is a nice bridge between the two because it allows more of you to be in it. Do you feel you have more space to be creative with editorials?
I do. I like working in the whole scale of things and not in one or the other. Editorial is somewhere between the fashion photography and the fine arts. For me it's a place for experimentation, sometimes even more so than my personal work, because, maybe it's weird to say, but I don't really care much about fashion photography. I'm really in it for photography. I like editorial work, it's fun. It feels like a playground where I can experiment and do whatever I like doing. It's great to have an opportunity to work with other people and be inspired by other people.
You worked with Frank Ocean on some photos for his Boys Don't Cry zine — did you have a lot of space for creative vision, or did he pretty much already know what he wanted?
We worked in a very organic way. We went to Japan and spent some time there. He's really into racing and cars so we went to several places for car races, but really all in a very organic way. We'd just go and shoot and if I got an idea, we'd do it.
There's one photo of a pink box in front of his face.
I do a lot of blocked-out faces. He was not interested in being in the picture all the time. We both have this same interest in the seen and the unseen, and the exposure but also the private. It's an ambiguous feeling that we both relate to. He's also kind of hiding and then exposing, so I think that worked really well.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on a few different things. I did a book called Roxanne a few years ago, and we're going to do a new book, completely different from the first one. It is her again and portraits of her and it's more nudes and a lot of paint, and it's very vibrant. It's feminist, powerful stuff. It will be published in February.
I have a show at my gallery in Johannesburg, so I need to do new work for that as well. I'm currently working on new techniques. I always had this idea that I didn't want to use Photoshop for my personal work, only for editorial, but I think after UMBRA, which was such a long process and soul searching and quite heavy, I feel this new energy. I can't be bothered. I'm experimenting in a very playful way on my personal pictures. Painting on prints and stuff, collages. I'm mixing it all up and I'm going to see what happens.
"Viviane Sassen Pikin Slee & Elspeth Diederix In These Shadows is on show now through December 22, 2016 at Casemore Kirkeby in San Francisco.
Text Alyssa Pereira
Images courtesy Casemore Kirkeby