Olivia Arthur’s photographs capture the many facets of Saint Laurent

As part of the Parisian house's globe-spanning project, the London photographer’s latest works form an ode to their strong, sensual spirit.

by Mahoro Seward
08 June 2022, 11:13am

While fashion being an art form is an endlessly debated subject, the interdependence of the two fields is irrefutable. Designers look to the art world for inspiration and vice versa. SELF, a collaborative exhibition series spearheaded by Saint Laurent and Magnum Photos, exemplifies that exchange, with the house’s creative director Anthony Vaccarello inviting six Magnum photographers to interpret the multifaceted spirit of the storied Parisian house through their distinct lenses. From tomorrow until 12 June, the fruits of the project will be showcased in six simultaneous public exhibitions in Paris, London, Seoul, Tokyo, LA and Shanghai. 

In London — at Observation Point on the South Bank — a series of works by celebrated photographer Olivia Arthur will be on show. Over the past two decades, the artist, photographer and current president of Magnum Photos has earned a reputation for work that deeply examines people and their personal and cultural identities, with a particular focus on the daily lives of women across the world. There’s often an immediate corporeality to her images — a haptic effect that elicits fleshy, physical memories.  

That quality makes itself felt in So not so, the body of work on show at SELF. Harnessing a spirit of sensuality and strength, the images take direct inspiration from the empowered femininity that is a cornerstone of Saint Laurent. Here, Olivia discusses her forthcoming exhibition, the importance of emotional and physical strength to her work, and what Saint Laurent means to her.

crocheted sleeves on a saint laurent jacket photo by olivia arthur
Olivia Arthur, Magnum Photos for Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello

Hi Olivia! Can you summarise the energy of the works you're presenting for the exhibition in three words?
Physical, playful, surreal.

How do the works on show relate to your pre-existing body of work?
In recent years I have been making a lot of work about the body, about physicality, and the strange influences of technology and nature on how we exist. I wanted to find a way to connect this project to a continuation of that work and use the opportunity to push the feelings of strangeness, the uncanny and the connections between us, nature and the manmade. The title of my project — So not so — is a reference to these blurred lines between what we know to be real and things that we cannot quite make out. 

What was the conceptual starting point for the works on show?
The starting point is the feeling of touch and connection. I wanted to play with the way that we touch or are close to other people as well as how we connect to the physical world around us. I also wanted to play with the feeling of physicality and for the work to be something of a reminder of the physical world in a time when so much of our existence happens in virtual worlds.

The intention of the project was to capture different facets of the Saint Laurent personality. What facets did you want to bring to light here? 
I think the most important facets for me are sensuality, attraction and strength. I wanted to make a project that could make people feel the skin of the models, the texture of their hair and the way they connect to each other. But also to see them as strong individuals, not just mannequins. I hope that the energy in the images helps to make the viewer feel carried along in the narrative as the models interact with each other and the natural and physical world around them.

a woman stretches an organza top over her head exposing her breasts in a photo by olivia arthur
Olivia Arthur, Magnum Photos for Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello

What embodies the spirit of Saint Laurent for you? 
Throughout my work, I have always photographed women from many different backgrounds and cultures and it has always been key to me to show their strengths and that they make the most of whatever limitations society may have put on them. Beauty in physical and emotional strength rather than fragility is key to my work. It’s also what I believe makes Saint Laurent important.

What informed the looks you chose to feature in the imagery? 
I wanted to work with looks that would give the models freedom to move and be physical but also that had a feeling of texture and sensuality. 

What do you hope audiences visiting the exhibition are able to take away from it?
I hope that viewers coming to this exhibition will enjoy not only the images of models and clothes, but also get a feeling of some of the ideas I am playing with. I would like them to come away with a feeling of the importance of touch and connection and what our physical presence can be in the natural and unnatural world. I’d like viewers to come into the work and connect with some of the playful narratives that are going on. The smooth feel of a pebble connecting to the round head of a boy lying on the floor, connecting in turn to the smooth heads of mannequins. What is real and what is fantasy? Can it make people see simple things around them in new ways? That would be the takeaway that I would love people to have.

‘So not so’ by Olivia Arthur, part of ‘SELF’ by Saint Laurent and Magnum Photos, will be on display at Observation Point on the South Bank, London from 8-12 June. Follow i-D on Instagram and TikTok for more photography.

a woman gather pebbles in a jacket in a photo by olivia arthur
Olivia Arthur, Magnum Photos for Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello


All images courtesy Saint Laurent/Magnum

Saint Laurent