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Book Review: In and Out of Fashion

In and Out of Fashion. Photographs by Viviane Sassen.
Published by Prestel, 2012.
In and Out of Fashion
Reviewed by Christopher J. Johnson

Photographs by Viviane Sassen.
Prestel, Lakewood, 2012. Hardbound. 260 pp., 250 color illustrations, 9x11"

Viviane Sassen is Dutch by birth, but much of her photography is shot in Africa, particularly South Africa. Photophiles are likely to be familiar with her name. Her career, at a glance, is long and varied. Some of her most well known work focuses on interiors and street life in modern Africa. Die Son Sien Alles, a recent book of her work, features a series of photographs of interiors around the township of Cape Town. These photos focus on the human environment and its strange contrast between idealized visions and the reality of place.

In and Out of Fashion has a good deal of Die Son Sien Alles' vision, but thrives on a different sustenance. It is a retrospective catalogue of Sassen's last 17 years in fashion photography that has appeared in diverse yet loosely connected fashion magazines (Purple Fashion,Pop, Dazed & Confused), all of them alt-fashion. Sassen's fashion work is alluring, extremely well composed and always a little off-putting. Her models are contorted into strange shapes or part of their bodies, often their faces, are obscured, marred by body paint, plants, and awkward body language. This creates a trademark style that is, for lack of a better term, Sassenese.

In and Out of Fashion, by Viviane Sassen. Published by Prestel, 2012.

"Viviane is not working with an idea of obvious beauty… She could be working with the most beautiful model, but she's not thinking of this model as a human beauty, but more as a texture, a volume," says Guillaume Henry about Sassen in an interview circa 2012. The fashion photos make that clear. Models are shown chopped into angles by mirrors or lay strewn down stairways. Though it may be difficult to tell in 2013, when some of these earlier works first appeared they were a reversal of previous fashion photography trends and part of anti-fashion photography. Bodies are indeed vessels for Sassen. Disembodied legs show off shoes, missing faces show off dresses and skirts. Sassen's models are mannequins who have come alive. There is something static and moldable about them. Her men and women are sculptures for designer clothes more than they are people who sport vests, capes, blazers and dresses. The posturing is familiar and without conventional refinement which, regardless of the flawless beauty of many of these models, calls to mind the urchins and waifs of Egon Schiele and his contemporaries.

In and Out of Fashion, by Viviane Sassen. Published by Prestel, 2012.
In and Out of Fashion, by Viviane Sassen. Published by Prestel, 2012.

Color in Sassen's photography is its own beast too. Colors or washed out but white backgrounds are offset by lavish, often pastel or neon body paint. She seems constantly to contrast clothing with the skin and even the hair of her subjects. Lighter shades of fabric are made more explosive by contrast. White clothes are brought into focus more clearly by neon blue flesh or a streak of purple in the hair. This effect works brilliantly in drawing attention to the fashion side of her photography.

In and Out of Fashion, by Viviane Sassen. Published by Prestel, 2012.

In and Out of Fashion is sturdily bound and printed on thick paper stock with excellent color quality. The photos are followed up with a collection of very informative essays on Sassen's art. The book could have benefited from an introduction, but that complaint quickly abates as one flips through the first dozen photos and is immediately and pleasantly plunged into Sassen's world of form and beauty.—CHRISTOPHER J. JOHNSON

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CHRISTOPHER J. JOHNSON is originally from Madison Wisconsin. He came to Santa Fe in 2002 and graduated from the College of Santa Fe majoring in English with an emphasis in poetry. He is an arts writer for the Weekly Alibi in Albuquerque.