Viviane Sassen: In and Out of Fashion

National Portrait Gallery, Scotland

Until February 2, 2014

December 1, 2013
by Amelia Rowland
Viviane Sassen, In and Out of Fashion

Dutch-born photographer Viviane Sassen has become synonymous with the murky, coalescent worlds of both fashion photography and contemporary art. Increasingly, fashion-related exhibitions have drawn large crowds within established international gallery spaces, seen in the recent From Club to Catwalk at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London to as far afield as Feel & Think: A New Era of Tokyo Fashion  at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation in Sydney, Australia. These exhibitions reveal how the boundaries of what is considered ‘fashion’ has changed over time, and how processes of conceptualizing and creating fashion have become more elaborate, thoughtful and critical.

A flurry of press has heralded Sassen as a symbol of  contemporary fashion photography. Sassen’s photography transcends the ‘hyper-sexualised’ world of commercial fashion photography;  proof enough that the debate over whether fashion photography can be classified as an art form is only just beginning.

2013 has been a dynamic year for Sassen.  She exhibited in a number of group fairs including the Unseen Photo Fair in Amsterdam, and been featured in print magazines such as Vrij Nederland. In and Out of Fashion combines various projects developed for solo shows with printed magazine portfolios. The exhibition is a retrospective of Sassen’s commercial photography from 1998 to 2012, and is an entrancing showcase of the diversity and complexity of her work. Sassen’s  consideration of the human form, and her experimentation with fashion and clothing and how it adorns, shapes and effects our visual perception of bodies is highlighted. Each model contorts and poses in ways that appear surreal, disjointed and other-worldly. The bodies are writhing, tilting, falling backwards, suspended, obscured and never the same across photographs. This retrospective is an encouraging introduction for Scottish audiences to Sassen’s work.

After experiencing the neo-gothic splendour of the Scottish Portrait Gallery with its bright, sparkling friezes, the Sassen exhibition is conversely dark and mellow. The visitor first enters a low-visibility room as one of Sassen’s photographs is projected behind them. It is a telling introduction to the retrospective, and is accompanied by a second visual projection on the opposite side of the wall. These are photographs from Sassen’s book In and Out of Fashion, and once magnified are increasingly surreal and enveloping. The full beauty and contrast between Sassen’s works is realized in these projections.

The curators also present works in a more static, well-lit format: framed on the gallery walls, with separate composition sketches and magazines presented in cases. We are shown the complete process of Sassen’s photography practice, starting from the origins of her idea to their  final realization in a published medium. These photographs are not only single shots, but are careful deliberations. The display allows the visitor to view the full visual complexity of Sassen’s work, from her more recognizable fashion photographs to a quietly powerful series of nudes.

In and Out of Fashion addresses the Scottish National Portrait Gallery’s growing commitment to exhibiting international photography. This exhibition follows on from the popular Man Ray Portraits retrospective, another photographer who merged art and fashion.