As a teenager in Germany, Sylvie Blum had a photograph hanging on her bedroom wall created by famed Hollywood-based celebrity and fine-art photographer Greg Gorman. Decades later, she not only would join the ranks of world-renowned photographers, but she would be enjoying a glass of GKG Cellars’ wine created by Gorman while they sat poolside at her studio in the shadow of the Hollywood sign. At this get-together, Gorman revealed that he had created the cascading waterfall that plunges into Sylvie’s pool for a shoot he did with Brooke Shields the year before. Talk about a small world.
The bumpy road to successful fine-art photographer began for Blum on the other side of the camera. She modeled for photographic luminaries, including Helmut Newton, Andreas Bitesnich, Jan Saudek and Guenter Blum.
DPP: Everyone takes their own route to being a successful photographer. How did you get started?
Sylvie Blum: Since I was four years old, I knew I was going to be an artist. I was always into art, beautiful things. I later studied fashion design; then when I was 19, working as a model, I met photographer Guenter Blum in Frankfurt at a casting. He came from painting and sculpture, and his photography was nudes. He was very inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. He built huge crazy sets and made nude photographs inside them. I was so fascinated by him and what he did. He was 20 years older than me. He was really cool and very artsy. He was the artist I imagined that an artist would be.
DPP: Did you get the modeling job?
Blum: Yes, of course! I not only did the job, I became his muse, his lover and eventually his wife. He passed away from cancer in 1997.
Since I was four years old, I knew I was going to be an artist. I was always into art, beautiful things.
DPP: He had a huge effect on your life on so many levels.
Blum: I was absolutely stunned by the way he saw things, how he approached things and how he could make something extremely beautiful out of nothing. He was the all-around artist. He built the sets, sewed the costumes and made the backgrounds. He taught me how to develop film and print in the darkroom. I went to school for that, as well. In Germany, we have a bit of a different education system for learning a trade. You go to school for three years, but you work practically, as well. I worked in a photo studio that had a shop that sold cameras and supplies, and I took pictures of events, people and weddings. I also had to go one day a week to school and take tests like you do for a driver’s license.
DPP: So you learned from the ground up. When did you start defining your eye and your style?
Blum: For all the years with Guenter, I always had my vision of doing things, but there wasn’t much time for me to shoot. I was so involved with his work—managing, modeling, creating exhibitions and doing book projects—as well as still doing other modeling jobs. I started to work on my own photography in the late 1990s.
DPP: That was after Guenter passed?
Blum: After he died, it was a really rough time. I thought I had to get some distance from photography. I put an announcement in the newspaper to sell all the camera equipment. People came into our studio that was in an old factory in Frankfurt, but I couldn’t sell anything. I said to all these people, "Please, go." They thought I was totally weird. That evening, I took the self-portrait that’s on my wall now as a reminder of that time. I decided I was going to be a photographer. The spirit of Guenter Blum would live through my work.
DPP: Yet the nudes you create, even from the beginning, have a very different look.
Blum: I’ve always had a different vision. This was a time when I was still being booked for modeling jobs. I didn’t feel the same in front of the camera anymore. Something changed. I bought an old Polaroid SX-70 camera and photographed myself, and these blurry, crazy self-portraits became my first book and first exhibition.
DPP: It sounds like they reflected the turmoil you were going through at that time.
Blum: Absolutely. It was a very painful time. Guenter and I were a close team, and when he died everything turned around. It took me a while to become a normal person again. As I did, my very clean style developed. Taking a picture, for me, is preserving a moment. Nobody can ever take it from you. It’s there forever. If you do a good picture, it will last. It will stand the test of time. I wanted to grow and do something new, so I sold our studio in the city and moved to the countryside and bought another factory and turned it into a studio. It’s very romantic and very cool, but if you want to become successful, if you want to get all those good people to work with—models, hair, makeup—it’s difficult.
DPP: What brought you to the U.S.?
Blum: I first moved to Portland, Oregon, in 2005 with my second husband because of his job. In 2007, I rented a studio in downtown L.A. and flew back and forth. I like the light in Los Angeles, as well as the attitude here and the models. There’s an influx of so many models with so many different looks. I’m like a spider—in the web, I catch these beautiful models to work with.
DPP: What do you look for in a model?
Blum: For me, a beautiful model is very natural in her look and in her attitude. I like very athletic women, but it can be the opposite as long as they’re very natural. I like women that show self-confidence. For example, there’s a bald-headed model I work with. For a girl, it’s mentally very tough to shave your head. She’s a very interesting art model. She gets to know the angles I’m looking for and she delivers.
DPP: You worked as a model with Helmut Newton who, like your late husband Guenter Blum, was very inspired by Metropolis. Who are your other inspirations?
Blum: I modeled twice for Helmut in the 1990s. I love his concepts. I remember when I was a teenager, I saw Peter Lindbergh’s pictures where he used the heavy industrial areas of the Ruhr region as backgrounds. I thought it was so different and so cool. Greg Gorman’s work is so clean and graphic. Robert Mapplethorpe’s work shocked me. The first time I saw his work it was in a German publication. It was his "Self-Portrait with Bullwhip." I had never seen a thing like this before. It was so weird and repulsing and at the same time so interesting and original. It was very brave for someone to open themselves up like that to the public. I bought one of his books, and I couldn’t let go of it. There were the Polaroids, the flowers, the sexual scenes, the celebrities, the fashion pictures, until the last image—where he’s already showing signs of his impending death—where he’s holding a stick with a skull. Seeing his whole body of work is so interesting because it’s so pure, rough and beautiful at the same time.
It was very inspirational to me that someone lives his feelings and cures himself through his work.
DPP: It seems like for your images you’re working like Rodin or Camille Claudel worked with clay, molding a model into position.
Blum: Yes, that’s a beautiful image of what I try to do. I exhaust my models. They have a very good workout. I push them to their limits. I know where their limits are and I want to go further. Sometimes when you work with a model for the first time, you have to have a warm-up and shoot a little bit faster so she has the feeling that you like what she’s doing. It’s just a warm-up; then you start pushing her and observing her and directing her. I almost always direct the models into the positions I want them to be in.
DPP: What equipment are you working with to capture your images?
Blum: I work with a Hasselblad and Hensel flashes in the studio and natural light outside. I love the light in L.A. I have a wall outside my studio, and I always know which part of the wall I’ll use at a given time of the year. In March, the light that hits, it’s harder. It gets softer toward summer. In the morning, with the reflection of the pool, there are all sorts of shadows and cool stuff going on. I observe, then I get a model and create a story.
DPP: Are you using reflectors or lights when you work outside?
Blum: Sometimes I’m using a reflector or two; it depends on the look I’m going for. Heavy shadows can be very effective. Some people say you shouldn’t shoot at noon or 1 p.m. "Oh, you have to shoot early in the morning or golden hour." Sometimes you can’t because you have to schedule in the models. For me, it’s a question of how to position people into a given light. If you’re having difficulty, maybe you have to have the model twist her head or whatever to make it work. Posing and angles are very important in my work. Making a model understand that beauty is nice, but it’s more important to work with your body like a dancer or an athlete in front of the camera and come up with angles that are different and interesting. Some models can twist and do really interesting things with their arms. Or they can bend. From my background in front of the camera, I really know what you can do with posing. The really fascinating models aren’t necessarily the ones that turn heads on the street; these are the models that work their bodies, that work their expressions. They know their angles. This makes a model magic.
DPP: What are you doing in terms of makeup?
Blum: I have the models put Vaseline® on their skin because it reflects the light, it swallows the light, it tunnels the light. It’s pure. But basically, I use no makeup for the nudes. For me, it’s tacky. If you think like the 1920s for a Peter Lindbergh thing, it’s really beautiful. I really like that. Makeup makes a girl sexy and delicious. A male photographer will approach the female body with desire—which is totally cool because this is nature, but it’s a different kind of appreciation. This isn’t what I’m after. I love to create graphic forms with the human body. If a woman or a model is brave enough to take their clothes off, then it’s very luxurious. No dress can come close to what you have naturally.
You can see more of Sylvie Blum’s photography at www.sylvie-blum.com. Her latest book is Naked Beauty (teNeues), and she’s represented by the Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles.