Cathleen Naundorf: Haute Couture

German-born, France-based Cathleen Naundorf paints with a camera. In fact, it was with a brush rather than a camera that she took her first forays into the world of art in the 1980s. The following decade put her on the photographic map as she traveled the world, camera in hand, specializing in reportage on indigenous peoples, ranging from the Yanomami tribe deep in the Amazon to the shamans of Yakutia, Siberia.

Inspired by her friendship with Horst P. Horst, Naundorf refocused her career on fashion. In 1997, she used her reportage background to document the controlled chaos of backstage Paris fashion shows for Condé Nast publications. Other periodicals of mode soon took notice.

With the new millennium came a new way of shooting—using large-format Deardorff and Plaubel cameras loaded with Polaroid and negative films. Her seven-year series "Un Rêve de Mode" used gowns pulled from haute couture archives of the leading European houses of fashion, including Chanel, Dior, Gaultier, Valentino and Lacroix. With the series, Naundorf created one of the first great bodies of fashion photography work in the 21st century. Her elaborate and cinematic productions grace the pages of Haute Couture: The Polaroids of Cathleen Naundorf (Prestel). An accompanying international touring exhibition firmly established her as one of the most sought-after fashion photographers working today.

4pm in London. Philip Treacy design.

DPP: How has your study of painting influenced your photographic eye?

Cathleen Naundorf: I learned a lot from paintings—the positioning of the models, the detailed preparations before the finalizations, the composition of colors, the framing and the reading of light. I still often go to galleries and museums to see the Italian and Flemish Renaissance paintings and drawings. It gives me an immense amount of inspiration for my photographic creations. When I traveled last year to Italy, I visited the Sistine Chapel and the museum of the Vatican. Michelangelo’s powerful drawings, with their movements and colors, are timeless.

DPP: Since you first studied painting, why did you switch to photography for your artistic expression?

Naundorf: I was bored sitting alone in an atelier. I wanted to see the world and get out of a closed room. Photography gives you the opportunity to travel and a nice excuse to go to exotic places where most people never go. The doors are quite open when you have a camera in your hand.

The Crying Game. Dior.

DPP: How has your work in reportage influenced your fashion work?

Naundorf: After 10 years traveling around the world, I did some assignments as a backstage photographer during the fashion shows in Paris. I found it very exciting to see how they created beauty. I also found it interesting to meet and photograph the girls, which they called models during the fashion shows, the same girls I had met in places like Russia, Brazil and Norway on my travels. I knew their real lives. I discovered the interest human beings have for both glamour and different ethnicities. Combined, it’s a very interesting subject. Reality and illusion. So I slowly began to create in my fashion scenarios my own world of "glamour," with a mix of romance, theatre, ethnic studies and humor. A painterly touch helps me to create poses and a sense of eternity.

In 2012, Naundorf’s book Haute Couture: The Polaroids of Cathleen Naundorf was published by Prestel.

DPP: Who are some of the artists and photographers who have influenced you?

Naundorf: Horst P. Horst is on the top of the list. He was a master of light and shadow. He had an absolutely incredible aesthetic and was a great lover of beauty. He was my mentor for many years. Irving Penn has been another endless source of inspiration. There’s so much depth to his photographs. Penn captured the eternity of the human being. There’s a simple message in his photographs of existence. Both Horst and Penn were masters of the portrait, still life, travel photography and fashion. Simply genius!

DPP: How do you develop your concepts for your photo scenarios?

Naundorf: I get inspired from life itself. I do a lot of drawings and storyboarding to prepare my team for the shoots. They’re based on intensive research, which goes into my storyboards, which often include archival photographs, text I’ve written or been inspired by, and my sketches for the planned shoot. This gets everyone in the right mood for the story. I’ve done travel diaries and storyboards for years. It’s one of my happiest times, expressing thoughts and developing ideas on paper, but I used to throw them away. It was a question of space. But my friends kept telling me that they’re pieces of art and that I need to keep them. So now I do, and maybe someday, we’ll publish them.

L’arche de Noé VII. Philip Treacy design. Dior Haute Couture Summer 2012. Photographed in the Studio Bastille, Paris. Color print from original Polaroid.

The Evolution of Fashion.

DPP: Do you paint your own backgrounds, or do you design them and have someone else paint them?

Naundorf: I used to paint my own backgrounds, but these days, I sketch out the ideas and somebody else paints them, except on occasion for some small ones. It’s a matter of time.

DPP: Since you’re shooting negative film and Polaroids, how do you deliver the finished images to your clients? Are you reworking the images in Photoshop, then delivering high-resolution files?

"I get inspired from life itself. I do a lot of drawings and storyboarding to prepare my team for the shoots."

Naundorf: We scan the pictures and deliver them digitally, and usually with a printed proof so they can reproduce the images as close as possible to the original Polaroid or black-and-white prints. For the most part, we don’t rework or retouch the original images.

DPP: What camera and lighting equipment are you working with?

Naundorf: I work with the old large-format Plaubel and Deardorff 4×5- and 8×10-inch cameras. My lighting depends on the location and mood I’m going for, which is often quite different for each scenario. For artificial lighting, I use old Fresnel mid-century lamps. They’re hard to get, but project magnificent light. And, then, there’s sunlight. What’s more beautiful than the light that keeps us alive?

To see more of Cathleen Naundorf’s photography, visit her website at Her fine-art photography is represented by the Hamiltons Gallery (Lon
don), Fahey/Klein Gallery (Los Angeles) and Edwynn Houk Gallery (New York).

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