Going Beyond Fashion Photography

Cathleen Naundorf‘s photographs go beyond fashion photography; they are works of art. She borrows from the refined allure of haute couture and numerous other sources. These inspirations can be as varied as the old master paintings of Europe to Hitchcock’s movies “with their suspense” to antique hand-painted French stage sets, and formal Italian gardens. In her quest to pursue the artistic spirit and creative vitality of fashion, Naundorf regards photographs as independent projects that highlight fashion and, most significantly, produce new possibilities for developing lyrical works of art.

“I’m not a fashion photographer. I come from photojournalism. I worked for ten years as a photo reporter. I’m not involved actually in the fashion industry itself. I use fashion for my settings and shoot my work like in cinema.”

Model wearing Jean Paul Gaultier
Cathleen Naundorf, L’enfant terrible, Jean Paul Gaultier, Haute Couture Collection, Summer 2003

The Early Years

Born in the divided Germany of 1968, in Weißenfels, East Germany, Naundorf shared a hometown with the famous photographer Horst P. Horst. She would later meet him, and he would become a significant influence in her decision to become involved in fashion photography. She left her hometown and moved to Munich to study painting and photography. Subsequently, Naundorf worked as a magazine photojournalist for ten years before turning to the world of fashion. She later apprenticed as a photo assistant in fashion hubs like New York, Singapore, and Paris. Soon after, Naundorf would be commissioned to work for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue magazines and became one of their leading photographers.

The Haute Couture Houses

In 2004, Naundorf began a cooperative series with haute couture houses. This series would enhance her reputation and prominence as not only a photographer but also as an artist who was developing an original and seductive aesthetic. Establishing close relationships with designers, Naundorf worked privately with Valentino Garavani on several projects

“I work mostly with haute couture houses with a certain kind of style, a certain kind of beauty, authenticity, and femininity. I choose haute couture because there is high creativity there. These garments are not really something that you wear outside when you want to go out. So, it’s not so much about fashion; I would say it’s about creation.” 

Model wearing Stephane Rolland with zebra and leopard in the surrounding environment
Cathleen Naundorf, L’arche de Noé XXXIX, Stephane Rolland – HC Summer, 2015, C-Type Color Photograph

Constructed Fantasies

Naundorf was creating photographs that highlighted both the designer clothes and unique surrounding environments. She constructs a fantasy and a larger narrative that encompasses aspects of glamour, mystique, and beauty within an image. Historically fashion photography concentrated on selling clothes, which was not the purpose of Naundorf’s projects. 

“At the beginning of my career, when I started photographing these beautiful (fashion) pieces, I picked one up and made a story about it. Then people trusted me. Later on, I could work with an entire collection, and I could work with 15 or even 20 pieces. I’m a storyteller. I get very much inspired by cinema, and I approach my work like cinema.” 

Creating a Story

With broad access to the fashion collections of CHANEL, Dior, Valentino, Elie Saab, Armani, and Gaultier, Naundorf imagines her photographic sessions as a director prepares a movie scene, layering themes and imbuing images with meaning. Naundorf’s pictures encourage the viewer to become interested in what happens beyond the frame. She inspires the development of a rich and evocative story.

“I was always a cinema fan since I was a kid. I looked at old Hollywood and silent films. The silent films are very strong because, without the sound, you can concentrate on the setting and the movement in the story. I’m influenced by Hitchcock and very much influenced by Fellini and his quality of using light to tell stories.” 

The Photographer, the Art Director, and the Coordinator

Cathleen Naundorf performs various roles as the photographer, art director, and coordinator of her photographs. She plans them with meticulous detail on the overall atmospheric, pictorial effect. For the artist, the cinematography is significant, as it dictates the mood of the image.

Artist's collage and sketches used for final photographs
Cathleen’s storyboards

 

Two models wearing Chanel inside of the Grand Palais in Paris
Cathleen Naundorf, Secret Times, Grand Palais I, Paris, Chanel Haute Couture, Color Print from Original Polaroid

“Paris is a very magical city, but I didn’t want to choose the same images that are photographed all the time. I always try to find a special light, a special mood, a special location.”

What it Means to be an Artist

Naundorf understands what it means to be an artist. She responds to the challenge of creating a unique vision by continually pushing herself in search of poetic expression. Naundorf constantly rethinks her use of space, subject matter, and the final image’s presentation. Her different sources of influence result in Naundorf’s work having a captivating and mysterious aura. Influenced by silent films and Film Noir, theatrical lighting, and the inherent storytelling quality of Renaissance art, her photographs are full of drama and authority. Her photographic sessions explore both the subject and the background. A short video by the Victoria & Albert Museum shows Naundorf drawing inspiration from 1930s gowns from the museum’s collection to create photographs using her distinctive vision.

Naundorf’s Polaroids

Influenced, as well, by the large screen of cinema and the imposing physicality of painting, she uses analog large-format cameras, along with Polaroids and film material. Unlike other photographers who utilize Polaroids as preliminary studies, Naundorf uses them as the final product. Ultimately, she has her black and white photographs hand printed as silver gelatin photographs. She develops her color pictures as chromogenic prints. Cathleen Naundorf uses a unique technique of Polaroid transfer she calls “Fresco,” which she created herself. This technique gives the print’s surfaces a quality that includes various markings and irregular abraded patches of color. The final photographs are vibrant with saturated color and particular surface densities that are typical in one of a kind Polaroids.

“As a photojournalist, I had to wait for the right moment and the right light. I was not a creator. After I did it for so long, I realized I liked to have more control over my work and create my own settings.”

Artist's sketches for final photographs
Cathleen’s Storyboard

Fashionable Narratives

There are consistent tenets about fashion photography that Naundorf centers her work around. Naundorf’s richest pictures often surprise us – they create a non-synchronous dialogue between the model, the background, and the clothes. She builds on a narrative that unfolds in museums, palaces, old theaters, and private gardens. She often works sequentially so that a dialogue develops within her photographic sessions, from one image to the next. 

Naundorf’s Many-Layered Images

Generally, well-known fashion photographers produced immediate, easy-to-read images that were not too dense. Naundorf’s aesthetic often involves layering forms, textures, and patterns to produce evocative photographs that are not so easy to digest. These pictures stay with the viewer, and thereupon challenge our powers of observation. They often seem suspended in time and reference mysterious, intangible fantasy spaces as backdrops for contemporary design in fashion. It would be quite easy for a lesser artist to be governed by the beauty of a model. However, for Naundorf, there is a precious balancing act between what she wishes to show us in her pictures and how she brackets their content into a suspended world. A world that engages our sense of dream, desire, and poetry. 

Providing a Respite from a High-Speed World

In a sped-up, precise, and mechanical world – where multiple images pass our eyes at great speeds, always in a hurry, Naundorf’s pictures ask us to slow down, linger, and open our imaginations. Visualizing fantasy and creating poetic, alluring images that draw us ever closer, she carefully constructs a story and invites us to its telling.

Cathleen Naundorf, Hommage to Horst P. Horst, Chanel by Karl Lagerfeld
Cathleen Naundorf, Hommage to Horst P. Horst, Chanel by Karl Lagerfeld, Haute Couture Collection Summer 2006