Camille Vivier’s work completely transcends the usual norms of fashion photography. While looking at her work, we are transported to a planet beyond our own — one filled with an overwhelming sense of melancholic fantasy and romantic surrealism. Camille has contributed to Dazed, i-D, and Numéro among others and boasts a handful of awards for her moving image and photography work, such as winning the first photography prize at the prestigious Hyères fashion festival.
Katrice Dustin met the devout Parisian at a large classic-style cafe in the heart of the city’s iconic district of Saint Germain. Soft spoken, stylish and incredibly intelligent, Camille Vivier gave us her rundown of Parisian life, what eroticism means to her, and all of the things and places that make her tick…
What was growing up here in Paris like for you?
Paris is something very familiar to me — it’s my hometown! I guess you feel a bit spoiled living in Paris because there are so many wonderful things here, and of course its a very beautiful city. But at the same time, it’s also very old in its traditions and very bourgeois. But there’s no real street culture here — not like in London or New York — everything is more hidden, more underground.
My first time here, I had expected to just get off the Eurostar and have everything I wanted at my feet. But it’s not like in London where if you want to get into something, there are very clear, accessible means to do so. Here it seems much more secretive…
Yeah, it’s like that. You have to belong to a group, that’s still very much in the culture. Obviously there is an established art world and fashion world, but in a lot of ways it’s all very traditional. And there are so many different neighbourhoods and communities where things happen… I think it can sometimes be a bit disappointing for youngsters.
Do you think times have changed compared to when you were a teenager trying to get into the arts here?
I think it was much harder back then! You really had to know the people. It wasn’t really about your work or your personality. It was just about who you knew.
“In my childhood, photography was something very classical and I wasn’t even interested in fashion photography.”
Who you know — the classic line! Your career is based here now. What are your favourite things about the city these days?
Paris is so contrasted. If you know Paris — and also the suburbs of Paris — you can find really interesting things. I’m very into in public art. There is a lot of commissioned art, mostly sculptures from the 70s and 80s, still tucked around the city. I wouldn’t even say they’re beautiful. They’re often located in very weird places like council houses… but because I’m Parisian I’m lucky as it’s very easy for me to find these hidden places. I walk a lot and I also cycle. I enjoy walking around and going to see people I know. I have a friend who owns an antique shop near here so sometimes I might take a walk down here and go in and maybe ask to borrow something for a shoot. It’s also such an old city so you can find all these old beautiful things. I also love that there is this mix of the modern. You can find a lot of brutalist architecture and very modern buildings, right beside buildings from the middle ages. Of course it’s such a literary city as well…
One of my favourite novels is Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. I re-read it right before the first time I came here and noted all the places he talked about so I could go see them… It’s nice to have that relation to places you travel to. It helps create a sort of fairy tale that can get lost sometimes — like when you take the Metro!
Yes, it’s true. I grew up in a very artistic background — my father was a photographer and then became a painter and my mother was a stylist — so this type of world in Paris became very familiar to me. But it was something that I wasn’t always comfortable with. Sometimes when you’re younger and your parents are a certain way and doing certain things, you tend to refuse them.
“When school is free you just don’t care as much about it.”
You went to Central Saint Martins. How did that affect you and the path your career took?
It was nice! I met a lot of different people from different countries who were all doing different things. I still think that’s what made it the experience that it was for me, more so than the academic side of it… I wasn’t very interested in school. And at that time it was still free for European students, which was probably why I thought that was okay to not be so interested. When school is free you just don’t care as much about it. But I’m still shocked at how expensive it is now… London is already more expensive than Paris! But I felt very free during my time there.
Well I have often thought that the unofficial motto for the young creative people of London could be “poor but free”. Did you always know you wanted to be a photographer?
I always knew I wanted to do visual art. At the beginning I did paintings, videos and drawings. Photography arrived for me when I was given the opportunity to publish my first photos. Before moving to London, I was an editorial assistant at Purple magazine — which was a very different magazine to how it is today. Back then it was mostly arty and underground — not as glamorous. As it progressed, I would contribute my photographs while also doing interviews… I interviewed Harmony Korine, and different bands… It was a good experience.
You’ve exhibited work all over the world. Do you have any favourite cities that you’ve been to?
I find Rome very inspiring. I always have this feeling when I’m in Rome that I am surrounded by all these different eras. It’s very powerful, and I think that the life there is amazing. I really like Tokyo too, because it’s so different; New York, but I haven’t there been for ages so I’m sure it’s changed a lot.
You’ve won numerous awards for your moving image work as well as photography. Did you find that after winning these awards you were suddenly approached more for commercial work?
I won the Hyères photography prize in the first year they introduced photography into the festival. I wouldn’t say that straight after that I had lots of commercial work, but it gave me more opportunities. I got more visibility and some good connections. I guess it made everything a bit more concrete.
“I think that the way I choose to show the female body is maybe more political than the way a man chooses to show a woman’s body.”
In the past you’ve said you reference literature and film in your work. To me your photographs often look like dreamy film stills… Are there any films or specific things that are inspiring you right now, or anything that you constantly go back to?
It’s probably strange to hear but I’m actually the most influenced by painters especially now that I’m doing more nudes. I love Dutch painters and the artists whose work was inspired by those painters. The way that they expressed light and shadows… it’s a part of classical painting that really touches me. Film is a big influence for me too because of the way I take photographs. I don’t work with flash and I use similar lighting that is used for cinema. But it’s not a goal to create images that look like film stills, and it’s maybe even less of a goal for me now. But I’ve always been interested in movies… I watch lots of them. I love the the French director Leos Carax — the cinematography is always very beautiful. He was very inspired by the new wave. I don’t think he’s very famous abroad but he is very well known in France. Of course I love David Lynch along with everyone else…
Well, he’s great! There is this continuous quality of mystery imbedded into everything Lynch does… I see a lot of similarities between his work and yours, actually.
My favourite film of his is Wild at Heart. I even love the cheesy quality in that film and especially the American landscapes, the cars and everything.
Are there any photographers whose work you really look up to?
The first photographer who really showed me another way of looking at photography was Wolfgang Tillmans. It was in the 90s and I bought this fashion photography book where a lot of his work was featured. I had a feeling that his work was very free — not at all classical. In my childhood, photography was something very classical and I wasn’t even interested in fashion photography. Tillmans was definitely my first influence artistically.
“I’m not bossy at all. I’m always the smallest one; I have to stand on a box to take the pictures!”
He really has this way of seeing the world that is so unique. Do you have any favourite fashion photographers?
Bourdin. What I love about Bourdin, is this very French feeling he gives. Sometimes it’s nice to have this sense of identity with people’s work. You can look at their work and you know where the picture was shot and you understand the mood, because it reminds you of something from your childhood, or you can recognise the way women were when you were a kid. And with him there’s always something a bit weird …
Totally. His warped sense of humour is there in every image and sometimes you have to look closely to find it. But you’ve also shot a lot of big names such as Lea Seydoux, who is so beautiful. Who is your favourite person you’ve shot so far?
Lea is very natural and very beautiful. The day after I shot her, she cut her hair and dyed it blue for Blue is The Warmest Color! So I got the last chance to shoot her when she looked like that with her long hair… Of course there are more inspiring models than others, but actually my favourite model is a friend of mine, Anouk. I find her so inspiring and I love the image she portrays. She’s not a model and she doesn’t have the body of a model. Of course I like to work with models for fashion, but to me it’s interesting to give another image of a woman. In the new film I made for Hermès new perfume, I had carte blanche. I approached it as an art film and I asked Anouk to act in the film. It’s very abstract. The last perfume ad for Hermès was filmed by Ryan McGinley so I was really excited to do this…
You’ve shot one of my favorite Album covers: the Understanding by Royksopp. So cool! Can you tell me that story behind that? And kind of music do you like?
That was a cool shoot! We went to a beach in Normandy. My husband is a graphic designer and he put the different faces onto the model’s face… With music now I’m more open — I still listen to a lot of post-punk and experimental. I love Brian Eno too. Mostly old music. Old music for old people!
It’s so hard to find new music though! I listen to a lot of older music because I can never find new music I like…
Exactly. Well yesterday I went to go see Psychic TV.
WHAT! Okay I’m so jealous! I had no idea he was playing here! How was it?
He’s amazing. He or she — you don’t know, haha. He’s very charismatic and very sweet. The music was good but it was more about way he is with an audience. There were lots of people from the fashion world there, it was very fashionable!
I can imagine! So, about your working process: do you tend to direct or do you try to go with the flow of things and let the image come to you as you work?
No, I don’t direct because I’m shy, haha. I just let it go, but I do think about the image before I start. I use lots of references especially for the kind of work process required in fashion. You’re a team — it’s not just you and your vision. The references are also for the hair and makeup, the mood, the attitude: everything. I arrive with my computer full of my references, and I use a lot of references for the lighting. I really need that. Lighting is very important to me.
“I do think that my way of expressing eroticism is very female minded, and quite dissimilar to a man’s version of eroticism. I don’t use the same effects that a man might use to provoke something erotic. It’s more abstract. It’s more of a projection.”
On most fashion shoots I’ve been on, the team will rely so much on the photographer so then the photographer just becomes the sort of manager of the shoot. Of course not every time, but lots of the time.
No, no I’m not bossy at all. I’m always the smallest one — I have to stand on a box to take the pictures! Haha.
The female body is a recurring feature in your work. What initially drew you to depict the female body as such a prominent subject matter?
Well the body is a very classical subject. It has been represented so often in art, and so I think it’s very interesting to give your own point of view and your own unique way of showing a woman’s body. And of course the body is very sculptural, so it’s also interesting see how it deals with the light. It’s also a way to express my own femininity. I also think that the way I choose to show the female body is maybe more political than the way a man chooses to show a woman’s body. It’s also erotic and I’m interested in that side of it too. I do think that my way of expressing eroticism is very female minded, and quite dissimilar to a man’s version of eroticism. I don’t use the same effects that a man might use to provoke something erotic. It’s more abstract. It’s more of a projection.
I think as a woman photographing women, you instinctively approach it from a different viewing point. Anatomically and mentally you relate and therefore your intent when photographing a nude woman comes from a different place…
That’s exactly it. I guess I refuse the way that women are shown. That’s why I also need to do my personal work. I couldn’t do only fashion photography. It’s very interesting and it’s great to work with a team… and of course I like clothes. But if I really want to say something, it’s not with fashion. It’s with my personal work. My goal now is to find a cross between the both of them because fashion photography is more open now, and it’s changing. There is more experimentalism. Fashion is changing too.
I think it can be hard for artists with the internet being such a big thing in our culture: there’s just so much out there now. It can be so easy for artists to seek inspiration from social media and the internet, whereas I find it so interesting that you are someone who finds influence in something like classical paintings. I think we now have younger artists who take so much inspiration from other artists’ work, and of course you see it in fashion, too. It becomes this vicious cycle of copy, copy, recreate, recreate. Which, in my opinion, can make it tough for young artists to make a unique name for themselves when there are all these outside influences affecting their work processes. Would you agree?
Of course I agree. Of course it’s true, because everybody does photography now and you can find so many images on the internet. But still, the eye makes a difference between what is good photography and what is not. There’s still a difference between what is a piece of work at what is not. I also think that young people are much smarter now.
“You have be honest with what you’re showing. Be confident with your way of seeing things. I think that to be respected you have to be yourself.”
1 Granary is proud to support young talent. There are so many emerging talented young artists, and young women especially, making waves in photography now. Do you have any advice for young photographers breaking into the industry today?
I would just say to do whatever you want! And to be free. Always experiment and try different things while being in a working process. Sometimes I think I took the wrong way, and was too shy to do certain thing, but I have the feeling that young photographers are more free now anyway! And not too self conscious or afraid. You have be honest with what you’re showing. Be confident with your way of seeing things. I think that to be respected you have to be yourself.
Are you working on anything now that we can look forward to seeing?
Lots of editorials, of course. I’ve been thinking I might want to publish a book actually. That would be great!
Interview by Katrice Dustin
All photography by Camille Vivier