Stéphane Sednaoui: Energetically Waxing Philosophic

William Klein’s irreverent icon-smashing path through the fashion business in the 1950s and 1960s made stellar careers in fashion photography possible for the unlikeliest of candidates. Helmut Newton, Jeanloup Sieff, Guy Bourdin and even David Bailey followed in his wake and continued to shoot fashion images that challenged the conventions of their time. But first Klein created a stir in another part of town.

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s star was still in the ascendant when Klein burst onto the documentary photography scene simultaneously to Robert Frank. It seemed at the time that Klein’s in your face street shooting style was just too abrasive to inspire the kind of following Frank’s personalised poetics and Cartier-Bresson’s athletic wit generated. Stéphane Sednaoui proves that assessment wrong – he cites Klein as his biggest influence.

Sednaoui has reversed Klein’s path however and took up fashion photography well before he learnt how to fearlessly fling his camera around inside the crowds on the streets of New York. He has recently become familiar with the other side of the lens, as much-photographed escort to Australia’s pint-sized singing export Kylie Minogue.

I had originally made Stéphane’s acquaintance when I was considering him for a Pepe Jeans advertising campaign shoot; we renewed it over the phone recently when he made a now rare trip back to his home town of Paris. I found in Sednaoui a voluble and philosophical individual who has never really reconciled himself with the title “photographer,” and who has never pushed himself, but who is nevertheless constantly busy and rarely if ever to be found at home in his new base, New York City.

[Not long after this interview was published Stéphane Sednaoui and Kylie Minogue were no longer a couple. … Karin.]

Karin: I’ll start off with the usual cliché, Stéphane. How did you become a photographer?

Stéphane: Through the fashion business. I met Jean-Paul Gaultier who has always been full of enthusiasm and energy, and I was just doing some snapshots. I was 19. I showed the pictures one day to some people and they liked them.

Jean-Paul Gaultier was looking for some men with long hair to do his first men’s fashion show, and a woman saw me in the street, then I saw Jean-Paul the day after, and for a few years I did modelling. I was curious and fascinated by the energy and freedom, and then the fashion industry welcomed me. I wanted to be a movie director but I knew no one in that industry.

Karin: Were you aware of photography when you were growing up?

Stéphane: I admired the work of William Klein and Richard Avedon, and eventually I bought a camera, and made some pictures. I remember one night I could not sleep and I was looking at magazines and books, wondering what I should do, and thought I should try to be a photographer, and then voila!

Karin: Those two photographers are American, and you have a real American energy and enthusiasm.

Stéphane: My number one influence is William Klein, and he is my hero. Then there is Richard Avedon, and Robert Frank, then W. Eugene Smith. Then there is Kertész, and Bill Brandt. They are all kind of American or living in America.

Karin: And reportage photographers of sorts!

Stéphane: And Cartier-Bresson, I respect his work but I am not like, “Wow!” He does not touch me as much as those other photographers. They are more about energy, especially William Klein.

Karin: What is it you love about Klein?

Stéphane: He doesn’t care, he just goes for it. You can see the people looking everywhere, wondering, “What is he photographing?” That fits my personality because Avedon, Klein, you are aware of the photographer when you look at their pictures. Cartier-Bresson, you are not aware of his point of view. You imagine him being invisible to the people he photographs. With Robert Frank it is a personal diary of his life. And William Klein, he is like the fifth element of the picture. He is the second subject of the picture, because people are interacting with him.

At the beginning I was intrigued by Klein. I could understand Avedon and Kertész, but there was something I could not understand with William Klein. What is happening? Why are those people looking, and at who? What were they thinking? There was such a freedom in his photos.

When I was in the street with a camera I was too self-conscious, so I wrapped the camera around my hand, and for the next two years I never looked through the camera. That’s how I started as a photographer, holding the camera in my hand, never looking through it. I remember the first time I tried a wide lens, it was when I knew nothing about technique, and I thought, “Aahhh, so that’s how he does it! Now I understand!”

That was when I was 19, and I knew nothing! I based my early career on accidents.

Karin: Do you continue to work that way now?

Stéphane: I became much more restrained, and now I can look in the camera and search for other things graphics, balance, composition. I finally found my way. Before, when I looked in the camera I could see the photographs looked like this photographer or that one or that one.

Now my main thing is energy. Like with Klein it is his energy, not the energy of the people he is photographing. I love the Aahhh! I am not a photographer in my mind, I never wanted to be a photographer. Since I was 12 years old I wanted to be a movie director. Movies are movement, so I try to make photographs with a sense of movement outside the frame, movement that starts outside the picture, enters the picture and then exits the picture.

I like the implication of movement, the juxtaposition of movements, synergy.

Karin: You make multiple exposure pictures too.

Stéphane: I love Man Ray and Surrealism too. Surrealism is every element of reality but switching something, to make it something else. So when I make a blur then it is a dynamic blur like there is something hectic in the background.

Karin: Your more recent work is very different – square format portraits with blurry edges.

Stéphane: Before it was all little cameras, little negatives, panoramic cameras. I needed to leave the 35mm camera behind, and focus on the people. I reached the point where I had to move on. I had a discussion with Giovanni Testino, the brother of Mario Testino, who is an agent. I was going nowhere in my business, because if you do panoramic pictures it is hard to fit them on record covers and magazine pages.

I thought back to earlier things I had done that I had not explored further, like the Björk album cover, where she is right in the middle and boom! You know it is her!.

Karin: You are making her the whole world instead of being with her in the world.

Stéphane: Exactly! Then I defocus on the edges so you are even less distracted by anything else. There is nothing around her, so it is all about her.

Karin: That’s just like looking through a keyhole.

Stéphane: Or coming out of a dream or looking into a telescope.

Karin: Or entering a tunnel of light into another world.

Stéphane: Exactly. It is all those things.

Karin: Stéphane, are you a lucid dreamer?

Stéphane: I remember a lot of my dreams. I love it, they are fascinating.

Karin: Do you ever wonder what all this is for?

Stéphane: I think that we are all like little cells in a big body, and when I produce a photograph I am producing something that hasn’t been tried before. And we all do this because we all have a vision. If you don’t believe in yourself then you have to remember we all have a face, and that face is unique. There are 6 billion faces on Earth, each one unique.

It is the same way with art. You are seeing something and you are the only one seeing in that way. You create something and then you intrigue people around you, like with van Gogh. He was intriguing people around him: Akira Kurosawa was influenced by van Gogh, Andy Warhol was influenced by van Gogh. If not van Gogh then it could be my baker. One day he might bake bread in a shape that I find very intriguing, and that could inspire me.

It is like we are one mind, but we are all independent. It is like evolution in a race of animals, little step by little step. One of them advances just a little, with some particularity that improves the race. It’s the same with ideas, I think. Somebody has an idea, they intrigue other people and open doors for other people.

What we are doing with art is we are trying to go beyond our limits, and explore other territories and see just how far we can go. We use so little of our brain, and every new invention and new idea opens up a few more brain cells. Then we can use more and more of our brains, and that is because of this history of humanity, that writers and bakers and poets and nurses, each one reproduces what he has learned, trying even just one little new thing.

So I am trying many new and little, tiny things, stupid little things like laser light or defocusing on the edges, and that has been done before anyway.

Karin: That’s the idea of morphic resonance, that one human being breaks through a barrier and opens up new things to everyone else. Stéphane, you have a connection to Australia that we should explore.

Stéphane: A long time ago I saw her at a party and I thought she was so cute, then after a while we bumped into each other, when I was meant to do a video with her. Then there was a big Face magazine party. She was so tiny and so lovely that I asked if I could pick her up and throw her in the air. She said, “OK!” Then we met properly the day after.

Karin: Was that before you shaved your head and had the Mohawk haircut?

Stéphane: Oh, no no no. That was right before! When I shaved my head I thought, “Oh, maybe I don’t have a girlfriend anymore. But she loved it. The more strange I am the more she loves it!”

© Copyright Karin Gottschalk 1998, 2017. All rights reserved.