AN ODE TO BEAUTY...
text YORCA SCHMIDT-JUNKER
Qvest Magazine, artists portfolio edition out now.
text YORCA SCHMIDT-JUNKER
Qvest Magazine, artists portfolio edition out now.
AN ODE TO BEAUTY... no less: photographs by simon Procter, widely considered as the grand master of haute couture photography. His signature style, presenting fashion as a mise-en-scène, imbued with an iconic aura, is legendary. mr. Procter delighted us with beautiful images from his private archive of the chanel cruise collection 2009/2010, shot on the Venice lido. the photos published as an exclusive here demonstrate just why this englishman is one of the top names in his profession ...
Paris, a hot muggy July day: the thermometer is already indicating a tropical 24 degrees celsius at 9 in the morning. it’s been that way for days. and is gradually starting to get on my nerves. i rush from the »bastille« metro station through the 11th arrondissement, first along the boulevards, then through narrow streets and finally down tiny alleyways, doing my best to be on time. at long, long last i reach the street i’m heading for and spot the house number above the large heavy wooden door. i enter the code my host has given me into the electronic security device by the door. a quiet buzz, i push hard against the door and step carefully over the threshold – and find myself in another world. i forget the heat, my lack of sleep and the ever-present bustle of the metropolis, still so tangible just outside the doorway. looking at the magnificent, sweeping courtyard, surrounded by old trees covered in a thick mantle of creepers, not to mention the fragrant bunches of jasmine that seem be tumbling in cascades down the walls of the houses, i feel as if i’ve suddenly landed in the 19th century. Full of amazement, i stroll past small picturesque ateliers and workshops that have set up shop here, including an old tapestry workshop. as if that weren’t enough of a cliché, the courtyard is also bathed in a light so lovely that not even william turner could have done better. everything here has a wonderful aura of the archaic about it, untouched by the high-tech world outside.
the atelier of the man i have arranged to meet for a photo shoot of the exquisite pieces from the Chanel haute couture, presented the day before, looks more like an artist’s studio than the work- place of one of the world’s most famous fashion photographers: a light-filled maisonette, the glass roof strikingly draped with ruffled fabric. the centrepiece is a generous set of sofas, with my host’s children and cats taking turns to leap across them – or simply tumbling around together all at once. the real heart of the space however is the open-plan kitchen, where assistant aimee is just baking croissants and pains au chocolat.
it is important to give such a detailed description of the surround- ings in which simon Procter works. that is the only way to understand why his images look the way they do, and to grasp the signature style of this self-taught photographer, who is one of karl lagerfeld and Vivien westwood’s favourite photographers when it comes to creating unique stagings of their work. John galliano is a fan too. but more about that later.
Simon Procter’s works are different from his colleagues’ photographs: whereas fashion photography – particular in the blog era – always seems to be trying to be as up-to-the-minute and as much in keeping with the zeitgeist as possible, often deploying aggressive sexualisation as a stylistic device, this english photographer’s work seems downright old school. not in the sense of being old- fashioned, traditional or from bygone times, but instead in terms of artistic virtues such as careful composition of the image, a coherent setting, virtuoso play with light and a generally ethereal air far removed from any kind of artificial posing or strident attitudes.
In keeping with this, Procter, who has made France his home, has an english Fine art Honors degree to his name, with a particular emphasis on painting and sculpture. He came to Paris in the late 1990s, in order to survive, he had to take on all kinds of jobs, and sometimes these seemed more like a kamikaze mission than artistic work. One of these jobs turned into his first photographic assignment: when he happened to meet James kaliardos, make-up artist and co-founder of new york’s Visionaire magazine, kaliardos suggested he should just take a few photos. For example, of the next Dior show. to top it all, not only did he send this beginner straight off to face the Galliano circus; the next surprise awaited the novice on the spot. the idea was that he would shoot the catwalk from above, balanced 35 metres up with only wobbly scaffolding beneath his feet. he rose to the challenge, producing brilliant work, which shaped his dazzling entrance into a new metier. »the day before my first photo shoot i didn’t even know how i was going to pay for the batteries for my flash. Five weeks later i was already shooting a global advertising campaign for Nike«, he recounts, summing up how it all began.
however, his artistic home has become the world of haute couture, for with his flamboyant, sensual and opulent style he fits into that milieu better than almost any other photographer. his work always exudes a sense of enchantment and rapture; the models seem to be literally floating in the space, elevated beyond the here and now. his admiration for the legendary painter and illustrator gustave doré can be seen shimmering through in these photos, whilst other works by Procter recall paintings by gainsborough and reynolds, as exemplified in the current Royal Ascot campaign showcasing creations by Vivien Westwood and milliner Stephen Jones. Procter transports us into another age, another world; he breaks out of the rapid pace and short-lived apparitions of fashion, which he describes in the following terms: »the speed is the most fascinating thing about fashion – and the most exhausting«.
with hindsight, a photo that Procter took of his compatriot John galliano backstage in 2006 seems downright visionary. it shows Dior’s former chief designer shortly before the show when the acade slips for a moment and his traits reveal the extent of the burden he was struggling with. this is not the radiant countenance of fashion: this is the face normally so carefully concealed, resigned, painful. For all its bluntness, it is still a lovely portrait, revealing a glimpse behind the mask of genius. a record that seems to presage his demise. an image that exposes the fact that fashion is no gentle muse but a tough business. this is no excuse for galliano’s unspeak- able outbursts, which signalled the end of his days at Dior. yet per- haps an explanation, already documented here. simon Procter is aghast at galliano’s inglorious demise: »this whole affair makes me really sad, something within it is deeply wrong«. nevertheless he still wishes galliano – to whom, indirectly, he also owes much of his career – all the best.
here we see another of the hallmarks of this master photographer’s work: his closeness to people, the unconditional benevolence and friendliness he displays towards them. when i met simon for the first time on that hot July day the first thing he did was give me a
glass of homemade iced tea. his greatest concern, alongside making sure that everything was perfect for the Chanel photo shoot, was that the whole team hadn’t had a proper lunch. that’s why his assistant, aimee, was put to work preparing a thai curry, whose spicy aroma promptly infiltrated the exquisite Chanel gowns, a state of affairs, which, it is rumoured, made monsieur lagerfeld’s right- hand man utterly furious. Simon Procter is a family man through and through – which means at times he ends up holding his vivacious 3 year old son in his left arm whilst shooting fashion with his right, with his six-year-old daughter scurrying around the set in the background. the quality of his pictures doesn’t suffer at all from this: on the contrary, all the animation of the moment seems to seep into his shots, giving them their uniquely authentic yet magical air. Procter, from a working-class background in the north of england, a region shaped by the unglamorous influences of mining and heavy industry, never let himself be taken in by the dazzling surface beauty of the fashion world. despite his dealings with supermodels and gowns with a price tag approximately the same as for a luxury car, this father of two children feels deeply linked to his roots – growing humble at times as he comments: »on a personal level, the class struggle in britain is a darkness that touches in an oblique way. i think there is a whole generation in the north of my country that has been neglected and utterly forgotten. my brothers do not have the same life as me«.
in all probability this insight also has a decisive influence on his work. and turns fashion photos into visual poetry. that makes him a worthy inheritor not just of the tradition of gainsborough or turner, but also of John milton.