Wednesday, January 13, 2016
Slimane: Talents for Photography
The comparison was apt, given Mr. Slimane’s celebrity and his role in styling the likes of Mick Jagger, David Bowie and Jack White, and the outsize reputation he garnered in his relatively brief life as a fashion designer, starting at Yves Saint Laurent in 1996, when he was just 28, and then at Dior in 2000.
Few people leave their profession when they are at the top of the game. In fashion, perhaps only Tom Ford comes to mind. But even Mr. Ford — after a stint in Hollywood that culminated in his direction of the Oscar-nominated “A Single Man” — came back into the fold and is now designing again.
But Mr. Slimane seems to have left fashion behind with nary a second thought, reinventing himself as a photographer in the past few years, one who has produced an array of strikingly intimate portraits, nearly all of them black and white, of some of the most famous faces in contemporary culture: Amy Winehouse, Lady Gaga, Brian Wilson, Gisele Bundchen, Robert De Niro and Kate Moss.
Never one to talk volubly about himself — interviews from when he was at Saint Laurent and Dior were infrequent, and now read as if they might have been slightly torturous for the young designer — Mr. Slimane has remained somewhat elusive in his new career. He regularly declines to talk to the press and consented to an interview only under the condition that it be conducted solely by e-mail.
His post fashion life has not gone entirely unnoticed, however. Most recently, Mr. Slimane’s photographs of an all-grown-up Frances Bean Cobain — the daughter of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love — became an Internet sensation, bringing Mr. Slimane’s name back into the public domain.
Those portraits of Ms. Cobain — “It was about a simple testimony of her 18 years,” Mr. Slimane wrote in an e-mail — followed a series of well-received gallery shows in Europe and the release of a new book of Mr. Slimane’s photos, “Anthology of a Decade: 2000-2010.” And now there is the unveiling of an exhibition of his new work, “California Song,” which opens on Saturday at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art Pacific Design Center.
Taken together, they represent something of a coming-out party for Hedi Slimane, photographer.
Certainly, for Jeffrey Deitch, recently appointed the director of the Los Angeles museum, Mr. Slimane’s work is worthy of a major multimedia exhibition, which will include prints and projections and feature music by No Age, a Los Angeles band.
“I’ve always, from the beginning, thought that he was one of the most original artistic voices of his generation,” Mr. Deitch said in a telephone interview. “I’m fascinated with artists like Hedi, where there’s a vision of art that goes beyond one’s medium.”
As the name of the show suggests, Mr. Slimane, who is French, has found something of a muse in the state of California.
“It is just about alignments really, and everything falls into place right now,” he said about Los Angeles, which he has called home since last year. “Artists, museums, and galleries are much stronger. There is also the space for everyone, the distance to elaborate. It certainly had a big influence on me.”
When one looks at much of Mr. Slimane’s American work from the last few years, it is hard not to think of the Swiss photographer Robert Frank, the consummate European outsider looking in, identifying and reassigning to Americans their own lost mythology.
“It is almost about a utopia,” Mr. Slimane said of the show, adding: “I discovered Los Angeles in the late ’90s. The city was not at its best at the time, but I fell for it right away. There is something almost haunted about it, a vibrant mythology I find rather inspiring.”
Mr. Deitch said that in Mr. Slimane’s work there seemed to be no clear line between where photography ended and music, fashion or fine art began.
“One of the reasons why there’s such a connection between the photography and the clothing design is that his vision is sculptural,” Mr. Deitch said.
It is difficult to examine Mr. Slimane’s photo work separately from his reign atop the world of men’s fashion. In particular, the Dior years would define a very specific moment in his and pop culture’s conjoined histories. The black skinny jean, the skinny black tie, the short-waisted leather jacket or snug blazer: his work at Dior, where he created Dior Homme, is credited with helping bring men’s wear from the loose-fitting, slacker style of the 1990s into the postmillennial look of form-fitting, clean lines.
When Mr. Slimane left Dior amid well-publicized infighting with executives, published reports suggested he wanted to start his own label and possibly move into women’s fashion. Since then, however, the world of design is one he has not seemed particularly eager to rejoin.
“With fashion design, there was also always a risk at the time to lose the sense of the perspective, the discernment,” he said, adding: “It might have been perceived as an abrupt switch for others, but it felt like precisely the right moment for me, in 2007. I had already mainly defined my style, and could let it on its own for a while, see where it ends up, or survives in the streets.”
For Mr. Slimane, now 47, full immersion in photography was a return to an interest he pursued while growing up. As a student, he took classes in photography and studied political science, in hopes of becoming a reporter and photographer on international affairs.
Ultimately, he would switch his focus to art history. Fashion came next, which, like his photography today, exhibited an intense fixation on rock culture.
“Just like zillions of children, album covers educated and informed me, and certainly did I later transpose organically, rather than by intent, those principles both in fashion design and photography,” he said.
His photo work often portrays musicians at the fringes of fame or notoriety: up-and-coming artists whose bona fides lie primarily in the independent music scene. Others, perhaps, achieved widespread renown (or infamy), like Amy Winehouse or Pete Doherty, but seemed somehow to remain at the frayed, tragic edges of rock culture.
Mr. Slimane wrote that he felt most attracted to “a certain creative honesty, an authenticity, sometimes a vulnerability” when selecting photo subjects. Those subjects, whether emerging musicians or simply someone he discovers on the street, “are usually not yet fully aware of their talent, or grace,” he explained.
“They are either completely restless, in a romantic, antiheroic manner,” he continued, “or, on the contrary, totally introverted — which you might call an ambiguous space, or rather, for me, an oblique space.”
What unifies much of Mr. Slimane’s work is its fixation on the “transient age between childhood and adulthood,” as he described it. It also, as some have praised and others have criticized, vaunts a certain prepubescent androgyny.
“It is about transformation, and search of identity,” he said. “By nature, it is undefined, both psychologically and physically.”
Mr. Slimane attributed his longstanding fascination with androgyny in part to the ambiguities in his first name.
“Hedi was and is still misspelled ‘Heidi,’ and my perception of genders ended up slightly out of focus from an early age,” he said.
“Besides this ambiguity, my first record was a Bowie album,” he said, referring to “David Live,” which he got for his sixth birthday. He absorbed glam rock, he said, which “became a normative experience for me, and certainly the most significant creative influence for the future in both design and photography.”
One of Mr. Slimane’s favorite subjects at the moment — and the promotional centerpiece of “California Song” — is Christopher Owens, the singer and the guitarist for the San Francisco band Girls. A look at Mr. Slimane’s portraits of him make it clear why: the skinny, sad-eyed singer, with his painted nails, long, stringy blond hair, tattoos and haunting stare, perfectly encapsulates the California moment — its sun-infused indie rock sounds and its slacker-fashion renaissance, recalling early images of a young, drug-addled Kurt Cobain, peering warily and wearily into the abyss of impending stardom.
Mr. Owens said in a phone interview that Mr. Slimane’s portraits of Gore Vidal, one of Mr. Owens’s favorite authors, persuaded him to pose for several shoots: one in and around Mr. Slimane’s home in Los Angeles, and two more in Mr. Owens’s environs in San Francisco.
“He doesn’t talk very much at all while shooting or while he’s hanging out; he’s more of a listener,” Mr. Owens said. “He wanted me to very much be myself, you know; there wasn’t any kind of styling or weird things like that, which are always uncomfortable. He just wanted me to do my thing and be very natural. But, at the same time, he knew exactly what he wanted to do as far as the structure of the shot went.”
Still Mr. Slimane remains elusive, even among friends.
“It’s kind of embarrassing now that we’ve become friends, but I really don’t know that much about him,” Mr. Owens said.
That intense circumspection is, of course, what seems to make Mr. Slimane who he is. It’s a kind of resolute searching in the darkness that has come to define his work, which has, in turn, documented and informed, defined and refined the era in which he lives.
“He’s interested in performers, artists, who have an affinity for and an inspiration from the darker side,” Mr. Deitch said. “The work is something that leads into the darkness, but you come out with positive inspiration. It’s not all depressing work. It looks into the deeper recesses of the soul.”
New York edition with the headline: A Fashion Designer’s Second Act. 2016
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