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Nan Goldin

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TIME Photo Department

Yolanda Cuomo is the curatorial voice behind some of the 20th century’s greatest photographic books. This year, alongside Melissa Harris, Cuomo is co-curating the LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville, Va., June 13 – 15, 2013.

One word comes up again and again, like a shared mantra, when talking with Yolanda Cuomo, or when discussing Cuomo with people who know her: collaboration. Hardly surprising, perhaps, in light of the talent that, at one time or another, the 55-year-old art director and designer has worked with — including creative icons from Avedon and Sylvia Plachy to Twyla Tharp and Laurie Anderson. But one quickly gets the sense that, in Cuomo’s world, collaboration is not simply one way to approach a project; it’s the only way to approach a project.

As her longtime friend (“creative soulmate” might be a more apt description), Aperture Foundation editor-in-chief Melissa Harris, puts it: “Yolanda is simply one of the greatest people I know. She is so full of ideas, and our collaborations [on books, magazines, exhibitions] have been so fantastic because we always approach each project from an utterly fresh perspective. And we laugh,” she adds, making it clear that humor is an integral element of their long-time, enormously fruitful partnership. “We laugh a lot.”

The driving force behind the celebrated Yolanda Cuomo Studio, Yo (as all her friends and colleagues call her) has helped envision and produce some of the most striking and influential art and photography books of the past two decades, including Diane Arbus’ Revelations, Gilles Peress’ Farewell to Bosnia, Pre-Pop Warhol and scores of other titles.
(Incredibly, it was only within the last year, with New York at Night, that Cuomo got what she calls her “first spine.” She’d done 85 books through the years, she told LightBox, “but Norma Stevens and I published New York at Night in 2012 and, holy shit, there was my name on the spine!”).

A graduate of Cooper Union, Cuomo got her start in the publishing world as a junior designer at Condé Nast in the early 1980s. Under the mentorship of the legendary art director Marvin Israel, she not only was introduced to many of the people who would become part of her vast and cherished professional extended family — Plachy, Avedon, Peress, Nan Goldin and others — but also got her very first lessons, from a master, in the power of collaboration.

Yolanda Cuomo at her desk in her Chelsea studio, New York NY, February 4, 2012.

Pete Pin

Yolanda Cuomo at her desk in her new Chelsea studio in February.

“Marvin was so brilliant,” Cuomo says, “and one of the key things I learned from him — by his example, not by his making a big deal out of it — was that bringing other peoples’ voices and sensibilities to a project can make it so much stronger and more wonderful than if only one person holds sway over everything.”

The reason Cuomo got the job at Condé Nast in the first place, meanwhile, is emblematic of another type of creativity altogether.

“I lied,” she says, her mischievous laugh all these years later suggesting that she still can’t believe it herself. “When I was interviewed [for the Condé job] I told them that of course I knew how to do mechanicals. Then I went right out and immediately called a friend and was like, ‘What’s a mechanical?’”

Regardless of how she got her foot in the door, Cuomo learned the ins and outs of the art and publishing worlds from the very best. A quick study, she was eventually asked to oversee a new project by the Village Voice, and in 1985 Yolanda Cuomo was named art director of the Voice’s short-lived, tremendously creative fashion magazine, Vue. There, she and her small staff were afforded the sort of creative freedom that, for anyone working in magazines today, must seem something from another, near-mythical age.

Courtesy of the Village Voice/Yolanda Cuomo Design

Courtesy of the Village Voice/Yolanda Cuomo Design

Cover and spreads from the September 1986 issue of Vue. Photographs by Amy Arbus.

“It was total carte blanche,” Cuomo recalls. “We had to fill 32 pages that came out once a month. We sat in a room and just said to each other, ‘Okay, let’s call up people we love.’”

The names of those people they loved comprise something of a Who’s Who of talent of the era — each one of whom brought a unique sensibility to the pages of Vue. For one shoot, Sylvia Plachy photographed models posing in the trees of a New York cemetery. For another, Nan Goldin commissioned a pregnant bodybuilder friend to model lingerie in the East Village’s Russian baths. Phrases like “creative foment” seem to have been coined to describe exactly the sort of atmosphere that existed when Yolanda Cuomo was learning her chops.

The Voice shut down Vue after just a half-dozen issues, but its young staff, thrilled by what they’d accomplished together, was not ready to quit working as a team. With her assistant and two others, Cuomo found a small office space in Manhattan, and her design studio was born.

The studio’s first photo book was Unguided Tour, a collection of work by Sylvia Plachy.

“When we work together,” Plachy says of her collaborations with Cuomo, “we both have an intuitive sense about editing and designing. Yo is open to new things; she responds to things in the moment. She doesn’t force her point of view. Instead, it’s a free-flowing enjoyment of the evolution of the ideas, and moving toward something new and exciting.”

For Cuomo, inspiration can come from anywhere, from any time and from anyone. An old French book about the Eiffel Tower, for instance, discovered in a bookstore in Paris decades earlier, might influence the design of a photography book today. Closer to home, while making Paolo Pellegrin’s 2012 artist book — designed in a single, breakneck week — Cuomo found a visual muse in her assistant designer’s workspace.

“Bonnie [Briant] had a little color copy of a dog photo that she loved taped to her notebook on her desk, and I saw it and thought, ‘That is so beautiful.’”

A scan of the notebook — Scotch tape and scratches included — became the cover of the Pellegrin book. “That’s the way I like to work,” Cuomo says. “Spontaneously inventing.”

The fact that Cuomo has a full life outside of her work — a life that helps inform everything she does — speaks volumes about her ability to find balance in both the spontaneous and the thoroughly predictable. Living in Weehawken, New Jersey, Cuomo rides her bike every day from her home to the ferry, which she takes across the Hudson River to the West Side of Manhattan and her studio. At day’s end, she heads back across the river, to her “big old Victorian house,” her garden, her family — in other words, to a world that adds meaning and color to her vocation as an art director, designer and teacher.

In the end, that might be the greatest collaboration of them all: the way Yolanda Cuomo weaves family and work, leisure and labor, vision and vocation into a fully realized world of her own making.

Alissa Ambrose & Ben Cosgrove

See more of Cuomo’s work at Yolanda Cuomo Design.

Alissa Ambrose is a freelance writer and photo editor based in New York. Ben Cosgrove is the editor of LIFE.com.

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By Paul Loomis exclusively for ASX, Interview conducted on Monday, February 11th, 2013

Antoinette De Jong and Robert Knoth are the authors of a book called “Poppy: The Trails of Afghan Heroin” that has transformed the way we think about photojournalism.  It doesn’t fall victim to the reporter’s myopia of five hundred word stories three times a week, nor does it follow the western media’s coverage of religious extremism.  Instead it does something that is magical, and that we at ASX have not seen a book of photojournalism do before.  It opens a world that you rarely consider and shows you its pulsing red insides.

Knoth and De Jong are married, and have worked together for many years.  They are from the Netherlands, and have learned to share the task of explaining their project harmoniously.  When they speak, they seem to leave some for the other to finish.

A search for their names on the Internet is little good, you merely find them on Dutch television shows, and maybe encounter a blurb about one or the other.  For us, after reading Poppy, this internet silence was Pynchonesque mystery, and so when they responded to our request for an interview, we were elated. We were not disappointed.

 

ASX: You were both photojournalists before you left the world of commercial journalism and started working on Poppy and other projects.  What led you set out on your own?

De Jong:  I worked in newsrooms for a long time before finally quitting my job and going to India.  From there I went to Afghanistan because at the time, in the 1990s, everyone was telling me how beautiful it was, and saying how much I would love it.  The best times of my life have been in Afghanistan.  Riding through the mountains there on horseback, you just can’t beat it.  I became fascinated.

Knoth: I think it was when I was in Pakistan after 9/11 and then suddenly 3000 journalists showed up all looking for a story.

De Jong: Yes, I had the same experience.  I had been working in Afghanistan, and I was mostly the only person there.  When there are no other journalists you are free to pursue the stories that you feel are important, but when everyone shows up you cannot sell your story, because then there is only one narrative and everyone wants to tell the same tale.

Knoth: It becomes very focused on just a few things, like religious extremism, terrorist groups, attacks, the Taliban, and Afghans beating their wives.  These kinds of stories are what everyone is after.  That was one of the reasons that I began leaning towards these long-term projects instead of the daily news.  When you write three stories a week they are bite sized, and no one knows what is going on in the larger picture.  With Poppy, we were able to cover so much more.

ASX:  As a child I lived in the Netherlands, and it was a very peaceful, idyllic time of my childhood.  What do you think drove you to get on the plane to Somalia or Afghanistan for the first time and go so far away from that European safety?

Knoth: We both grew up in the Netherlands and had very happy childhoods.  My grandfather was a military man actually, as were other people in my family.  My grandfather had a travel agency in the 1920s.  He organized trips all over the world and was one of the first people to take tourists to Africa, the Middle East, and the United States.  He was also a great photographer, a lot better than me. So I think it’s in your blood sometimes, a little bit of gene programming. 

I went to Somalia in 1993 simply because the opportunity arose, and while we were coming over the city I saw a UN convoy moving very fast through Mogadishu.  Then when I stepped off onto the runway I was almost run over by a UN tank, and there were all of these smiling Somalis asking “Whose he? Why is he here?”  I just thought it was a big mistake, almost turned around and got back on the plane, but I ended up staying.  Some people can do this kind of work and some people can’t.

ASX: Which conflicts have you covered for the international press, before starting on the Poppy project?

Somalia in the 1990s, starting in 1994, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tamil conflict in the 1990s, Kosovo, Sudan  and others.

ASX: Somalia gets a lot of press as one of the wildest places in the world.  I think a lot of westerners couldn’t even imagine going there.  Describe a typical day of reporting there, what should a visitor never do there?

De Jong: (laughing) Walk around alone on the street! That’s something you shouldn’t do.

But a typical day there, well, I would always be sick!  Usually I never got sick, and Robert was the one who was sick everywhere we went, but in Somalia it was me.  So I would wake up, boil the water, filter the water, chlorinate the water and then boil it again, and then still get sick!  Then we would go out with our translator and try to take some photographs and talk to some people.  I remember that almost every day there Robert would reach for his camera in the street, and almost in exactly choreographed motion, these little boys would reach down to pick up rocks to throw at him (laughing), it was just hilarious.

Knoth: Its true!  Also in Somalia it never is a smart thing to offend anybody. That might get you killed on the spot, conflicts over work and payment included.  In this case it’s a bit of a story: Weeks before our arrival in the region of Geddo in Western Somalia everyone was already aware that we were coming. We were warned that quite a few people were already competing with each other to provide us with a car and fixer to earn some cash. If you pick one, you piss off the others, who then might pressurize you in working with them.

Before our arrival we already had arranged a safe fixer and car, while landing at the airstrip of Bardera we already saw other cars waiting for us. One of them was Abdi, a nephew of the king of the Marehan clan, which we found out later.  Off course Abdi wanted to work with us, guaranteeing our safety, and he was not inclined to let us go. We managed  telling him that we already had another team, which took a while.

The next day, just when we thought we would not see him again, Abdi returned triumphantly. With him was an old man who was introduced to us as ‘the king of the Marehan.’ Abdi handed us a letter starting with: “Read this letter carefully, it is good for you.”  The king of the Marehan recommended we work with Abdi. If not, the letter read, our safety could not be guaranteed. After a quick discussion amongst ourselves we promised to work with Abdi tomorrow, after which they left. Within half an hour we were on our way to Garbahaarrey, knowing that it would be rather suicidal to return to Bardera any time soon. It’s like being in the Godfather. Offers you can’t refuse.

But I love Somalia.  The people there, they are incredible.  They have this wonderful sense of humor, a playfulness about them, and they really know how to enjoy life.  For them, the fact that you are a westerner isn’t important, it often plays a complicating  role when working in Africa.  It’s a fabulous country.

 

 

ASX: So in all of these countries you must have spent a lot of time finding the right people to talk to. Did you have a method?  Or more broadly, how did you do it?  For example in Afghanistan when you were photographing people working in the illegal poppy fields they seem very relaxed and unconcerned.  This is the case for many people and situations you’ve photographed.  Is there a strategy that works consistently?

De Jong: Just walking in the street and getting to know people is a great way to do it.  You get invited into homes, invited to eat, and people tell you stories.  We prefer to stay in one place for a longer period of time rather than go to five places in the same period.  And always we are looking for people who, by sharing the details of their lives with us, tell the region’s story.

Knoth: An excellent translator is the most important thing. They not only translate but they also introduce you to people in the community.  But no, there is no method that works consistently everywhere.  Working in Afghanistan is completely different than working in Somalia.  The only consistent thing is that you must have someone to break the ice between you and the community. 

De Jong: We also try to always have fun wherever we go.  With the people working in the poppy fields we have a good time, we laugh, and take their pictures.  This is the same everywhere we go. 

ASX: What kind of camera(s) do you use?

Knoth: I have always used film cameras for a few reasons.  A Hasselblad, a few others.  When you go to Afghanistan with digital cameras you run out of batteries in a few days, and then you’re in trouble with no electricity available.  Film cameras also tend to be lighter, and we try to travel as light as possible.  Then you don’t seem as official or as much like a journalist.  Your not holding the newest digital camera.  People tend to forget about you and allow you to work, they don’t give you the same respect and they are more natural. 

De Jong: I shot video the last time we were in Afghanistan with a 200 Euro flip camera.  It was small, lightweight and cheap, but the footage was good and that is what’s important.  One of our translators in Somalia used to make fun of Robert all of time for using these old cameras.  He couldn’t understand why a westerner would use old equipment.

ASX: Poppy is a powerful book, and much of this power comes from how succinct it is.  Although very large, it distills a vast amount of information into a single volume.  Did you have a method for synthesizing so many years of reporting into a single book, once all of the work was done?

Knoth: This was one of the most horrible parts of the entire project.  We agonized over what to include and what to leave out for almost three years.  This project spanned twenty years of our lives, and when you look at it you might think that we set out to do it, that we began with a plan.  But no, there was no plan, we merely realized at some point, several years ago, that we had worked in the region long enough to see something really large and unique.  We saw that it was many of the countries or issued we had been reporting on were in various ways connected and decided to make a book.

De Jong: Of course there were many arguments over what to include and what to throw out.  We both had things that were very important to us.

Knoth: Yes we fought a bit didn’t we?  But after going through 1000 or so rolls of film, maybe more, we had come out with a series of photographs, around 1500, that we felt showed our experience.  Then the book designer got involved, and we gave him what we had.  After he’d looked at it we asked him if it made sense and he said no, he had no idea what had happened or what we’d seen. It made no sense at all. So he broke it up into these epochs, sort of trails that we’d travelled, and suddenly it all began to come together.  That was around a year before the book was published.

The photos were incredibly difficult to choose from because we had all kinds of formats.  I have shot in these regions with large format black and white, with my Hasselblad, with 35mm color, and then Antoinette with an old Olympus 1,her flip camera and a digital Canon, so the mediums really were incredibly diverse.  At one time this might have been unacceptable, but now with the internet, you could even shoot pictures with a cell phone camera, the aesthetic standard has been seriously altered.  We threw out all of the aesthetic photos and focused only on the story. That was a very important part of the process.  We discarded everything that was merely beautiful and had nothing to say.

De Jong: Combining all those different formats also worked well to provide an element of fiction to the book, and at times an almost surreal feeling. As far as keeping it succinct, rather than going in depth on some issues, we felt it was more important to paint a mosaic. Often you only need to hint at something or suggest something in a few words and images. That can already show the fluidity of events and explain the chains and networks and how it’s all connected. We wanted to provide a high density of all sorts of information that seemingly had nothing to do with each other and then peel off the layers and allow the reader to see the story emerging.

We split it up in three layers: first a historical timeline, second our own observations/reportage elements and diary fragments, and the third was captions/extra information related to the pictures shown. And then the main text. Each element was needed to understand the others.  For each country we started to collect information, roughly from the beginning of the Afghan civil War in 1972 till 2011. So it was quite methodical.

ASX: That confirms my initial suspicion that all of the images are highly curated and none are lightly placed. One of the photographs I remember best best from the entire book is the one of Mamik, the blind girl you photographed first in 2001, and again in 2009.  Her transformation was so tragic, and it is one that reveals the desolation and poverty that drives so many people in Afghanistan to cultivate poppy.  Have you seen her again?  Can you talk a bit about your relationship with her?

De Jong: Yes, Mamik’s image was one I was absolutely convinced had to be in the book.  When we first met her we were riding on horseback, not even in trucks, through the mountain communities who were experiencing a terrible drought.  There were many fresh children’s graves.  All of the men had gone off to Pakistan, to Iran, or to Kabul to find work because nothing could be grown any more in the villages.  There were only women and children and old people, and many of the old had stopped eating in order to save food for the children and their mothers.  It was devastating.

When I met Mamik the vulnerability of her position was immediately clear.  There was no medical care for her, and only her friend to take care of her in these very difficult conditions.  She said it herself; she said that she didn’t know what she would do without her friend.

And when we came back almost ten years later, her friend had been married off to another village, and Mamik had to live with her brother and there she was pretty much confined to the house, without anyone helping her. She had no hope left. I thought her position was like that of much of population and in that sense it helps to explain the context of life in Afghanistan.

ASX: When I saw the first picture I thought that you understood her situation much better than she did, and that the horror of that second picture is part of life’s fundamental horror. In that second photograph she has been finally introduced to her own reality.  I thought too that she in many ways represents many of the people in the book, people who participate in the global drug trade because from their situation it is a very viable, reasonable option.  I kept having this reaction to Poppy as I was reading and viewing the photographs, realizing that people react in a logical way to their surroundings, and that if I were them I would almost certainly do exactly the same thing.  I would become involved in the drug trade if it was my only option.

De Jong:  I’m glad you said that, because throughout the book we tried very hard not to be judgmental, to show people in the places they live with their options around them.  This was very difficult, and I worry sometimes that to some people the book might seem a judgment on those it depicts.

Knoth: The heroin trade in Afghanistan set off in the 1980s, as way of funding the Mujahedeen which received large sums of money and weapons from the West and the Saudis, and being quite aware of the fact that they were dealing in opium and heroin on a large scale. Much to the chagrin of the DEA they were not allowed to go after these cartel.  From Afghanistan the drug trade  started to tap into this emerging global network and it has continue to grow ever since. Millions of people now depend on it.

Drugs have become an integral part of our economic system and drugs have been a byproduct of modern warfare since the dirty wars in South East Asia in the 50ties and 60ties.

ASX: This sort of brings us to my next question.  I live in Mexico City, and Mexico has an enormous drug trafficking problem.  I had a friend who was a journalist here in the city, and who sadly died in mysterious circumstances shortly after I met him.  Before he did, he told me that the only option when it came to drugs was to put them in the hands of Governments and Corporations, who he claimed were only potentially evil when they were not regulated, in order to keep them from falling into the hands of criminals, who in his opinion represented a legitimate evil.  After tracing the effects of an extremely powerful (politically and physically) drug, what policies would you urge Western governments, who have drug consumption problems, and other governments, who have drug production and trafficking problems, to pursue?  Do those policies include legalization and taxation?

De Jong: We tend to support legalization, but reluctantly. It’s not going to be the silver bullet, there will always be a parallel market, but it will reduce a lot of the negative side effects, crime, healthcare issues and addiction. We think it is difficult to implement smart policies.  For example the semi-legal marijuana laws in the Netherlands have had some serious drawbacks, and are now playing out in organized crime and violence.  So yes to legalization, but with great care.

 ASX:  So that is one option, if governments decide to legalize, but for many Western governments that does not seem like a political reality within the next several decades.  Do you envision any kind of decline in the global drug trade in the next 50 years?  One precipitated, perhaps, by more advanced surveillance and enforcement methods by governments?  Or will the drug problem grow as new markets open up in the developing world?

Knoth: It is quite impossible to contain the flow of drugs or any other goods for that matter. Much if it having to do with scale.  New technologies and developments have allowed us to increase the scale in/of which we do things and also at a cheaper price.  Container ships can now carry up to 11.000 containers: in less than 10 years’ time the amount goods transported more than doubled from 332 million tons to 828 million tons. It’s impossible to check everything. At the same time drug cartels clog the judicial system with drug runners, often tipping off the police themselves while the big shipment bribe their way through. Another example are IED’s, they are cheap to produce, so in Afghanistan the Taliban have figured out that while planting one IED has little effect, planting a hundred of them is a very effective way of taking on an opponent who in terms of resources is vastly superior. The same goes for human traffickers, counterfeiting goods, etc. Scale has been an effective strategy for the ‘little men to take on the strong men’ so to speak, and to obstruct the entire system of control. The fact that crime has gone transnational makes it even worse since governments are restricted to operate within their own countries. The US and NATO logical response is drones and special forces operating in more than a hundred countries in a desperate attempt to stem the growing anarchy.

Whether that is the smartest response is a different matter altogether.

ASX: In Mexico the Narcos have more planes and better guns than the police.

Knoth: Right, they are being outspent.  It’s a matter of money. 

ASX: On the back of “Poppy” the first line is “In the 21st century, globalization has opened up the world for better or for worse.”  This question is simple, and at some point everyone decides it for themselves.  For you, globalization is ultimately what kind of force?  Do you fear its impacts or believe in its liberating power?

Knoth: Well I don’t know, it’s very difficult to say, I think it’s both.  For me it’s both.  It’s much better than the cold war.  (laughs)…  It has improved the lives of millions, if not billions of people though, without a doubt.  On the other hand some of the consequences we have seen are very dire.

De Jong: Absolutely, it’s very complicated and very difficult to understand as a phenomena.  Poppy is a result of it though, in many ways.  Its coverage, its expanse, which you have mentioned, was only possible with the Internet. But 21st century globalisation is a process of transformation, as it was in late 19th century when we moved from an agricultural society towards an industrial society.

Knoth: Back then it also led to massive instability eventually leading to WW1 and WWII. At the moment the chaos around us is growing as well. So maybe it’s time to start looking at what is going from a different perspective, the economic rationale behind it instead of religious extremism vs democracy. Our book is an attempt to do that. If anything Poppy is about transformation.

De Jong: Without the Internet… you’ve mentioned your debt to the Internet in terms of what you are aware of and what information is available to you, we are the same.  The amount of information that we were able to integrate into Poppy would not have been possible without the net.  Our research phase was enormous, and honestly I don’t think the series of realizations that made such a huge portrait possible would have ever been set into motion without the enormous amount of data at our fingertips. 

Knoth: There something called data journalism now, where you don’t listen to anyone, you don’t read the papers, you just look at massive amounts of data.  And frequently what you see in that data is completely different from what everyone is saying.  Poppy is somewhat like that.

ASX:  It actually makes more sense to me now, the book does.  Now that you’ve mentioned your debt to the Internet and its ability to put so much information at your fingertips, I recognize Poppy as a very unique object of our age.  I said repeatedly that I really know of no other book like it.  I think it is singular in its scope and perspective and in the vast amounts of information it synthesizes.  An impressive achievement.  What’s next?

Knoth: That’s still uncertain. We have some ideas for new work. We have carefully considered a film adaptation of Poppy, but that is still not much more than a plan.  We are continuing with Fukushima, and some other smaller projects. Right now we don’t have anything planned on the scale of Poppy. I guess Poppy is just once in a lifetime given the scope and depth of the project. It’s actually quite difficult to decide what is next in that sense.

 

 



















 

(All rights reserved. Text @ ASX and Paul Loomis. Images @ Antoinette De Jong and Robert Knoth)

The post ASX EXCLUSIVE: INTERVIEW – “Antoinette de Jong and Robert Knoth” (2012) appeared first on ASX | AMERICAN SUBURB X | Photography & Culture.

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Martin Parr


Terry Richardson


Nan Goldin

When we first saw the line up for the new photo show opening tomorrow at the Aperture Foundation Gallery, simply titled Photography, we fell out of our chairs. The show features new (new!) work from William Eggleston, Nan Goldin, Ryan McGinley, Martin Parr, Terry Richardson, and Stephen Shore. You don’t have to be a photo nerd to know that this selection of artists are some of the most important photographers making work today. To have new work by them all in one room is crazy. We decided we had to sit down with Ken Miller, the curator of the show, to figure out how he pulled it off. Turns out it was pretty simple.

VICE: What’s up, Ken? How did this project start?
Ken Miller: It started with a sort of unrelated exhibition of abstract photography that I did in Tokyo about a year and a half ago. That was kind of a weird way for it to begin. It was a show with Sam Falls, Marcelo Gomes, Mariah Robertson, and this Japanese photographer named Taisuke Koyama. Somebody from Fujifilm came by and I guess they liked the show, so they got in touch. They took me out to drinks and showed me these cameras they were coming out with and were like “Do you think you could get photographers to use these?” The cameras were really nice, so I was like, “Yeah probably, it’s a free camera.”

We started putting a list of photographers together. I was initially thinking of people I’d worked with before, who seemed easy to approach. Then I thought, Fuck it. I’ll just ask ambitiously and worst comes to worst, they’ll say no. And amazingly, basically everybody said yes. Of the initial people we asked, only two passed for different reasons. It was remarkably easy.

That’s pretty amazing.
I don’t want to sound like an advertisement for the camera, but it’s a digital SLR that works like the camera you studied in college. It has a lot of manual functions. So, I think there’s a certain nostalgia for a lot of these photographers who think “Oh, this works like a classic point-shoot Nikon” and they were psyched about that. You sort of forget photographers are camera nerds too, so they wanted to try it out.

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Viviane Sassen’s gorgeous, inscrutable fine art images from Africa have earned her acclaim and a place in the Museum of Modern Art. But recently, her surreal and equally beautiful fashion photography has been garnering attention, too: in 2011, Sassen won the prestigious International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award for Applied/Fashion/Advertising Photography, and more than 300 of her fashion images are on view at Amsterdam’s Huis Marseille Museum for Photography through mid-March 2013 in a show titled, Viviane Sassen / In and Out of Fashion.

Born in Amsterdam, Sassen lived in Kenya — where her father worked in a polio clinic — between the ages of 2 and 5. Because the continent looms so large in her work, I asked her to describe her earliest memories from Africa.

“I remember,” she told me, “how Rispa, our nanny, woke me up one early morning and took me to a deserted football field to pick small white mushrooms. I remember the taste of sugarcane and ugali [a dish similar to polenta], orange Fanta and the bloody goat heads in the market in Kisumu.”

Returning to the Netherlands was difficult for her: “I didn’t feel I belonged in Europe, yet I knew I was a foreigner in Africa.”

As a young woman, Sassen enrolled in a university fashion design program and also modeled. Recalling her modeling work, she says that she “can relate to how a girl might feel in front of a camera: sometimes bored, tired or simply stressed or insecure. And then the shoes … three sizes too small but with killer heels. It’s not always fun to be a model.”

Nevertheless, she says she “got to know a lot of photographers; they made me aware that they controlled the image. That’s what I wanted, too; I wanted to be in control of the image … to create it.”

Viviane Sassen

Viviane Sassen

Sassen made the leap into photography. She recalls that “in the beginning, [photographers] like Nan Goldin and Nobuyoshi Araki [were] very important for my work because of their formal language, but also because they depicted their own lives in a way that appealed to me.”

A turning point in her own photography came in 2002 when she returned to Africa with her husband. The fine art photography she has made there in the past decade shines as some of the most original, unexpected work to emerge from the continent by a Western photographer. But one finds no victims of war or famine here; instead, the viewer confronts contemporary Africans engaged in sophisticated, if mysterious, dream performances.

“Working in Africa opens doors of my subconscious,” Sassen explains. “Sometimes, when I wake up in the morning after very vivid dreams or if I just suddenly have an idea, I sketch. My photographs are sometimes almost literal pictures of these sketches.” At other times, she says, “I might just find something on the street that excites me.”

Her images are somehow primal and hallucinatory at once: two youths embrace in the dark, a giant banana leaf sprouting between them; a figure lies nestled in the diaphanous green cloud of a fishing net; a boy lounges on the ground, his limbs painted bright turquoise. Critic Vince Aletti says that Sassen “tends to treat the body as a sculptural element—a malleable shape that combines with blocks of shadow and bright color in arrangements that sometimes read like cut-paper collages, bold and abstract but full of vibrant life.”

One key part of the body that is often missing or obscured is the human face, as models turn away from the camera or appear with their faces cloaked in shadow. As Aaron Schuman noted in Aperture, the images might thus “appear to ignore the individuals they portray and instead inherently possess—maybe even propagate—the problematic histories, legacies, and relationships between Africa and the West. But perhaps in Sassen’s case this is the point, at least in part, and where the power of her photographs lies.”

Viviane Sassen

Viviane Sassen

Within these mirror-like voids, Sassen allows the viewer to reflect on the clichés and prejudices Westerners so often fall back on when engaging the vast continent and its inhabitants.

“I want to seduce the viewer with a beautiful formal approach,” says Sassen, “and at the same time, leave something disturbing.”

Sassen’s fashion work borrows much from her fine art—obscured faces, extraordinary color. The acute graphic sensibility of Sassen’s fine art, meanwhile, works wonders in magazine spreads. In an elemental way, though, the museum show and Sassen’s images (made for magazines like Wallpaper, Purple and Dazed & Confused, and for brands like Levi’s and Stella McCartney) don’t make sense at all.

As Sassen told the British Journal of Photography in its December 2012 issue, “I find exhibitions of fashion photography within the context of a museum rather problematic. Most fashion images aren’t art, they’re fashion photographs—which is fine, but if you put them in a museum, enlarged and in a frame, they become something else…. Art photography doesn’t have to serve any purpose, fashion photography does, and that makes a difference…. [Then] there are images which are really between art and fashion, which I hope I do myself.”

Sassen hit upon a solution to this conundrum: projecting fashion images on museum walls, so the work retains a “kind of disposable feel.” Furthermore, Sassen has said she doesn’t care much about clothes. “My interest is not the interest of the fashion industry. My interest is to make fascinating pictures…. It’s always about desire and fear, about making images that are both appealing and unsettling.”

Viviane Sassen

Viviane Sassen

Nevertheless, Sassen says she loves the “swiftness of fashion” as opposed to the “contemplated process of making art.” I asked her about the difference between shooting for magazines and shooting for advertisements.

“What I like about fashion magazines is that they create a platform to experiment and to work closely with people who can be super inspiring. I call it my laboratory. [It] should be like an adventure; not knowing where your play will lead you. When you’re working on fashion campaigns for a commercial brand it’s often much less experimental, but still creative in the sense that you have to match the pieces of a puzzle.”

Sassen has used a computer to retouch some of her images, but mostly avoids it. “I think that something beautiful is even more charming when it’s not too perfect. You don’t want to feel the artificiality of the image, you want to believe in it. I feel related to reality, while slick images feel exchangeable.”

Sassen’s lifelong interest in Africa — and her ongoing explorations of her own subconscious — have contributed to some of the most riveting fashion photography being made today. For a photographer rooted in (or, as she puts it, “related to”) reality, her magazine work is a revelation.

See more of Sassen’s work at VivianeSassen.com.

Myles Little is an associate photo editor at TIME.

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Like many photographers who struggle to find subject matter worthy of photographing, Sandy Kim turns her camera on a subject with which she is intimately familiar – her friends, her love and her life.

“I use what I have, and since my life is readily available that’s what I shoot,” she says.

Kim, now 26, came into the public eye a few years ago when Girls, a San Francisco band she had befriended and was photographing religiously, started to make it big. Suddenly her photos were in The New York Times and Fader. Her unique style garnered praise from both audiences and other shooters and she was name-checked in an interview with art photographer Ryan McGinley.

Her photos continue to appear in Fader – the mag calls her their “BFF” – and her latest project ties together the last two years of her life through sexual degrees of separation.

“I started making this map of sexual relationships between me and my friends,” says Kim. “Once I started mapping it out on paper, I was surprised to see how big and complicated it became. We live for sex, and because of sex we’re alive. The photos represent the different intersections on the map. There are portraits, feelings, and special occasions, kind of like different stations on a subway map.”

Sex Degrees of Separation Rail Map. Image: Sandy Kim

Kim is not the first photographer to turn the camera back on herself, and its rare to have conversations about her work without hearing references to Nan Goldin and McGinley, among others. Yet her work is more carefree and loving than Goldin and less contrived than McGinley.

Her photographs allow viewers to be voyeurs in lives they may or may not ever lead themselves. The images deflate the youthful fantasy that people never have to grow up and that summers are forever endless. Viewers watch her grow up, watch her fall in love and, by proxy, get to re-live their own versions of these moments. Her pictures of her relationship with her boyfriend, Colby, are intimate and genuine in a way few photographers accomplish, if for no other reason than they are a document of tender moments, pure and simple.

“Sex has always been present in my work,” says Kim. “Especially because I started shooting more after I fell in love. I think sex is beautiful and ugly at the same time and I try and show both sides, mostly the beautiful part.”

Kim grew up in Portland. In 2004, at age 18, she moved to northern California where she found herself exposed to a world she never knew existed.

“When I lived in Portland I lived in this little bubble and didn’t really look past it,” she says. “After moving to San Francisco I was introduced to a badass music scene where artists were so talented, inspiring and beautiful, I got excited and wanted to photograph everything around me.”

She befriended artists and musicians, and was asked to tour with local bands. That’s when she hooked up with Girls.

Though she’d been taking pictures on her own, and got her BFA in Graphic Design from the Academy of Art in San Francisco, Kim started to take photography more seriously through the external pressure of friends. Girls bassist JR encouraged her to shoot more, and photographer Bryan Derballa (who shoots for Wired), built her a blog to use as a platform and pushed her to use it.

Kim uses various point-and-shoot cameras purchased at thrift stores, from Yashica T4s to Olympus Stylus Epics to her favorite Contax T2.

“I didn’t consider myself as a serious photographer, or even photographer at all, so I couldn’t justify spending more than 10 bucks on a camera. I still prefer film over digital. It’s changed my process because when I edit digital photos it takes me a lot longer to edit and look through. With film you’re kind of stuck with the photos you get and have to make it work. Sometimes I get unexpected surprises that come out to be pleasant in the end or used to my advantage.”

While the camera in her hand has an impact on how the images ultimately look, her pictures are less about the tool and more about the events unfolding around her.

“I think my friends enjoy being photographed by me because I’m capturing a time of their youth and just like for me and everyone else 10 years from now things are going to be different but we’ll have photos to remind us of our wild youth,” she says.

Her work is a reminder that photography can be used not as a means to experience, but as a means to remember. Her photos are reactionary rather than anticipatory, composition and lighting not meticulously thought through or planned. Her exploration of themes in sexuality, tinged with love and naïveté, are painted with a brush of carelessness and mild sentimentality.

“I find that I’m constantly changing. Even by the day. I also feel that I’ve matured over the last year. I used to go out and get wasted every day so I would be taking photos of crazy situations my friends and I would get into because of us being drunk. But nowadays I find myself wanting to hang out with my boyfriend all the time so I end up photographing him. Also I’m madly in love, which helps. He’s a beautiful person inside and out. Sometimes I find myself just staring at him, watching him, learning him, the way he plays a guitar or the way he peels an orange in bed and eats it. And while I find myself in this trance I realize, why don’t I just take a photo and remember this moment forever.”

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Nan Goldin's "Scopophilia" is showing at the Matthew Marks Gallery in Manhattan. Randy Kennedy interviewed Ms. Goldin for Thursday's Arts section.

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Olivia Bee

Converse, 2009

At 11, Olivia Bolles started shooting when she was enrolled in a photography class by accident. Now 17, the precocious Portland-based photographer’s portraits of teen life have appeared in campaigns for Nike and Converse, as well as American Photo magazine. Bolles—who goes by Olivia Bee professionally—spoke to fellow teen, Style Rookie fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson, to talk about her images and inspirations.

TG: Who are your influences?

OB: For the most part, my muse is everyday life. It’s kind of like enjoying where you’re at and appreciating what’s going on around you. Photographically, Ryan McGinley is my favorite. [Also,] Annie Leibovitz, Nan Goldin.

TG: Something about your photos I really like is [that] they feel really intimate. You feel like you’re getting to learn about this person and her life, but at the same time, a lot of them capture more universal experiences about everyday life as a teenager. Do you think about whether a photo [will be] more diary-like or more about being a teenager in general?

OB: I think it’s both. My photos are my diary. But a lot of the things I photograph I’m sure happen to other people too. That specific moment happened in my life, but other moments like it happened in other people’s lives. So it’s a diary but it’s kind of relatable, and that’s what I want to be doing with my work.

TG: Yeah, and I think that’s one thing I like most about your work—that you’re independent and unedited.

OB: Yeah, it’s all honest, you know? That’s the important part for me, being honest about everything.

TG: It can be so mind-blowing seeing someone’s earlier work, or freshman year versus senior year. Do you ever feel embarrassed?

OB: (Laughs.) Totally. There are some things where I’m like, “Oh my god, what the hell was I thinking?” I look back at my old Flickr, and that’s the stuff that gets on Tumblr like every day. I’m like, “I hate this picture. Why are people hyping over this?” But then I think this is a fortunate thing. I hate it now, but it had to happen to get where I am now.

TG: How do you think that being in Portland affects they way you think about your work or what you end up photographing?

OB: I definitely think it affects me a lot, because in Portland it rains all the time. So everybody plays an instrument, and is in a band and working on a project. Being in a creative atmosphere 24/7 just encourages me to make something every day. And my friends are my muses. Being in Portland is awesome (laughs). It’s such a warm, friendly atmosphere, but it’s really real.

TG: Are there any movies that inspire you?

OB: I’m like every other girl, and I like The Virgin Suicides. There’s this movie Wonderwall. George Harrison did the soundtrack to it. It’s like a really bad 60’s movie, but it’s really beautiful visually. Anything ’60s or ’70s—The Partridge Family. But Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is also a gorgeous movie.

TG: Who are the other young photographers you like?

OB: I love El Hardwick, Francesca Allen … There’s so many people on Flickr, it’s ridiculous. Chrissie White, Maggie Lochtenberg. Oh, and Lauren Poor. And Mike Bailey Gates, obviously, Erica Segovia.

TG: It’s great that with the Internet, there has come this sense of creative independence. Having your stuff online—some people think of it as gimmicky, but in a way, it’s one of the most pure forms of having your work judged.

OB: Because so many people can see it, you know? It’s the only thing that makes sense in 2011. You can have shows or whatever, but that’s going to be seen by like 50 people, or a hundred or a thousand or whatever. But if you put your stuff on the Internet, millions of people can see it.

TG: Do you ever want to balance out this public content? Do you keep anything just for yourself, or just for a show?

OB: There are a lot of photos that are so intimate to me that I don’t want to show other people. Someday when I make a book, I’ll put in all these pictures that I’ve kept secret. And some of them are my favorite photos, but I just don’t think they should be public, because they’re so special to me.

TG: Can you fill in your readers on some of that commercial work you’ve done?

OB: I just finished shooting the Fiat 500 campaign in April. And then I did some Degrassi stuff for TeenNick—production stills. I shot Nike and Converse, Zeit Magazin, which is like the German New York Times. Yeah, that was cool. I got to shoot the cover for that. And then I did the FOAM International Photography Museum magazine; I just did their cover and a feature. I have a really big editorial coming up, but I obviously can’t talk about it in this. 2011 has been a good year to me.

TG: Do you find that when you’re with a crew of people, that your age seems to factor into how they work with you, or talk to you?

OB: When I’ve shot alongside other photographers, sometimes people really look down on me…Sometimes people will be like “What the hell is she doing on this set?” But when you get to know people, [they] kind of become my mentors. It all depends on how long I’ve worked with someone. But it’s still weird (laughs); I’m still 17.

TG: I could definitely see being shot by you as the foray a Dakota Fanning-type would take to being, like, a cool teenager. If you could put together a photo shoot that wasn’t just the things you see every day, what would your dream setting be?

OB: It’d be on the moon cause that’d be so amazing! But I don’t know who my models would be. I like shooting anybody, so the models wouldn’t really be specific. But if it was on, like, the moon—that would be killer.

TG: Where would you like to go with your skills?

OB: Honestly, I just don’t want to stop. I’ve been happy with the kind of commercial stuff I’m doing. I don’t want to stop making personal work. I’m just going to photograph my life all the time, because that’s what I really like doing. As I grow older, I’m sure my pictures will change, but that’s basically what I want to keep doing. I’d love to shoot AnnaSophia Robb; I think she’s just gorgeous. And I’d like to shoot Dakota Fanning or Kate Moss, or someone like that—that’d be fun. Or shoot bands. If I got to shoot The Strokes, I’d basically die.

Seventeen-year-old Olivia Bolles, who goes by the name Olivia Bee, lives in Portland, Oregon and has worked for clients including Nike, Converse, Fiat, and TeenNick, among others. She is represented by Candace Gelman. More of her work can be seen here.

Fifteen-year-old Tavi Gevinson lives in the Chicago, Illinois area and has run the fashion blog The Style Rookie since 2008.

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