The exhibition presented at the Stedelijk Museum tells the story of a Dutch woman who, in the early 1960s, began studying photography at the Sint Joost Academy of Fine Arts in Bréda, to climb very quickly to the highest level of international fashion photography. During her 50-year career, her images testified of the changes taking place in fashion, while reflecting those in the cultural and social world. The talent of Sacha van Dorssen (born in Rotterdam in 1940) was noticed during an internship at the magazine Elle, in Paris, in 1964. She immediately decided to settle there and began to intensely photograph fashion for the press. She was published in France and abroad, in Marie Claire, The Sunday Times Magazine, Vogue Hommes, as well as English and German Vogue; she worked with many artistic directors and photographed models at the start of their careers who would later become real stars. She was also associated with agencies such as Mafia or Publicis, on many advertising campaigns for Yves Saint Laurent, Roc, Dim, l’Or, Club Med, and also contributed to several books of Éditions du Regard on Dior, Fortuny and Old England. Sacha left Bréda in her youth to return there half a century later, at the end of a formidable journey during which she witnessed the emergence in France of ready-to-wear fashioned by a new generation of couturiers. Her exhibition, which is currently in two large rooms of the Stedelijk Museum, retraces this journey through a selection of some 75 photographs, including numerous large-format prints, some twenty magazine covers, as well as reportages and documents illustrating her way of working.
Excerpts from an intervention at the Stedelijk Museum in Breda on the photography of Sacha Van Dorssen, on the occasion of her retrospective.
Text by Gabriel Bauret.
During an internship at Elle magazine in 1964, then art director Peter Knapp gave Sacha some pictures to take. Instead of returning to Breda to finish her studies, she decided to settle in Paris and began to photograph fashion. In this area, Paris was still a great capital: she found herself in direct contact with this universe to which she devoted her entire career.
How could we characterize her photography? First, through her practice of color, although she was also commissioned for black and white. Color signifies a form of realism, while black and white tends to detach the image from the real. For Sacha, it is not a question of a saturated color, as for example in the images of Steve Hiett, which we were next to hers in Marie Claire; or Sarah Moon who has long played with the grain of the film she used.
Sacha operates mainly outdoors. In real, simple, natural settings. Sometimes very far from Paris, but in a landscape which in the end always remains quite discreet; the beach being one of her favorite settings, undoubtedly for the generosity of space and light.
A bit of history: Fashion photography kind of came out of the studios with operators like Martin Munkacsi who worked in the 1930s for Harper’s Bazaar and its legendary art director Alexey Brodovitch. We know his images of sporty women, in motion. Later, Richard Avedon, still for Harper’s Bazaar and Alexey Brodovitch, crossed the practice of fashion photography with that of reporting. Then for Vogue, William Klein brought fashion in the streets.
We must also remember the historical evolution of fashion: haute-couture was gradually be supplanted by ready-to-wear. Christian Dior, with his “New Look” style which embodied the modern woman, participated in this movement from the end of the 1940s. He thought of the silhouette of women differently, freer in their gestures and movements.
In photography, this move from the studio to the outside is a bit like what happens in the cinema with the Nouvelle Vague in France. We now film real life, everyday life, the street, natural landscapes.
However, with Sacha, working outdoors is done with as much precision and control as if she were working in the studio. The restitution of the colors, the direction and the quality of the light were meticulously arranged. It is essentially this natural light that illuminated the clothes. Because Sacha never forgot that in fashion photography, there is the word fashion: she strictly respected the purpose of the order. As for her precision and her method, we can guess it through the notebooks that she has carefully kept and in which she recorded, alongside a small polaroid, the information on her shots: aperture, speed, sensitivity. of the film.
Her photography is the expression of a harmony between the subject and the setting. If the landscape can suggest a story, it always remains in its place, as a backdrop. As for the situations she staged, they were most often extremely simple. The shooting obviously involved the direction of the models, but it hardly can be seen, it was not felt: everything was always very natural. As if it was a reportage. While she portrayed more sophisticated situations, these remain credible, one could even say accessible to the eyes of magazine readers who at the end of the chain were the recipients of the visual message.
In fact, photography almost made you forget that these are models. Never comedy or flashy poses: the “girls” exist, move, offer themselves to photography as they are; beautiful but without artifice. The gestures are natural, not manufactured, never eccentric. Moreover, Sacha’s universe unfolded far from luxury, frivolity and worldliness. She showed models – most of them female – as people who viewed her images – or read the magazine – could almost identify with. She knew exactly how to translate the right atmosphere, the one that offered these readers a vision of a world to which they themselves imagined they belong.
Sacha has accompanied the emergence of a generation of couturiers who participated in France, but also in Italy and Japan, in the industrialization of the ready-to-wear while developing a personal style. A magazine like Elle, invented by journalist Hélène Lazareff, supported the democratization of fashion through the distribution of ready-to-wear. Between the 1960s and the 1990s, in Elle first, then in Marie-Claire in particular, but also in foreign magazines that were not always dedicated to fashion, Sacha witnessed the creations of these new couturiers. They are not only men, there are also designers like agnès b. This generation had name like Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, Emmanuelle Khanh, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler, Claude Montana, Sonia Rykiel… As well as Japanese like Kenzo and Issey Miyake.
In the monthly Marie-Claire, for which Sacha worked for more than two decades, she published in almost every issue a story spanning several pages, and we easily recognized the style of her contributions: it stood out from the photographs in black and white of Peter Lindbergh or the polaroids of Paolo Roversi. And around Sacha gravitated a group of faithful fashion editors: real journalists. Closely following everything that came out of the fashion houses, they made choices with an independence of mind and a freedom of expression that led them to hold a real discourse on the fashion being made. Photography served their purpose. In their company, Sacha did not seek to imprint a personal mark; it was about making an image that gives the clothes the main role. And her precise knowledge of fashion, materials, shapes and folds always guided her in her approach.
An often large team accompanied Sacha on the shoot. And she always emphasized the teamwork, showing great humility. For her, a fashion photograph is the result of the work of a team; that brings together the efforts of everyone: editor-in-chief, model, hairdresser, makeup artist, assistant, even driver!
Today a page has been turned. The economy of the press has changed, magazine budgets no longer serve the same goals. The printed press has lost its power, has seen its resources increasingly reduced, information and communication shifting to other media. We could also mention the deployment of digital technology which has changed the practice of photography. And then the representation of fashion in magazines merges more and more with the advertising pages. The advertising market conditions, not to say dictates, the content of editorial pages.
During the 50 years of her career, Sacha’s images have witnessed the changes taking place in fashion, but they also reflect those in the cultural and social world. If she worked a lot for Marie-Claire, it was undoubtedly also because this magazine defended a certain image of women and engaged in social, cultural and moral issues. Sacha thus showed implicitly the evolution of the role of women. She testified of their emancipation and in particular of the greater freedom of the body. Each time, with great respect for the person photographed, while being extremely demanding. With hindsight, the images are an expression of great happiness in life, while scrupulously responding to the reason for the shooting.
Gabriel Bauret, Bréda, October 2021
Sacha! 50 years of fashion photography
Breda – Paris – Breda
until December 5, 2021
Stedelijk Museum, Bréda
4811 GH Bréda