Icons of Photography: Jeanloup Sieff

Jeanloup Sieff was born in Paris on November 30, 1933, to Polish parents. Like many a child of immigrants, he never really found where his own home was. ‘My childhood companion was solitude,’ he wrote. ‘A lost father – the wanderings of wartime. But I came to accept it and the pain it gave me.’

He spent his life making pictures filled with longing for a past that he may or may not have known. ‘I have been searching for time past all my life.’ His work is, in a sense, a popular response to Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. ‘I remember states of accidental euphoria, certain spring mornings, caused by the unexpected coincidence of a ray of sun, a forgotten scent and a childhood memory.’ He turned this sensibility into rapturous, sensual black-and-white, fixed forever via that most plastic and textural of film stocks, Kodak Tri-X 400 ASA.

He always stressed the pleasure of taking photos. If his favourite source of that pleasure was in what was behind us, it was also in behinds themselves. No one can ever have been more taken by and taken more pictures of female bottoms. (In French, derrières.) Not arses, note. Or bums. Bottoms, always. ‘It is the bottom that remembers; it faces the past, whereas we advance inexorably into the future,’ he wrote.

He was, unsurprisingly, a great admirer of the Anglo-German photographer Bill Brandt and the French painter Pierre Bonnard – both also great poets of the female bottom. ‘For it is the most protected, the most secret part of the body, and retains a childish innocence long since lost by gaze or hands.’

He started taking pictures at fourteen, on holiday in the Polish mountain resort Zakopane. Why? ‘Because someone gave me a camera,’ he always replied, with a characteristic insouciance – which may or may not have been genuine but which certainly became one of his defining stances towards the world, along with an almost Woody Allen-ish anxiousness. He would claim that his first loyalty was to the frivolous and the superficial. He was suitably vain, too, always dressed à la mode, always working out.

Having studied photography formally in Paris and Switzerland in the immediate post-war era, he quickly became a professional. Like other French photographers – Cartier-Bresson and Bourdin, to take just two obvious examples – he absorbed Man Ray’s surrealism and distilled it into the everyday. For someone so focused on the past, he moved forward at pace. And kept moving . . .

1954: Elle magazine and fashion shoots. 1958: Magnum, the unlikeliest of homes for such a sensualist. 1959: Jardin des Modes and a tight working relationship with the magazine’s art director Jacques Moutin who, according to Sieff, was ‘attempting to do what Alexey Brodovitch had done in New York.’ That is, revolutionise fashion photography via a small group of new photographers – notably Sieff and Frank Horvat, who shared a studio for a while.

1961: New York, where he both realised his potential and that he belonged back in France. He did a lot of work in England and Scotland, too, using his wide-angle lens to create many of the defining images of London fashion as Biba and Shrimpton swung it towards the Beatles and Twiggy. Landscape, flesh and cloth all meld and mesh in these photographs. In a way, he understood ‘swinging London’ even better than the English photographers did.

Unlike the tyro triumvirate of Bailey, Duffy and Donovan, he had no class war to fight, no chips to oversalt his pictures. He made a world of fun, of play, putting photographs within photographs – pictures of himself even. These are images that know that they are images – and tell the viewer that. In a fashion magazine. His determined matter-of-factness about his work always had an air of disingenuousness about it.

1966: Paris. ‘Living with my Abyssinian cats, working for French Vogue, still wandering around with my old Leica.’ And that’s kind of how it was for the rest of his life. For a while, he was again the new kid in town, making pictures which brought the scent of the world to Paris – a city so often parochialised by its own self-regard. It was then and there he made the work that made him famous beyond the tight world of art directors – the nudes, luscious yet never lascivious. You never get the sense he was poking his lens through the keyhole – as you do in, say, Steichen. Nor, though, is there the dangerous thrill of Newton, let alone Mapplethorpe or Goldin. The archetypal – if not the best – Sieff image of female sexuality is the smart, sweet picture of his wife Barbara exposing her breasts in Death Valley, smiling. Like Brandt, like Courbet, he makes landscape and flesh seem like the same things.

‘All aspects of photography interest me. I feel for the female body the same curiosity and the same love as for a landscape, a face or anything else which interests me. In any case, the nude is a form of landscape. There are no reasons for my photographs, nor any rules; all depends on the mood of the moment, on the mood of the model.’

There is a wonderful picture of him in 1972 with Lartigue, Cartier-Bresson, Martine Franck, Sarah Moon and Robert Delpire — probably the world’s most important patron of photography and Sarah Moon’s husband, too. Sieff has a Mick Jagger haircut, a big smile and his shirt-collar — fashionably — outside his crew-neck sweater. This is a man who feels so comfortable in his moment that he is convinced things will never change.

In 1980, he tripled his fees: ‘a miraculous way of making sure that people respect photography’.

Then, somehow, he went from tyro to elder statesman – maybe even has-been – seemingly without passing through the status between. He had a first act and a third but no second. ‘Can it be true that after 41 one merely repeats oneself? I refuse to believe it, but I fear it may be true.’

He never stopped taking pictures, though. Or pitching himself into the world. In 1986, he published two books, one of naked young women, one of a 1959 French miners strike – his anxieties often shaded his work with a desire to follow too many paths. He did campaigns for Patek Philippe watches. And he had one more moment in the sun of fame and fashionability. Most famously, most influentially, he was used in the early 1990s, to rebrand Häagen-Dazs ice cream with his sensuous – and smutless – nudes. Decades on, the atmosphere and imagery of those pictures is still resonant, still being used to sell us things.

He died, aged 66, of cancer, in his beloved Paris on September 20, 2000. ‘I don’t believe in God,’ he had written. ‘But women and trees are proof of his existence.’

© Peter Silverton 2019

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