Renowned fashion photographer Cathleen Naundorf creates art. She tells stories. She does not want to just shoot haute couture, but to captivate the viewer with an aura from her chosen models and the settings she places them within. Departing from merely having her models as figures upon which to place haute couture, Naundorf’s work embraces the individuals wearing them, giving them equal measure along with vibrant environments to create romantic and painterly vignettes. Surprisingly, the roots of this style began in the early 1990s when she first traveled to remote areas to photograph ethnic groups as a kind of documentary photographer. Naundorf’s early travels have placed an undeniable and original stamp on her renowned work with fashion and her focus on the individual has always remained a constant throughout all of her photographic work. From the isolated Amazon and Mongolia, to the guarded fashion houses of Dior and Chanel, Naundorf’s experience photographing dissimilar subjects is joined by a humanistic element that the whole of her work embraces.

Cathleen Naundorf grew up in the East Germany of the 1970s. She later moved to Munich in 1985 where she received a Praktica camera, which she says opened her eyes to the wider world. After several years of being a photographic assistant in New York, Singapore, and Paris, Naundorf decided in 1993 to travel to more remote locations. The sensitive photos she took during these travels to locations like Siberia, Mongolia, and the Brazilian Amazon eventually appeared in eight books by various respected publishers. Naundorf believes, “Photography is a discovery of your surroundings and yourself. I became interested in photography because I was fascinated by people and their lives and stories.” Her transition between the quite different subjects of travel photography to fashion photography occurred after having several meetings with legendary fashion photographer Horst P. Horst who was also from her hometown in Germany. Horst would be instrumental in guiding her in a direction that would result in her renowned compositions and he would open her eyes to the possibilities of artistic representations of fashion.

Naundorf was originally adverse to fashion and favored travel photography which she considered to be more pure, but after investigating and delving into fashion photography, she realized there was a difference between commercial fashion shoots and artistic fashion images. Further delving into the actual haute couture creations by such designers as Valentino and Karl Lagerfeld, she remembers thinking, “This isn’t fashion. This is art.” Although she would fully take up fashion photography placing some of fashion’s most celebrated creations in a unique light, Naundorf’s prior experience with travel photography interacting with a variety of indigenous cultures would forever place a unique mark on her work. Commenting on the actual similarity between the two photographic genres, Naundorf says, “After traveling for eight years for magazines and working and living with various ethnic groups, I began doing portraits and reportage in fashion houses. It was just like what I was doing before, but with different subjects and different people.” Naundorf’s astute attention to the nuances of the individual she is shooting whether they are wearing Dior in a natural history museum or wearing traditional clothing on the plains of Mongolia is a consistent and vibrant thread in her work.

Cathleen Naundorf's embrace of non-Western cultures is still apparent not only with her interest in the “ethnic looks” of Gaultieer, Galliano, and Lacroix, but also in the models she chooses. She selects models that come from more isolated regions such as Kazakhstan or Siberia and not supermodels, but fresh faces with “ethnic roots.” Naundorf is more interested in the unconscious poses that people from various regions subconsciously choose and in telling their personal stories in her compositions than limiting her photos to only the clothing. Commenting on this, Naundorf says, “There’s no point in shooting fashion like fashion, just to show some fabric on a person. I want to show that the models are human beings. And to do that, I first choose models with some ethnic roots, because I like to shoot people with mixed backgrounds, who have a story.” The untrained poses of the also quite inexperienced models seem to lend an even more natural element to her compositions. Perhaps at first look, Naundorf’s work with fashion appears to be dominated by the haute couture that is presented. With a more prolonged viewing the subtleties emerge with the models’ unique and personal attributes taking precedent, perhaps a result of her formative years exploring the varieties of the human experience of the world. Today, she continues the storytelling. She never seeks to shoot fashion like fashion, but explores humanistic aspects of the individuals who are adorned with the inspired haute couture creations.

by Kyle Harris