Haute Couture: The Polaroids of Cathleen Naundorf

I’ve been taking photographs for a long while now but it’s only been over the course of the last few months that I feel that I’m beginning to understand the subtilise that make a photograph a real work of art rather than just a photograph. Recently, in order to try and learn more about the art of photography I made the decisions to focus on the image by turning from colour to black and white. A few months ago I picked up a copy of Black & White Photography magazine at the airport; something to read in the shade. This was mainly because of the cover photograph; a striking photo by a photographer I hadn’t heard of – Cathleen Naundorf. This was the start of a week long obsession with the eleven photos that were included in the magazine. Back home, a quick search led to a new book of her work over the last ten years; Haute Couture: The Polaroids of Cathleen Naundorf, which is edited by Ira Stehmann and published by Prestel.

So, as you can see, Naundorf’s a fashion photographer but she’s one of a kind. Once you see these photographs you’ll instantly be able to recognise every other by her unique style. You could think this due to the fact that she photography the most prestigious clothing in the world. The book’s not called Haute Couture for no reason. It’s called it because it’s clothing by these eleven celebrated couture houses (the only ones that are truly Haute Couture) that benefit from being worn by Noundorf’s regular models – every one of them strikingly beautiful – and, ultimately, arrested through Naundorf’s lens. Learned from some legendary photographers that came before her, Naundorf’s rules seem simple at first; use natural light as much as possible and never crop after the shot. The later is pretty much taken care of by her choice of equipment. Where many people used Polaroids to take preparatory images to fine-tune an image before taking the final image with a film camera, Nournorf takes her images directly with a large-format camera and Polaroid film. The process renders every peeled back image unique. This image is scanned and a limited run of silver gelatine prints. There are so many striking elements to each image, it’s dizzying to look at so many at a time. Each one demands its own attention.

The black and whites are simply stunning. Perfect tonality leaves an enthusiastic photographer (I’m writing about me, if you hadn’t realised!) with polar-opinions on how to move forward; do we (I) just give up, knowing that it’s so unlikely that we’ll ever master light like it or should we (I) keep moving forward and learning as much as possible from Naundorf, and the legends that came before her. I mean, when you see these B&Ws you’ll see what I mean. If they are indeed created in natural light then Naundorf’s some how managed to control nature itself! And the colour images… what can I say about these? It’s complicated… I wasn’t prepared for colour work when I got this book. As I mentioned earlier, I had been introduced to her work in a B&W magazine. The colour polaroids that Naundorf has captured are unique also. These pieces – for they are pieces of art, rather than simply photographs – are notable for their physical imperfection. The framing, as usual, is perfect at every hit. It’s the inconsistency from the film that adds so much to the images here. Sticky polaroid liquid has seeped out, run, pulled layers from the polaroid’s layers and ultimately made a truly unique piece… every time. Some of these imperfects are subtle but some are so profound that a purest may not like the effect. Me, I love it. The textures and colours – that look almost painted at times – that they create are almost tangible. Magically tangible!

Ultimately, this book delivers beauty on so many levels; wonderful photographs; incredible locations; stunning clothing; alluring models; perfect blacks and whites; captivating colours and a fittingly elegant binding in this book. One small downside for me though – one of my bugbears is beautiful images being shared between two pages. I understand the limitations of the book making process but I wish that landscape images are presented smaller, on a single page rather than being marred by a book’s binding in the middle. Luckily, by far the majority of Naundorf’s images are shot in portrait and there are only a few that are landscape. Of them, they are in such a format that the centre of the images don’t end up on the middle of a spread so it’s not as bad as I could be.

Haute Couture: The Polaroids of Cathleen Naundorf weighs in at 184 pages and bond in a lavish cloth-bound hardcover 24cm x 32cm edition. It’s available direct from Prestel as well as all the usual places including Amazon UK.