Grunge grows up

Neue Luxury - - Front Page - By Paul Tier­ney


“Did I re­ally say that?,” he splut­ters. “I don’t know if I could stand by that now, see­ing as it’s one of the main start­ing points for my images. I think I was prob­a­bly rail­ing about fash­ion’s ob­ses­sion with re­vival­ism, and the cycli­cal na­ture of the busi­ness. I’d be churl­ish if I said nos­tal­gia was some­thing that hadn’t in­formed my work, be­cause it’s al­most en­tirely au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal.”

Sims is pad­ding around the kitchen of his hand­some Cor­nish manor house, try­ing to un­wind from a sea­sons worth of ma­jor cam­paigns and end­less ed­i­to­ri­als. “I’m tired,” he sighs, but is far from com­plain­ing. Gen­tly push­ing a large Maine Coon cat off the ta­ble (no easy task) he sits down and stares into his cof­fee, as if this might of­fer the an­swer to life’s most press­ing ques­tions. Con­ver­sa­tion is re­fresh­ingly can­did. In­tense and en­gag­ing, Sims gives you his en­tire fo­cus, de­liv­er­ing well-formed opin­ions that sound ef­fort­lessly sin­cere. “I do take my­self se­ri­ously, no doubt,” he says wryly, “but there’s a level of in­tegrity in my pic­tures, and they are rarely taken with­out a clear rea­son for do­ing so. Peo­ple ask chal­leng­ing ques­tions about what mo­ti­vates the work that I do. It seems only right to give a proper, con­sid­ered an­swer.”

He is not a house­hold name, but few in the fash­ion world would deny that Sims is a colos­sus of the in­dus­try—the pho­tog­ra­pher’s pho­tog­ra­pher— and that his adroit eye has ul­ti­mately shaped a new way of look­ing at beauty. Many of his peers bear the mark­ings of boor­ish stereo­types: ca­reer-hun­gry ego­tists with frosted nos­trils, but Sims dis­penses of the need to big him­self up. He’s the man they all look up to— a cre­ative pow­er­house who is whip-smart and orig­i­nal in the ex­treme, and some­body who con­tin­ues to im­bue qual­ity and ref­er­en­tial cool to ev­ery­thing he touches.

His are the slick, su­per-nu­anced images that grace the pages of French and Amer­i­can Vogue, Love, Arena Homme Plus, and please a raft of ad­ver­tis­ing clients ever ea­ger to tap into that vi­sion. And what vi­sion he has. From por­trai­ture that doffs its cap to the quirks of Penn and Ave­don, through to a raw but know­ing nat­u­ral­ism that owes some­thing to Larry Clark. His oeu­vre is an im­pres­sive mix of the per­sonal and the poignant. They are pleas­ing but not ea­ger to please; ar­rest­ing with­out re­sort­ing to shock tac­tics. When you see a David Sims pho­to­graph it has a vis­ual sig­na­ture, not an anony­mous scrawl.

Ar­riv­ing on the scene at a time of flux, his early work has come to ex­em­plify the seis­mic tran­si­tion from glam to grunge. In Sims’ world, per­fec­tion was sub­jec­tive in the ex­treme. On prac­ti­cal terms alone, he chose to pho­to­graph a sin­gu­lar, more down at heel beauty. This was the early 1990s— a time where cor­ro­sive gui­tar mu­sic echoed the ni­hilis­tic un­der­belly of Amer­ica. In Eng­land, bands ‘shoegazed’, and mod­els fol­lowed in pur­suit. Doc­u­mented in mag­a­zine such as i-d and The Face, his hon­est, mono­chrome images caught the at­ten­tion of Calvin Klein, and soon, through a series of break­through ad cam­paigns, Sims and his cre­ative team changed how the world saw it­self.

He de­clares that era to be “emo­tional” and agrees he is in­deli­bly linked to one of pop’s most volte-face sub­cul­tures. “It seemed to present some­thing which was more de­scrip­tive of a feel­ing or an emo­tion or a nar­ra­tive. The big shift was the sub­ject mat­ter and how that changed the tra­di­tional out­line of beauty. Peo­ple want to get back to that. The ad­vent of dig­i­tal had made things very com­mer­cial and very kind of pneu­matic, with lots of pho­tog­ra­phers par­tic­u­larly in­flu­enced by Hel­mut New­ton. It’s a slightly fascis­tic thing that was all about pre­sent­ing power and sex, whereas the grunge im­age is all about feel­ing and melan­choly. They’re two op­po­site schools of thought. I think the younger gen­er­a­tion want to go back to the lat­ter.”

We’re flick­ing through the Septem­ber is­sue of Bri­tish Vogue, notic­ing that one ed­i­to­rial in par­tic­u­lar is more than ‘in­flu­enced’ by his style. It’s ac­tu­ally a shame­less rip- off by a younger pho­tog­ra­pher, who no doubt sees the pic­tures as a homage. Sims thinks to be seen as a clas­sic should be flat­ter­ing, “but what I think it might do is slow down progress. It’s great to be an in­spi­ra­tion, and we’ve all got our in­spi­ra­tors, but to copy some­thing is re­gres­sive. It used to an­noy me much more pro­foundly. The point isn’t the credit. If I don’t get cred­ited for be­ing the in­spi­ra­tion be­hind a fash­ion pic­ture it’s not go­ing to change the course of his­tory, and it’s not go­ing to im­pact on so­ci­ety, but for me it has an in­tense mean­ing.”

It is this qual­ity that has set him apart. The abil­ity, for in­stance, to ref­er­ence mo­ments of his fam­ily life in Liver­pool, school days in sub­ur­bia, and a thirst for the cool of David Bowie. “I do things for sin­gu­lar and in­di­vid­ual rea­sons, and the in­flu­ences that in­formed my style are per­sonal and not nec­es­sar­ily pub­lic. So to see some­body take that and use it as a leit­mo­tif and do it for them­selves is kind of pa­thetic. I hope that doesn’t sound bit­ter, it’s just a hu­man re­sponse to some­one tak­ing your work. It’s sounds like ‘poor me’, but I just think it’s dis­re­spect­ful to do that to any­one’s art, not just mine.”

But is fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy art? In the last 20 years, fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phers have be­come celebri­ties in their own right, ex­hibit­ing in gal­leries, and, like artists, gen­er­ally set­ting the mood and tone of their era. But here’s the rub—is it art or is it com­merce? Some­how the work re­mains an un­easy mix of the two. How­ever, the imag­i­na­tion, wit and style of a few no­table ex­am­ples (Sims, Juer­gen Teller, Inez van Lam­sweerde and Vi­noodh Matadin) el­e­vate their images to pre­ten­sions of art, and this is where it be­comes in­ter­est­ing. Fash­ion is of­ten thought of as tem­po­rary and ephemeral, yet it has in­spired some of pho­tog­ra­phy’s most en­dur­ing and pro­found achieve­ments. “But just like any cre­ative field there’s good and there’s bad,” of­fers Sims. “I sup­pose the good stuff could be con­sid­ered pro­gres­sive and in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic, and bad stuff is just a pale im­i­ta­tion of some­thing that’s gone be­fore it. With the ad­vent of dig­i­tal, fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy be­came very com­mer­cial.”

Is it eas­ier? “I think peo­ple haven’t grasped dig­i­tal and what it can ac­tu­ally

stand for and what it means,” he says. “I’ve not to­tally grasped it my­self but I’ve tried to un­der­stand what it means in my own work and how I can progress it. When you had to do stuff ‘in cam­era’ it re­quired the nec­es­sary skills to do that, but hav­ing the skill set for Pho­to­shop is a skill set nonethe­less. The par­a­digm has shifted, hasn’t it? That’s why I think there’s a clutch of young pho­tog­ra­phers look­ing back on the 1990s—it seems to be a touch­stone. And the back­lash of us­ing film again, in pref­er­ence for dig­i­tal, seems like a virtue in pic­tures.”

One can­not speak of Sims with­out ref­er­ence to his clos­est and most trusted col­lab­o­ra­tor, Guido Palau. “Guido is very hard to im­press,” says Sims. “He is some­one who has al­ways pushed my pic­tures to be as good as they can be.” As the pre-em­i­nent hair­dresser of his day, Palau has con­cep­tu­alised hair for a who’s who of fash­ion’s heavy­weights. Alexan­der Mcqueen, Mi­uc­cia Prada and Marc Ja­cobs have all sought his ad­vice, partly be­cause there is much more to this in­dus­try leg­end than be­ing a stylist. Palau is a con­duit of bal­ance and taste that these icon­o­clasts have come to rely on.

With Guido on board, Sims’ work took on the man­tle of great­ness. “David is some­one very close to me,” states Palau. “He taught me to be my­self and ex­press my­self so that I was do­ing my hair and not copy­ing any­one else, and to draw from the world around me and what I knew. He was very in­flu­en­tial in that way be­cause he guided my eye. In the same way, what I think has el­e­vated his work above oth­ers is his abil­ity to draw some­thing out of the sit­ter—whether that’s a model, a kid off the street, or a jaded celebrity who has been pho­tographed a thou­sand times be­fore. It’s some­thing I find end­lessly fas­ci­nat­ing. I’m not sure to this day how he ac­tu­ally does that.”

“If some­body’s got per­son­al­ity and tal­ent I don’t have to do any­thing apart from record what is go­ing on in front of me,” says Sims mod­estly. “Noth­ing is re­ally left to chance. My par­tic­u­lar way of work­ing is that I’m very fas­tid­i­ous about the cir­cum­stances, just to cre­ate a plat­form for pos­si­bil­i­ties. I want peo­ple to be spon­ta­neous in front of the cam­era, but they are al­ways well lit, they are al­ways well framed, and it’s al­ways a build to­wards an in­stance. I play mu­sic. I get peo­ple to dance in front of the cam­era. It might sound stupid, but I’ve of­ten found that with peo­ple who can re­ally dance, if you pho­to­graph them danc­ing they look like they’re ter­ri­ble dancers. And the op­po­site is also true. Bad dancers look great in pic­tures.”

“I think if some­one is free and un­in­hib­ited they will al­ways look good,” adds Palau. “If some­one’s con­scious and con­trolled, what they’re ac­tu­ally go­ing to de­liver to you is very pre­dictable and no­body will re­spond to that. Peo­ple re­spond to joy and they re­spond to per­son­al­ity.”

His in­put to Sims’ images cer­tainly adds per­son­al­ity. The hair— an of­ten ob­tuse mix of the sub­lime and the ridicu­lous—gives the sit­ter a cer­tain grav­i­tas, im­bues them with char­ac­ter, and is very of­ten the start­ing point of the whole af­fair. He cre­ates looks that are open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

“For me, lux­ury is de­fined quite sim­ply by free­dom,” says Sims. “No amount of hand­bags or pri­vate jet fly­ing is go­ing to give any value to your ex­is­tence, but be­ing al­lowed to take pic­tures with Guido, and go­ing where we go is a real lux­ury.”

It is in­ter­est­ing to hear both par­ties talk about their out­put. At the very pin­na­cle of their pro­fes­sions, there must be a dan­ger of be­com­ing blink­ered, in­su­lar even. So where does their work fit into the wider global nar­ra­tive?

“You set your own mar­gins,” of­fers Palau. “When I first started out 30 years ago I used to copy what I thought was fash­ion­able at the time. But to be a good hair­dresser, you have to un­der­stand the vi­sion of the de­signer or pho­tog­ra­pher and then sort of add your thing. I’m very lucky that I’ve worked mainly with David. I’ve grown up with David, in his world, with his aes­thet­ics.”

“In spite of what I’ve been say­ing I haven’t re­ally re­flected on that,” says Sims. “I can’t help but think some­times that I’m not a nat­u­ral fit. A lot of what seems to be hap­pen­ing to the younger gen­er­a­tion at the mo­ment is this sort of ‘hori­zon­ism’, a kind of, what’s next? I tend to not think that way. I cer­tainly don’t set out to make some­thing time­less. Only time it­self will prove or dis­prove that. You’ve just got to go with what your in­stincts tell you at that mo­ment.”

“The Brits al­ways favour the un­der­dog,” is Palau’s part­ing shot. “There’s an ec­cen­tric­ity to us, and I think you can see that through the fash­ion and the mu­sic and the way peo­ple look. Our job is to trans­late that into some­thing that can be ex­ag­ger­ated, or down­play it and change its shape some­how.”

The great writer Anaïs Nin once said, ‘Life shrinks or ex­pands in pro­por­tion to one’s courage.’ In Sims’ uni­verse, things con­tinue to grow at an as­tro­nom­i­cal speed.

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