Photo by David Sims, Arena Homme +, Fall/Winter 2012.
The fashion photographer David Sims once claimed he had no patience for nostalgia, and that living in the past was a pure waste of time. “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 season’s 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.
Photo by David Sims, Paris Vogue, February 2015.
Photo by David Sims, Helmut Lang, 1994.
His are the slick, super-nuanced images that grace the pages of 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 magazines 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.”
Photo by David Sims, Harpers Bazaar, 1997.
Photo by David Sims, Supreme Book, 2015.
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.”
I do things for singular and individual reasons, and the influences that informed my style are personal and not necessarily public.
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 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 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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