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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.

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.”

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.

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