Viktor Vauthier is a storyteller who, by his own admission, could never put his words together how he wanted to on the page. But even on a gray Paris afternoon over lunch he holds court in a language that isn’t his mother-tongue. He answers questions with long, discursive tales, that flit from late 90s New York to mid-2000s London, and in a roundabout way, eventually back to what you wanted to know. They’re punctuated by observations, jokes and even the odd spot of acting – at one point standing up to pose against the wall, as a way of illustrating a particular shot which first sparked his interest in photography.
Stories, memories, evocations of feelings. As a photographer, these are what Vauthier deals in. After all, a picture tells a thousand words, as the old cliché goes. Largely working in the world of fashion, Vauthier recently shot the Spring/Summer 2018 Carhartt WIP campaign, as well as work for Bianca Chandon and Virgil Abloh’s Off White – but he is not a typical fashion photographer. (The Carhartt WIP S/S18 campaign, for instance, saw absolutely zero airbrushing or retouching). For him, blemishes and imperfections add to the sense of future-memories which his work seeks to capture.
Vauthier’s candid aesthetic owes much discovering a box of old photos that his father had taken in the 60s, their effortlessness and texture leaving a lasting impression on him. That similar approach – ‘snaps’, he often demurely refers to them as – in a internet-led era, has an altogether different effect. Where once old technology and any semblance of nostalgia was seen as quaint – as highlighted by the maximalist, glossy fashion photography of 90s and early aughts – it now holds a different power. For a generation raised on Instagram and Tumblr, highly attuned to the nuances of visual culture, shiny manipulated images often come off as cold.
In Vauthier’s storytelling masquerading as fashion imagery, there’s a warmth, intrigue and often raw sensuality. Models are seemingly captured “in the moment,” a brief glimpse that revels in spontaneity. It is a new sense of photographic luxury, in a way. Instead of seeing a preened and pristine fantasy world, we see one that looks real, familiar. And ephemeral. Because in viewing the photo, there’s also a recognition that moment is now in the past. Like all good fashion imagery, it’s both accessible and just out of reach, each image acting as only a snippet of a larger story.
Viktor Vauthier on developing his aesthetic
I never went to school for photography. I wish I had. I might still go, even if I’m over 40, because you can still learn. I’ve never done that, so my aesthetic was actually a practical thing. I first started to get really interested in photography around 2000. Before I would shoot, through skateboarding and stuff like that. To me, that was just life – nothing artistic about it. But even then, I was shooting portraits of friends. You know, “Hey, just stand there, I’m gonna take a picture of you.” Like a souvenir, or a memory.
I’ve kept the same style from when I started. From the first photo at 15, it’s the same. No big equipment or fancy lighting.
The film-aesthetic comes from my dad. I found these photos of my dad from the 60s and 70s. They’re photos of him, his friends, and family. My dad would be leaning against a wall on the street – leather jacket, smoking a cigarette. It was really strong, visually. I didn’t know they were my dad’s photos until my mother told me. I was like, “What the hell? This is amazing, I wanna do that.” They had this look and a certain grain, and they were wearing leather jackets like James Dean. It was amazing.
On shooting late 90s rap gigs in NYC
At the end of 90s I was in New York filming spoken word gigs. This video that I made was like an hour and a half of Company Flow, Mos Def, A Tribe Called Quest, many groups that I followed through America at spoken word cafes. A friend recently found a VHS copy of it, from ‘98. He gave it to me and I almost cried. It had been lost for over ten years. We didn’t have the master, it was all gone. And then, one friend found this tape – a VHS1 he’d made a copy of. He was like, “I have a present for you.”
It was in the 90s, nobody cared. Today you’re not allowed to have a camera in a gig like that. In the video, I’m filming with one hand and have a disposable camera in the other, you can hear me taking photos at the same time. I’m sitting filming A Tribe Called Quest – insane – or Smif-n-Wessun, and you can hear “click, click, click” – flash.
When they were coming out of the gig, I would say to someone like El-P, “Hey, can I have a photo of you.” So this look, framing them, with a disposable camera or a Yashica – a “your mum camera” – this was the moment I realized it was my style. But back in the day, other photographers would say to me, “That’s not a ‘style’, that’s just a ‘mum photograph.’”
On moving to Paris
Virgil [Abloh] made me come. We’ve spoken for years about art and stuff in general, but only by text, because I’d always be on the other side of the planet. He wrote to me last May like, “Hey, we need you to shoot now. This is it. Stop sharing ideas. Off-White is there. You are here. Come to Paris, we’re going to shoot.” I had a suitcase with three days worth of clothes. I was in LA, with a vintage car, I had a completely different life. During the shoot, I met [the man] who is now my agent. He was already a fan of my work, and took care of me. It literally changed my life. I had three days of clothes with me, and I’ve never gone back. Eight months later, all of my clothes I have either stolen from Carhartt WIP or Bianca Chandon.
On working in London and his route into fashion
I became a photographer not by shooting models or fashion, but by shooting friends and artists. For example, I’d shoot my friend Grace, who was a musician, or Ella, my girlfriend. Her and Grace, were very into fashion. I didn’t realize at the time, but I was showing fashion in the strongest way ever. Ella and Grace were really well dressed, and London’s style is so strong.
When I started to post my photos in 2006 there was no Tumblr, no Instagram. But I was posting photos every day [on my blog], and that became very important to me. I was creating like a TV show, kind of. There was a cast. My friends – skaters, models, graffiti writers, musicians, painters. Think about it, today in 2018, this is Instagram – posting every day, using polaroid and film. Isn’t that an Instagram thing, to use a filter? That comes from the blogs. Eventually some brands started to view my work not as ‘documentary’, but as ‘fashion’.
I was posting photos every day, and that became very important to me. I was creating like a TV show, kind of. There was a cast. My friends – skaters, models, graffiti writers, musicians, painters.
On being “old school”
I’m an old school guy. Helmut Newton had his first exhibition at 46. Today at 46, they are finished. [Photographers] start at 15 and finish at 30. I’m more into the Newton school of thinking. I always said I wouldn’t make any book of my photography until I’d been doing it for ten years, and now I have. I still haven’t done it, but I’ll allow myself to do it now.
In art, when you start, you’re not that good. You need to practise. And most of the time, at the beginning, you’re too inspired [by others]. So if you do an exhibition after being a photographer for six months, I have a problem with this, because it is not really you. It’s just photos of the ideas you have about photography. But if you wait ten years and go through the whole process, then you are completely sure of what you want to do. Which is funny, because it didn’t happen to me – I’ve kept the same style from when I started. From the first photo at 15, it’s the same. No big equipment or fancy lighting.
Skateboarding was my first inspiration, because there’s all these elements of art. If you skateboard, you are an artist, to be able to do what you do. You need a certain look, a certain lifestyle. To skate, you need to make a board – graphic design, woodwork, production. You need content, you have to shoot this board. Filmmaking, so you have to be an editor. So if you were young and a skateboarder, you got to touch all forms of art.
My son is going to be a special one. He doesn’t realize now, but I know. At age three, my friends were giving him lego, and I was giving him Basquiat books. I really tried to introduce the maximum of my culture to him. His mum is amazing – she gave him the other side of life. Being polite, eating well, school. All of this stuff is very important. So he was with her one month, and then he’d come and spend one month with me, his crazy dad.
At age three, my friends were giving [my son] lego, and I was giving him Basquiat books.
We’d travel, I taught him English and Spanish, and skateboarding, photography, art. I bombarded him with movies. So he has both. And only today, at 16, I can really see the “work” we did. I don’t know if I should say “work,” because it’s my child, but you can see the influence. He’s probably going to be a really strong artist. He’s very free, which inspires me a lot. We lose our freedom of youth, and he gives it back to me.
Photography: Ella Jazz & Viktor Vauthier
Words: Calum Gordon