Review of Cathleen Naundorf: Noah’s Ark, Hamiltons Gallery, London

Noah’s Ark goes haute couture in Hamiltons’ current exhibition featuring Paris-based photographer Cathleen Naundorf. Based on the Biblical tale, Naundorf’s latest body of work shares the story in her classic style, which is at once futuristic and romantic. In the enchanting works on display, taxidermy animals are propped next to models wearing pieces by leading fashion designers Dior, Chanel, Valentino, Gaultier, Elie Saab and Stephane Rolland. Theatrical in their staging, the photographs shot in the studio scale up to those taken on location. The studio’s painterly backdrops allude to a rather stylistic essence, emphasising the design and individuality of each gown, while the on-site photographs, such as those captured at the Grand Palais in Paris, add a sense of grandeur to the collection.

Naundorf crafts more than visually captivating vignettes; these images focus on the characters of the Parisian haute couture and their idealistic stature in the late 1900s. The gowns do in fact take centre stage within the compositions, offering the opportunity to observe their intricate detailing and marvel at their opulence. The edges of the photographs look old and worn, perhaps even resembling constructed collages with seemingly layered borders. Yet it is Naudnorf’s technique of using analogue large-format cameras combined with Polaroid film that adds a dimensional element to the photographs. It can be said the works feel a bit like a formal display of 19th century paintings.

Abstaining from digital editing, the pictorial contrasts and colours are created through the use of instant film and the manipulation of shadow and light. Reminiscent of the photographer’s friend and mentor Horst P. Horst, these works employ a distinctive artistic ability to transcend the categorical boundaries of art, fashion, and photography. It was Naundorf’s friendship with Horst that led to her interest in fashion photography in 1997. Earlier in her career, the photographer travelled around the world specialising in the reportage of indigenous peoples. The works in Noah’s Ark span a more global and non-Western inspired representation – a refreshing take from more mainstream high-fashion portrayals.

Incorporating exotic animals and flora, there lends an aspect which recalls photography from the Victorian-era conveying the ceremonial. Within the dark lustrous space of Hamiltons’ Mayfair space, the photographs seem to glow, enriching their extravagance. The gallery is more of a black cube than a clinical white model space, and for this show especially it accentuates the exhibition experience.

Out of a gallery context and into the pages of Harper’s Bazaar where Naundorf’s works can also be found, the photographs will retain their bespoke and fantastical charm. Looking further into this body of work, the story being told abstractly reveals itself. The quest for a better life and future upon the survival of mankind and the animals, according to Naundorf, is underlying throughout and provides another interesting alternative dimension to fashion photography.

Ashton Chandler Guyatt

Cathleen Naundorf: Noah’s Ark, until 19 June, Hamiltons Gallery, 13 Carlos Place, London, W1K 2EU.

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1. Cathleen Naundorf, L’arche de Noé XXI TW 2 12 Rami al Ali – HC Summer 2012. Photo studio Bastille, Paris, 13 April 2012. Colour-print from original polaroid. Courtesy of Hamiltons.