artist Stephane Sednaoui ON THE ART OF CREATIVE TRANSFORMATION

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Portrait courtesy Stéphane Sednaoui

Stéphane Sednaoui is a fine artist, filmmaker and photographer. His remarkable career has seen him create seminal music videos and iconic work for Björk, Tricky, Madonna, Massive Attack and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. It has taken him from fashion shoots in the former Soviet Union, to reinventing his own practice as a fine artist. Here, Sednaoui shares stories from an extraordinary creative journey navigated always by gut instinct.

 

Sascha Behrendt: Stéphane! So nice to see you. Let’s start with your background. You were born in France, but you’re also a naturalised American.

Stéphane Sednaoui: Yes, I grew up experiencing both cultures. When I was twelve, I went with my mother in the ‘70s to the US to see my aunt. Everything was on a bigger scale – the buildings, cars, billboards, even the giant watermelons. It was as if I was in the book Gulliver’s Travels. I loved it, and felt in spirit I was already a New Yorker. Later, when I was eighteen, I initiated and organised a student class exchange between Paris and Minneapolis, and travelled alone on a Greyhound bus across America.

With the camera, I could do creatively what a writer or journalist does with a pencil and paper

SB: Were you already very independent and organised?

SS: Independent yes, I think this was common to my generation. I’ve always been very passionate. Like any disorganised procrastinator, when we are passionate, we at least try to move mountains. You know, with fantastic enthusiasm.

 

SB: Is that a defining quality that has helped you in your career?

SS: I see people that don't have that passion, but they have very deep, quiet determination, which is the opposite of my loud enthusiasm. Yet they reach the same goals. I don't feel there is one way. 

 

SB: Did you study at an art school?

SS: I didn’t know about Les Beaux-Arts, and was not confident enough to apply to a film school. I briefly went to Sorbonne to study literature and enjoyed philosophy. 

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Björk, 1993, during shooting for 'Big Time Sensuality' (archive); courtesy Stéphane Sednaoui

 

SB: When did you first pick up a camera?

SS: On that first trip to America, we had a Pentax Spotmatic camera which I just bonded with immediately. Later, I wanted to make films but I didn’t know anybody in that industry, so I realised, with a photo camera, I could start doing my own things. I had already discovered the photography books of William Klein, Duane Michals and other great photographers. With the camera, I could do creatively what a writer or journalist does with a pencil and paper.

 

SB: Do you use all the different available camera technologies today?

SS: I do mainly digital, but I have my analogue camera nearby all the time. I love both!

 

SB: Didn’t you get to be photographed by Andy Warhol at The Factory in New York around this time?

SS: Yes, crazy! I was twenty-one and Warhol photographed me in New York at The Factory. There was a nice, extravagant group of people in his studio. I was timid, but open-minded, so it felt very comfortable to me. Warhol didn’t try to control anything, he shot me just the way I was, dressed in an American Indian fringed jacket, orange baseball pants, and with twenty pins in my long hair, I don't remember why those pins! I guess just for fun. André Leon Talley, the fashion journalist and stylist was producing the shoot and also modelling for Warhol.

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USSR, 1986, for Per Lui magazine (archive); courtesy Stéphane Sednaoui

I put my camera down, because I thought I’d better not photograph him photographing me, even though I wanted to. But I imagined I'd do it another time. When you're very young and you enter a world like this, you feel accepted and think, OK, now this is going to be my world

 

SB: You've never allowed yourself to be put in a box, creatively or personally.

SS: I mean, it is not a perfect journey. Of course there are moments when I’ve felt in a box, and sometimes for too long, but I always try to stay vigilant and figure it out.

 

I had come to the USSR without a planned concept, so I could try anything. It was with that series that I started to do cut-outs and collage for the next few years

SB: I would love to talk about those zigzag points, where you chose a drastically different path from before. You went to the Soviet Union a few times, and were there for a magazine shoot when the Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened.

SS: Yes, the first time in 1984, with a group of friends. We were invited to do a non-official fashion show in Leningrad using Vivienne Westwood’s clothes. Remember, it was the cold war era, under Andropov, so it was intense. And the year of Orwell's book on top! When we arrived, we were already dressed in Westwood’s latest collection, because we had to keep our luggage minimal. Meanwhile on the streets, Soviet people were dressed like they were still living in the 1960s, and were looking at us completely puzzled, it was surreal! Our hotel manager took one look at us, panicked and cancelled the fashion show. 

Two years later, I went back, because Jean Paul Gaultier did a collection with Russian Cyrillic letters and I had managed to convince a magazine to send me there. First, for a few days, I scouted Leningrad, then Moscow. But when I called my agent, (my mother, ha, ha) to make sure the two models were on their way from Paris, I was told, “They are not coming, because there has been an explosion at a nuclear plant in the USSR. A huge atomic cloud is floating between Europe and Moscow, and nobody wants to get on a plane”. It was Chernobyl!

As much as I was in shock, in seconds I had figured out how to save my story. I told her I would photograph empty streets, then in Paris, I would shoot the models, and add them as cut-outs in front of those backgrounds. I had come to the USSR without a planned concept, and zero technical knowledge, beside loading film. So I could try anything. It was with that series that I started to do cut-outs and collage for the next few years. 

 

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Nirvana, 1993, for Mademoiselle Magazine (archive); courtesy Stéphane Sednaoui

SB: After that, in 1989, you went to Romania as a journalist for the French newspaper Liberation to cover the fall of the Nicolae Ceaușescu dictatorship and communism.

SS: I had already taken a few portraits and covered street protests for them and I thought that it was an important issue to report on. I enjoyed bouncing from pop culture to news coverage, it also kept me from getting too comfortable. With my creative work, I liked to distort and transform things, and the fashion-pop culture magazines, as well as the newspaper Liberation, liked my twist on reality. 

If my goal had been to succeed in fashion, entertainment or journalism, then I would only have focused on one of them. But I did not want to limit myself to a few segments of experience. Years later, I saw the Antonioni movie Blow-Up, where the main character is a photographer who goes from fashion, to entertainment, to documentary. I loved how he didn't limit himself, as that is how I see creativity — not bound by specific domains.

So, in Romania at that point, I rushed to the city of Timișoara. Sometimes, while travelling, we had to hide, because the Securitate were still randomly shooting at people. Once, we were on the fourth floor of a hospital at night, and they were fighting downstairs, shooting and moving up the first and second floors. We were hiding and wondering how we were going to survive. And then the shots stopped. I was twenty-six and had not been prepared for that.

When I came back to France, I learnt that the mass graves I had photographed in Timisoara – dead bodies presented as tortured victims of the Securitate – were fake, a set-up staged for the media to photograph. So the sad irony of the entire trip was that I went there to report the truth, and ended up documenting a major fake event of the twentieth century.

After Romania I was really fucked up. I would be in a photo studio listening to everybody talking about what was in fact, an easy life. And in my head I was thinking, they have no idea what's going on. I needed to move on. I wanted to cover other conflicts but, luckily for my health, a friend proposed a music video to direct, and that was the start of a new adventure.

I was very lucky to be working in a period where I could send my proposals as a few drawings and hand-written sentences in bad English. For the Chilli Peppers, I did a treatment with maybe eight drawings and I got the video. It was insane!

SB: So you left for New York, as a video director and photographer working with Madonna, the Chilli Peppers and Björk. What was that like, did you have to say no to a lot of work to maintain your high creative standards?

SS: For ten years, I was very selective. I focused on being a video director, and turned down all commercial jobs. 

 

SB: It’s interesting, that balance between fulfilling what a client wants and having freedom. To avoid being creatively boxed in.

SS: I would like to say that those elements that you have to work with, are in fact a source of inspiration, like the solution I found in Moscow during Chernobyl, or finding visual ideas from a song. But in commercial work it depends on the relationship you have with the clients or art director. It can be very frustrating, and I am really not good with compromises.

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'Sombre', 2023 (archive); courtesy Stéphane Sednaoui

 

SB: You once posted on Instagram a funny photo shoot you did with the band, Nirvana, in the streets, being flirty dressed in long skirts.

SS: This was actually for Mademoiselle, a mainstream US fashion publication. It was really not the kind of magazine I normally worked with. I of course wanted to work with Nirvana. I came to the shoot wearing a sarong because I had just come back from India. Nirvana knew the shoot was for Mademoiselle. They saw me and thought, Oh yeah, let's do that too. We should wear a sarong, and be like Mademoiselle girls. So, they acted very girly and it was a really different result.

 

SB: How was it to work with Madonna? She is famous for micro-managing every single detail.

SS: I had complete freedom, and she let me do my thing. I had only one day to do my video with her. She was very trusting. 

 

SB: You also collaborated a lot with Björk.

SS: On all my music videos, I had complete freedom, but that doesn't mean that it was easy, because some bands were more worried, shy, or nervous than others. But with Madonna, Björk, and Tricky, they were all like, go for it!

I was very lucky to be working in a period where I could send my proposals as a few drawings and hand-written sentences in bad English. For the Chilli Peppers, I did a treatment with maybe eight drawings and I got the video. It was insane!

 

SB: Were you learning filmmaking techniques on the job?

SS: I already had a good education in movies, because of the high quality of programming by Parisian cinemas of classic directors such as Fritz Lang, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, and ‘70s counterculture American movies. Not having technique didn’t scare me because you can work with a pro team.

 

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'Away Go', 2013 (archive); courtesy Stéphane Sednaoui

SB: For you, that transition into moving image, the work was already half done. You understood the basics of composition, framing, and focus.

SS: Exactly. At first, my music videos were all frontal. They were just like a photo, animated. The camera doesn’t move, but everything within the frame does. Then I slowly got more comfortable moving the camera.

 

SB: I would love to ask about your archive. What do you plan to do with it?

SS: It depends from which angle I look at it. From a pop culture point of view, it will be straightforward. For example, publishing books in a series related to my contributions to pop culture in the ‘80s and ‘90s, like the photos I took on the truck when we filmed the video, Big Time Sensuality with Björk, or the different series I did for The Face magazine. But at the present time, what really matters to me is to share the obsessions that run through my work. Obsessions and themes that echo in my current artistic practice.

It depends on the series, but yes, I do like to intervene on the image, to be physical, to alter the surface

SB: Which is fine art on your own terms.

SS: Totally. I really went through a mental detox to regain my creative enthusiasm.

 

SB: In your recent abstract work, you’re using a mix of your photographic images that haven't been shown before, and experimenting with layering them as images on paper or canvas with real paint, so that they become tangible objects.

SS: It depends on the series, but yes, I do like to intervene on the image, to be physical, to alter the surface. Sometimes I only do it digitally, but it can also be with paint. On one piece, Away Go, I had started with photos from an advertising job, where the more I worked on it, the more I destroyed everything, until it reached a critical point. Although my art usually starts with new images, I really enjoy using my archive as the starting material with which I plant new seeds.

 

Find out more at stephanesednaoui.com, and follow Stéphane on Instagram @stephanesednaoui / @sednarchives

 

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