As an internationally known fashion photographer, Sonia Sieff has followed in the footsteps of her father, Jeanloup, by creating eye-catching works that celebrate feminine allure. She’s also written and directed short films for brands like Baccarat, Bulgari, and Ferragamo. Whether she’s on a paid shoot or on a personal mission, the art of photography is always in her thoughts.
Below, Sonia speaks to Christie’s about her father’s life and legacy, as well as her own experiences with photography, to mark our online sale, Jeanloup Sieff: Photographs from the Collection of Don Sanders (until 2 December)
Your father's first camera was a Photex. What was yours?
Sonia Sieff: ‘My first camera was a Nikon — my dad’s gift for my 17th birthday. It was like a crush; I fell in love with photography right away, and I haven’t stopped. Like when you meet someone, and you think, ‘How could I have lived before?’
‘The only thing I love which isn’t photography is filmmaking. It has everything I love: you have to write, you have to create a story, to have to cast it. You have all the ingredients of photography, but it’s deeper. And you have more time. You never have enough time when you’re shooting photos. I think my dad had one week or two weeks to do pictures, but now [fashion photographers] don’t have the time to build things with only a day of shooting.’
What’s an early memory you have of your father at work?
‘We used to live in an apartment adjoining the studio and the lab, [and] I would bring the coffee. I was meeting the people my dad was working with, and having lunch with them.’
When did your father first photograph you?
‘He started right away, when I was born, but the famous photo is when I was five, for Portraits.’
What was your introduction to fashion photography?
‘I remember doing a fashion shoot for Vogue; I was wearing necklaces and high heels, and I was five or six. For me, fashion was a game. It was joyful. It was like a party.
‘When I became a photographer, I couldn’t be a model anymore. I hated the way your body was analysed, criticised. You are very fragile when you are 16, in between two ages. This purity has to be protected.’
On your website, you write, ‘Subjects don’t have a gender’. What does this mean, exactly?
‘I am not paying attention to the gender but to taking a good picture. This is what I learned from my father. The connection you have with the model is very important; even if you know exactly where to go, you have to be open to what the model proposes. Sometimes there are good surprises. Most of my models have become friends, and the collaboration is better thanks to this exchange.
‘You also have to be light sometimes. My father was working with himself, with nearly no assistants. He hated when there were too many people on the set; you lose the magical moment. Now, it’s really different. My father was really working one-on-one with the model, it was a special duo. I love my team, but sometimes I need to be alone. What counts is the picture, even if the clothes or the hair are not perfect.’
Your father’s photos, and your own, reflect the relationship between elegance and sensuality. Is this harder to manage today?
‘Mystery is missing now in photography. The world is becoming so mercantile that we think we need the product to be shown in the foreground. Of course the bag has to be shown, but sometimes it’s better when they let you do what you want; it’s alchemy. The eye is not attracted by what is obvious, but by a silhouette, a general ‘allure’. I love the frames, the composition that photographers use to have. The pictures were ‘breathing’. That is why personal work is so important.’
What is the difference between fashion photographers and art photographers, in your mind?
‘It’s an old debate. You can be both. Today, Jürgen Teller and Peter Lindbergh are shown in galleries and in magazines. It's more about conceptual photography versus fashion photography, even if a lot of artists are collaborating for fashion… The bridges are everywhere. My dad used to say that there aren't art photographers and the others, but good photographers and bad.’
Your father once said, ‘Eyes and hands are the first thing that attract me in a woman.’ What attracts you, as a photographer, about your subject?
‘Exactly the same: eyes for sure because they tell everything, and then wrists. They reveal how elegance is contained in the body.’