Anthony Vaccarello, creative director of Saint Laurent, uses unorthodox photographers for new pop-up exhibitions around the world

Launched in 2018, Self is Saint Laurent’s collaborative artistic initiative curated by its creative director, Anthony Vaccarello. For the seventh iteration of the series, which makes its world debut this week, Vaccarello tapped six different photographers, none of whom work in mainstream fashion, and asked them to place his summer 2022 collection in the context of their individual artistic vision.

It takes both confidence and a high-caliber collaborator for a creative director to successfully let go of the reins, and Vaccarello’s top-notch talent pool certainly delivered. Reunited image makers include Alex Webb, Harry Gruyaert and Olivia Arthur, all members of the famed Magnum Photos collective, as well as Takashi Homma, Daesung Lee and the duo Birdhead, all of whom typically work in the fine art field.

From June 9-12, each artist will have their own temporary outdoor exhibition in one of six cities – New York, Paris, London, Tokyo, Seoul and Shanghai, respectively – where they will show a mix of their new commissions with a selection of their vintage work. (A very limited quantity of each edition will be available for pre-order for purchase, on-site only.) The result is decidedly not an advertising campaign, but it definitely blurs the lines between fine art and fashion. Time, context and setting are further obscured by displaying new and old images side by side in a city that has nothing to do with the photos. These overlapping juxtapositions, designed to provide pause, are what make this such a complex and touching hybrid. On a much simpler level, pop-ups will provide an evocative backdrop to discerning passers-by.

Since its creation, Self was an ambitious project, mainly focused on film and photography. Previous collaborators include Vanessa Beecroft, Bret Easton Ellis and Gaspar Noé. A Self 07 standout is Magnum photographer Alex Webb.

Known for his singular sense of color and graphic style, Webb captures frozen moments that are both grand and intimate. Seventeen new images will be on display alongside some of his earlier work in New York’s Madison Square Park. Before the opening of the exhibition on June 9, we spoke with him about his approach to the project.

Say it with balloons: Alex Webb’s vision of LA, 2022. Courtesy of Saint Laurent.

How did this project start?

I was in Los Angeles a few months ago and was very intrigued by the neighborhoods on the southern outskirts of downtown. The flower district and the piñata district seemed particularly intriguing. In many ways they reminded me of parts of Mexico; they look quite Hispanic, with bright colors. Much of my photographic life has taken place in the Caribbean and Latin America, particularly Mexico. So I thought it would be an interesting place to do it. I also thought of Venice Beach, but found that area to be more evocative and intriguing. Venice has been extensively photographed.

I’ve never heard of the piñata district!

Most people don’t know this, but it’s quite surprising that you come down to this area and it’s all Mexican decorations.

Basically what I decided to do is create a kind of visual conversation between some of my Latin American and Caribbean photography and these new Saint Laurent images. These photos are certainly stylish – they’re wearing Saint Laurent clothes – but I tried to channel some of the spirit of what I did for many years in Latin America, sort of dealing with similar moments, similar lights.

How did you go about casting the models?

I worked with a stylist, Avena Gallagher, and we went through a bunch of casting sheets and so on, and between us we kind of decided which people we thought were interesting.

I’ve worked with her before about four years ago, and I actually asked her for this particular shoot when I was asked to do it. We are getting along very well.

Are you a fan of fashion photography?

I am not actively into fashion photography. When I was asked to do a fashion shoot, it’s because they want something that resembles what I do on the street, they want the vibe of the street. They want the same sense of moment and the same sense of light that I tend to work in.

Alex Webb's unique perspective on LA.  Courtesy of Saint-Laurent.

A view of LA by Alex Webb, 2022. Courtesy of Saint Laurent.

There’s a real textural play in the environment, for example, the glowing glow of a car against rough brickwork.

I am truly an environmental photographer. I am intrigued by how people exist in their environment. I went out and looked for places that seemed evocative where I could take the models and try to do something. Often it had to do with a sense of color. Sometimes there is a shiny yellow wall. Other times there’s a place where you see people in deep space, it’s quite interesting. But you know, basically, it was very important for me to find places to put these models.

I think there is also an element of mystery in these images. There is a story, but the viewer does not know what it is and it is up to them to decide. Did you have a story in mind?

No, it’s really more the feel of each individual situation. I tried to channel the spirit of my street work, which often has a somewhat enigmatic note.

Cotton candy, Oaxaca, Mexico, 1990 by Alex Webb.  Courtesy of Magnum.

Alex Webb, Cotton candy, Oaxaca, Mexico, 1990. Courtesy of Magnum Photos.

What was it like working with other people? Fashion is a multi-cog machine. Your job looks like you are on a single player mission.

In countries where I don’t speak the language, maybe I work with a fixer or something, but most of the time I work alone. I wander and let the rhythms of the streets and my experiences lead me where I will go. So clearly, doing a fashion shoot is a totally different kind of thing.

But in the context of the fashion shoot, I try to put things in place so that there is a possibility of surprise. Not everything is scripted. I will make models come and go, but I don’t direct them. I will wait for what will appear as a moment in the street. It is not a rigid situation.

Webb stumbled upon this butterfly decoration while on a reconnaissance.  Courtesy of Saint-Laurent.

Webb stumbled upon this butterfly decoration while scouting and incorporated it into this photo, 2022. Courtesy of Saint Laurent.

It really shows. It’s very un-lay-y. Fashion seems to be an organic component of a slice of life.

I think that’s what they wanted from me and what they were looking for. It’s quite fluid. There’s a fair amount of serendipity to the process, even in the context of a fashion shoot.

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