A few years ago Casper Sejersen was set up in a makeshift studio in a glorified cupboard in Cologne, asking some of Hollywood and Europe’s most iconic actors to show him their O-face. Three weeks of faking it later the posters for Lars Von Trier’s double bill Nymphomaniac were finished off. Casper’s own response to the Nymphomaniac script – a stark photographic essay titled ‘Belongs to Joe’ – was the start of his ongoing collaboration with Charlotte Gainsbourg, and his “way into high fashion.”
Countless covers and editorials later, Casper Sejersen’s work sits apart. Strange and simple. Otherworldly mundane. For Beauty Papers Issue Six BIG Casper collaborated with hair stylist Gary Gill on one of our cover stories. The editorial was given a Best in Book award in Creative Review’s Photography Annual. We talked to him about technique, pictograms and metal mullets.
Beauty Papers: Tell me about your shoot for Issue Six BIG.
Casper Sejersen: First of all, I love working with Gary. I think he’s the most talented, sweetest, cool guy I’ve ever met in the business. And we have done a lot of fashion stuff together, a lot of editorials. And when we do these things, there’s always so many things that have to be right: with the styling, with the brand, with the makeup, with everything. So we wanted to kind of do a thing where we really stripped it down, so it was much more about the mood of the pictures. Of course I know it’s a hair story, but we wanted just to create great pictures without any noise, without any clothes, without any set build that was recognisable. But to you know, go back in history and be inspired by all the guys in the history of photography that we really like. We were trying to see if it was possible to do these iconic shapes and iconic compositions but to strip it down and do it as simple as possible.
I know he’s had a long career with hair and I’ve had a long career before I started doing fashion and art photography. I was a commercial photographer. So we kind of know the craftsmanship of it, and when we work together we try to forget that in a way. I know I’m speaking for both of us now, but we forget it and then we work much more on intuition.
BP: Do you feel like with shooting something like this, you managed to escape the politics of fashion?
CS: Yeah, in a way. I also like the politics of fashion. I like the struggle. It’s kind of like sometimes when you make photographs and then you have all the politics… you’re in the middle of a sports game, in the middle of a soccer game, and I kind of like that because I have a really competitive mind.
But this was something else that was much more pure. It’s nice sometimes to do stuff like that where it’s just about the picture in a very clean way. This whole shoot was just go after the big picture, and don’t think about anything else.
BP: The story has a special power to it. Especially when you see it in print.
CS: The art I like, whether it’s paintings or sculptures or poetry or photography, I like when things are really stripped down, almost to a thing that is like a Pictogram. If you see a picture of a fruit that is how a child would make a drawing of that apple, or you know almost like the Fornasetti things, the Fornasetti portrait on his plates or screens on furniture.
We also had in mind from the beginning that it was super fun to do some pictures that actually could have a life on other objects. So we have a plan about making some scarves, or some – what is it called – the blindfold thing that you wear when you want to black out … what’s it called, what’s the English word for that?
BP: An eye-mask?
CS: Yeah, exactly. Eye-mask. To have them on some kind of really iconic, luxurious items, and not just only seasonally as a print in a magazine or a print on a wall, but do pictures that can have life in other places. On a small mirror, or something like that.
BP: I collect Fornasetti, and I never would have expected you to talk about Fornasetti because it seems so opposed to your aesthetic, but the way you explained that made perfect sense.
CS: Yeah. Maybe not because he’s the greatest artist, I’m not saying that, but I like the quirkiness in what he’s doing in that way.
"I like when things are really stripped down, almost to a thing that is like a Pictogram. If you see a picture of a fruit that is how a child would make a drawing of that apple."
BP: The use of hair in your work seems integral. Is that because of your interest in hair, or more your ongoing collaboration with people like Gary?
CS: It’s both. I’ve always been fascinated with hair. When I watch a movie for example, I think hair is always the thing, the essential thing that creates a character. Whether it’s a super bald guy or it’s a guy with long hair, or it’s a girly-girl, there’s something about hair and the right cut and the right kind of hair-do that really makes a character.
I have always used it in my photography as the key element. I would also say more than makeup, in a way, because with makeup you can make accents. You can change the whole picture with the red lipstick or something like that, but you know the main character – as I see it – is always about the hair.
BP: Do you have a favourite moment in film where hair is concerned? A character?
CS: There’s so many ways you can talk about this. I would say that Mia Farrow’s haircut in Rosemary’s Baby. That haircut makes her character, because it’s so innocent and it’s so … When you see her with that haircut you know what type of woman she is. There are so many things about that. It’s still super feminine but it has this kind of boyish thing to it. I love that. Or the guy from Death in Venice.
I know it sounds weird, but It’s the same with set design. I want this look that’s the same if you’re on a location or if you’re shooting in a studio. I always like that if you’re on a location, treat that location as a studio. And if you built a set in a studio, then you build it with some real life details, so that you don’t know where you are, so everything is very generic. And maybe that’s the thing with Mia Farrow’s haircut in Rosemary’s Baby, and the guy from Death in Venice. You don’t know … Both are very kind of boyish, and feminine. I like when things are not too literal in one way, too super masculine or super feminine, or super location. Does that make sense? It’s the same with this pictogram thing. I like when things are very universal. I love that if you’re looking at a guy drinking a glass of water, it’s just a very generic glass he’s drinking out of. It’s not a specific crystal, super glossy glass, it’s just a glass. Or a plastic cup. It’s much more about the expression of how you are drinking out of that plastic cup. So you give this simplicity life with the composition or with the mood in the picture… You strip everything down and then you can build it up afterwards.
BP: How long did it take you to figure that out?
CS: I started doing photography quite late but I think it’s something that I always have had. As a person I don’t like if things get too fancy. I always like when there’s something simple about… all aspects of life. So I think it comes from that, but the key, the turning point when I realised that was my style was when I did a book based on the manuscript of Nymphomanic, the Lars von Trier movie. I did the ad campaign for that movie, and then I was allowed by Lars to do my own art project not based on the film, but based on the manuscript. I could see that there were so many layers in the manuscript that they couldn’t film, because it was a huge, huge, huge manuscript – not written as a shooting script but written as a real novel. I wanted to do my own interpretation of all the layers that I could see that were not a part of the movie, in my aesthetic. That was when I started to create these really simple Pictogram pictures. I realised, okay, that’s where my love really is. To show if you have a whip, or a kiss, or a playing card. Everything was shot in the same way, almost like I could sketch it up in a simple drawing by hand. With that book, I suddenly could put words on my photographic style.
BP: Going back to the Nymphomaniac campaign, how did you maintain a spontaneity in the pictures? They’re very convincing.
CS: It was crazy, but it was a crazy project. Literally we shot it not in a studio, but in a small storage room in Cologne where they did the filming. So we had this shitty place, that was smelly and too hot and I had to create this set studio space there. All the European actors were super into it. Because an actor like Charlotte Gainsbourg or Stellan Skarsgård, they know the European way of working… sitting at the same table eating lunch with the gaffer, or the runner.
But all the politics about the Hollywood piece of the cast, that was insane. And some of them we had for nine minutes and others we had for hours and hours, and some wanted to redo it, and some were kind of against the campaign and we had to convince them, and some were almost too much into the campaign so they really want to do it for real. After these three weeks I felt like the guy with the whip and the chair and the lion. Because it was crazy, but it was so fun. It was one of a kind, I must say.
BP: We were talking about the importance of hair, and I think that there’s a lot of hair in your work that alludes to different subcultures, different periods of counterculture. Were you a punk?
CS: I was not a punk. I was more a metal guy, from the Northern part of Denmark. In high school I was into heavy metal. Had the long mullet. And then I turned more into The Cure kind of scene. I was not a punk, because punk didn’t really get to where I lived, because I’m not from Copenhagen. I’m from a small place outside Copenhagen. Maybe you’re right, I haven’t thought about that. Maybe that fascination of hair came from that because it was very defined when I was young. I’m from the mid-eighties when I had my high school years, and either you were the goth or you were the disco thing … and the hair defines the characters even more than the clothes. How you brushed it, or how you dyed it black, or how you cut it yourself or something like that. I was the mullet guy. The mullet guy.
BP: And then when you were getting into The Cure, did you start backcombing?
CS: Yeah. I did. It looked awful. And also because it was our own take of The Cure, so I dyed my hair black and backcombed it, but I was wearing pyjama trousers and a yellow feather in one ear. It was kind of this mix of something deeply missed … It was so funny.
BP: Do you think that subculture still exists?
CS: Yeah, I do. But, with the fear of sounding really old, I think there’s a lot of subculture today is very calculated because of fashion, because we have some young generations now where fashion is more accessible to them. Buying the right things is more easy. I don’t think it’s a good thing, or a bad thing. I just think it’s a different thing. When I was young, there were much less subcultures. It was the disco, the punk, the goth. You could count them on two hands.
Today there are so many niches, so many subcultures where people are very specific about it, where it’s a really small subculture. There are not these big waves like when I was young. It’s very much about being in your own little zone. The bigger things are more like when everybody wants to have a pair of Prada sneakers or something like that.
"An actor like Charlotte Gainsbourg or Stellan Skarsgård, they know the European way of working... sitting at the same table eating lunch with the gaffer, or the runner."
BP: Before you were shooting editorial, you said that you worked as a commercial photographer. Did you study photography, or teach yourself?
CS: My way into the business was super not creative. When I moved from the town where I went to high school and moved to Copenhagen it was because I was playing drums. I moved to Copenhagen with my band because we all had this dream of being rock stars. So I did that for some years. Then, you know, to pay my rent I had all kinds of jobs: working at elder homes, cleaning, gardening. Then at some point I had a roommate, and her brother was a commercial photographer and he hired me to clean the studio and paint some backgrounds. He had a really nice vinyl collection, and a really nice espresso machine, so I thought, “I want to be a photographer.” That looked really nice. I had never taken a picture.
I started working for him, and then I found out within two seconds that I was really fascinated with it. I worked for a lot of years in Copenhagen, assisting a commercial photographer who specialised in bottles and glasses and splashes and drops and water. So that was kind of my way, very technical. Then when I stopped working for him I went to photo school here in Copenhagen. The education here in Copenhagen is built so that you are at school ten weeks per year and then you assist a photographer the rest of the year, for four and a half years. Then when I was done with him, I was so fed up with what I was doing there. I needed a break. But then he actually gave me a lot of his clients, so I just started. I worked for many years, where I just shot everything. And because the scene in Copenhagen is really small, you have to do everything. You have to do cars and food and fashion and everything.
BP: When you started creating editorial work, did you start breaking your own technical rules or is technique integral? Did you have to go through a process of unlearning?
CS: Yeah. Yeah, I know what you mean, of course. One of the major things I learned from the photographer I assisted was that he said to me, “You have to know what everybody is doing and then you have to do the opposite.” Because the big scene is always like that, there is a flavour of the month or a specific look that everybody is doing. Then you have to learn that, and then you can break it, if that makes sense.
I do that all the time, or I try to give myself some rules when I do an editorial. The last few years I have tried not to look at photographers, and I have stopped buying magazines, because I get so stressed. I’m so afraid that I will copy something without knowing it. So when I get ideas for editorials and when I start the research of a project I look into everything else: a colour, or a poem, or some lyrics from a track or everything else. Something I see in my daily life.
And the thing with the techniques, I try to limit myself because. How do you say, when you don’t have that many bricks to build a house? Because then sometimes you have to struggle more to get it beautiful, instead of giving yourself all the opportunities. It’s like, have you seen the documentary It Might Get Loud with Jack White and The Edge from U2 and Jimmy Page, where they’re talking about guitar playing? These three guitarists are sitting talking about guitar playing, but it could be three painters or three photographers or three architects, it’s so inspiring. They have three very, very different ways into the world of guitar playing. Jack White played all the guitar parts in The White Stripes on a $90 plastic guitar from Walmart, and he couldn’t tune it so he had to fight with the guitar to get it in tune, the way he treats the strings when he plays.
Sometimes I like to put myself in that situation, so I know that I have to create something very beautiful but in a very restricted way. That’s maybe the competitive gene again, where I have to show myself that I’m able to do it.
BP: It goes back to what you were saying earlier, about stripping back, reducing certain elements down. I think that’s something you can see running through all of your work. What is your relationship with fashion?
CS: My relationship with fashion is that, actually I am not that into it. I don’t have a lot of knowledge about it. I’m married to a stylist who knows everything about it. But I love silhouettes, I love beautiful shapes, I love beautiful fabrics, I love that part of it. But you know, I’m not into fashion just to follow what is this month’s flavour. I don’t care about that, because if I try to follow that fashion thing, I am afraid my work will change too much.
I can see the guys and girls that I love their work, the photographers, or illustrators, or graphic designers, that have been doing the same again and again and again. Then because fashion goes in circles then sometime they’re useable, and sometimes they’re not. But they have the same kind of bite to their work. Does that make sense? Where it’s not about following the fashion but following your own heart about it. I’m not into specific brands. I don’t think I’m a fashion person like that. It’s really weird because sometimes fashion, the way I see fashion – or smartness, or sexiness – can be a really specific mood or the way a person kind of moves.
An example, whilst I was sitting with my wife in Paris looking at a car that was illegally parked. We were talking about, “What is sexy?” Then one of these guys with this truck came and had to remove the red Porsche that was illegally parked. He was just a big, fat, sweaty guy and you could see on him that he had really enjoyed moving that Porsche away on his truck. While he was doing all of this, with one hand he was rolling a cigarette totally in sync. So when he was ready to go and drive away with that Porsche, he could light his cigarette up. And that looked so sexy, and so fashionable, but he was just a guy doing his job!
So fashion can be so many ways, so many things. Sometimes fashion can be just the right way to wear a scarf filled with holes and not washed, but if the right person has it on it just looks fashionable. I think that’s my kind of approach to it.
BP: And a similar question. What is your relationship with beauty?
CS: I think it’s the same. When I talk to my friend and my wife about who is the most beautiful girl in the world, or who is the most beautiful man in the world, it’s also about character. For example, the women that I find super beautiful is much more like Bjork or Mia Farrow. I love when I take beauty pictures, I love playing around with makeup and so on but it’s more to create an atmosphere.
BP: I think it’s interesting with you talking about a character and the women that you think are beautiful, because I do think that the women in your work have a very particular look. I think it feels like a type of glamour. In the same way that David Lynch’s women have a certain glamour to them, and it feels very specific.
CS: I know it sounds like a cliche, but I have shot her a lot of time and for me Charlotte Gainsbourg is just the perfect example of beauty and fashion and character in one person. Because everything about her is so effortless, it’s so natural. The way she walks and wears some worn out Stan Smiths or a pair of jeans, it looks like high fashion. I can’t describe it, because she’s not a classic beauty, she’s even a little bit boring in her look, in a way, but she is just everything. That type of woman.
BP: Do you think that fashion editorial has a social responsibility?
CS: No, I don’t think, not in the big picture. But yes in the way that you have to treat people right, you have to treat them with respect. Also with genders or sexual orientation, or where you come from in the world, or your skin tone. Fashion has to be a mirror of the world we’re living in. That’s my opinion.
I think a lot of good things have also happened in the recent years. Suddenly there’s much more variety of how people are looking. Of course the characters should have something extra, otherwise it would just be super boring. But I like that the variety of things has exploded in a way.
Beauty Papers Issue Six available here