GUINEVERE VAN SEENUS: PHOTOGRAPHER

GUINEVERE VAN SEENUS: PHOTOGRAPHER

GUINEVERE VAN SEENUS: PHOTOGRAPHER

Interview by Jesse Hayes

Before I ever picked up a camera, brushes and pencils were my tools of choice. During college, I delved into multiple figure drawing classes, fascinated by the intricacies of the human face and form. To refine my skills, I regularly immersed myself in fashion magazines, using them as references to study and draw from.

It was within the pages of Vogue that I first discovered Guinevere, in an unforgettable campaign shot by Craig McDean for Jil Sander. From that moment onward, I saved clippings of photoshoots of her to draw inspiration from during my time at art school and have continued to follow her career.

Guinevere van Seenus is a photographer, jewelry designer, and has been a top fashion model in both print and runway since the mid-’90s. She has graced the covers of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and W Magazine multiple times.

Born in Boston, MA, to Dutch immigrant parents, Guinevere attended primary school in Washington, D.C., before relocating to Santa Barbara, CA. At the age of 15, she embarked on her modeling career.
In 1996, while living in Paris, she shot her first major cover and editorial spread for Vogue Italia. This marked the beginning of her rapid ascent to become one of the most sought-after models in the fashion industry, appearing in the work of renowned photographers such as Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Karl Lagerfeld, Steven Klein, Paolo Roversi, Peter Lindbergh, Jan Saudek, Steven Meisel, and many others.

But there is much more to Guinevere than just fashion; she has a passion for cars, motorcycles, animals, and renovating her 1911 farmhouse with her partner Beau Friedlander. Today, our focus is on her love of photography, particularly film photography.

The following is an excerpt from a three-hour conversation Guinevere and I had in December 2023.

BEGINNING

Jesse: What was your initial exposure to photography and cameras?

Guinevere: I suppose my first real exposure was my grandfather, my mother’s father, he had a strong passion for photography. He was a product of World War II and had some obsessive tendencies around cameras, sound devices, and many other types of contraptions that he would collect, save and try to repair. Unfortunately, he had passed away by the time I really became aware of cameras and the beauty of film and polaroid (other than teenage point and shoots of course).

When my grandmother passed a few years ago there was a lot to go through, I grabbed a bin of the super 8, ordered a projector and checked a few of them out. There is fantastic footage of my grandparents at the world’s fair in Belgium, and various adventures through the 50s, and 60s, most are still stored, and I haven’t managed to get to them yet, but I can imagine there is a project there. We (as a family) have a plan to go through all his old still film this year. Sadly, a lot was destroyed by water, rot and mold, along with many international relocations over the decades. It is a thrill to get to see more of what he did and how their lives were, it’s an ongoing journey, being exposed to and exploring his passion.

Jesse: When did you start taking photography more seriously?

Guinevere: Before I started modeling, I wanted to go to art school. I liked painting and was mostly interested in painting the human form. I’m a little nervous around people and initially envisioned it as a more solitary process. I didn’t want to be in the same room with somebody for five hours while I was painting them, it seemed a lot to ask of anyone.

When I moved to New York from Paris in 1996, I got my first properly manual camera, a Rolleiflex TLR. My idea was I would photograph subjects and then paint them at home. The first roll of film consisted of nudes of my mother in my tiny bedroom, I just hung some sheets up and started practicing, they were terrible. I had no idea about depth of field, aperture, or shutter speed. I knew nothing. I remained mostly self-taught/ignorant, until I went back to school a few years later. In 2001, I made the decision to move back to California, where I enrolled at Santa Monica College.

I must say though that some of those early images are precious in their naïveté.

For whatever reason I never asked questions on set when I was modeling. I am still quite reticent in this area, but I push myself to be braver considering what a special opportunity it is to be able to observe and converse… essentially to have at times a personal master class from some of the best in the world.

Jesse: So, you took a break from modeling?

Guinevere: Yes, I took quite a long break. Several actually.

So, the Rolleiflex TLR was my first proper camera, it is obviously a particular camera, so I didn’t shoot it that much and my photography progressed quite slowly. At some point I also picked up a 35mm Rollei (such a lovely little camera) to be able to be

more mobile and spontaneous with things. Eventually I ran into the limitations (also the sweet gifts) of working with a guess focus camera and traded it in for what I was told was the pinnacle of 35mm…my first Leica. Which I believe was the M5. I only had this for a brief second before trading up to an available M6 in preparation of a long trip I was taking with my father to China around 2000.

Interspersed here were a few great point and shoots such as the Olympus Stylus and Yashica T4.

Jesse: Did you take photography classes?

Guinevere: During my sort of hiatus, I enrolled in classes at Santa Monica College (SMC), where I took advantage of their amazing photography program. They had one of the best labs in the country at the time because they had recently lost theirs in an earthquake and so had entirely rebuilt, state of the art facilities.
I took various art classes, figure drawing, theatre makeup, ceramics, as well as mechanics. I enjoy creating and working with my hands, whether it’s with cars, motorcycles, or engaging in the world of cameras and photography. I took photography basics, and just as I delved into their printing courses, I found myself pulled back into modeling and its hectic and lengthy travel schedule. Unfortunately, I had to drop the course midway several times. So, from that point on I was just shooting.
I had at least acquired a basic understanding of how to operate a camera, but I never really excelled at printing or completed that part of my schooling. I took more classes when I moved back to New York, but that was much later.

FILM

Jesse: In an interview you said, “I don’t have the same emotional connection to digital as I do film”. What is it about film that makes that emotional connection for you?

Guinevere: It’s hard to say, I imagine it’s a number of things. Digital is so fast; there is a computer brain transcribing the information between the subject and the photographer not just a simple capture of the information onto a film plane. There is an often a monitor which places most people on set at the point of result instead of in the journey and process, and it adds many more opinions into the discussion.
But there is also the personality difference of cameras, for example, when I’m on shoots with an 8 x 10 camera, I feel as if I relax into a certain space. The slow and diligent pace of the process sets a place for opening up deeply. Breathing changes, posture relaxes, even into a contrived position, the eyes calm and take in the space which brings on a more real facial expression. One of seeing not just being seen I suppose. Like a proper portrait.
Digital also affords wonderful things and has its purpose. I’ve done a lot of different projects with digital now and can see the freedom of experimentation and much more. But when I look into the lens of a large format film camera, I feel like I’m staring into the eyeball of like a giant elephant, it has its own soul, and it seems as if it’s looking into mine.

CAMERAS

Jesse: What made you gravitate to the Leica M6?

Guinevere: It was the one I heard that was the best. I was also interested in photojournalism, so felt the M6 was more of an appropriate camera for that.

Jesse: The Leica M6 certainly has that reputation, although I must admit I’m a little biased towards the Leica M2. What other cameras are you currently using?

Guinevere: It depends on my mood and the project I suppose. Whenever I travel, I make it a point to always have at least one camera with me, generally I bring a point and shoot, a Leica Minilux. But it is a little problematic (In fact its broken again). I had actually helped my mom buy it as a gift for my stepfather 20 years ago. He never used it, so it came to me. With that I go between the M6 and the Rolleiflex.
At home it’s easier to play with some of the beefier ones, a longtime favorite is the Polaroid 600SE with a modified film back, as well as a Fuji GW690.

Jesse: I know you shoot Polaroids as well.

Guinevere: Yes. I have two Polaroid SX-70 cameras one of which came from my grandfather. I still have some of that old SX-70 film that is left from him, Polaroids of my brother and I as small kids. They are absolutely astounding. The color is so rich on the old film. It’s incredible. I used to take the SX-70 on trips as well, I found it doesn’t travel so well. It seems to be quite affected by the radiation at the airport and get exposed light patterns through them. So, I stopped bringing them.

AVEDON & PENN

Jesse: I wanted to ask what it was like to shoot with Richard Avedon.

Guinevere: It was awesome. It was interesting because it was an advertising job for The Gap with Avedon. When asked about the job, I of course said yes immediately.
The shoot was sort of different because at the time he was older and quite old school in the way his sets were. No one was allowed on set. There was no hair, no makeup, and sometimes not even a stylist or editor. It was just you, him, an assistant and no music. The concentration was a 1000%. It was a state of pure focus without any distractions. There was simply no room for them, and that’s what I remember most.
For me it was a different way of working. There’s this idea that fashion is one big party, and every shoot is loud. And some of them are like that. The music’s overwhelming and people are non-stop talking. But to shoot with Avedon was the polar opposite.

Jesse: And I’m sure he was using a large format camera.

Guinevere: He was.

Jesse: And what about shooting with Irving Penn?

Guinevere: For the initial project, I flew in several times (living in California at the time) once just to meet him. Once for the special fitting of the prosthetics we were using (by the talented team of SNL) and then again for the shoot.
This was a beauty picture for American Vogue. It was an incredible experience, but in all honesty, I don’t believe it counted as one of his great images. Not in any way because of him, but because of the nature of having prosthetics meant that there was going to be retouching required and he didn’t retouch.
While his pictures were inherently pure, the addition of this large rubbery prosthetic (which was meant to look real) was challenging. The melting of those two textures would be nothing now with digital and retouching but with his amazing detail of texture it was no easy thing. It was certainly something I had never worked with before either. But he was so sweet and gentle and lovely, and said some treasured words to me.

Jesse: Did you work with any other old school photographers like Penn and Avedon?

Guinevere: Very sadly I missed out working with Helmut Newton because of my hiatus in the early 2000s.

Jesse: Helmut Newton’s work is amazing.

Guinevere: I know… When I started modeling there was a crossover period where I was a part of this younger generation of models, and it took some people a little time before they wanted to work with us.
We were a different flavor than the supermodels of the day. And by the time that transition fully happened, I had already gone on hiatus. So, I did miss out on working with a lot of photographers.
But I did work with some very special ones like Jan Saudek. Getting to work with him was mind-boggling, I just assumed that he had passed away based on the dates on some of his film. Then, I got the call to work with him, I was like, you’ve got to be kidding me!
I also worked with Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Andres Serrano, Catherine Opi, as well as Susan Meiselas briefly.

 

Jesse: Are there photographers still shooting film on fashion photo sets?

Guinevere: Yes, and there’s very much a return to it. In a lot of cases, there’s no room for the time film takes, but there are certain photographers that know what they’re looking for and the sort of sensitivity that film provides. I think it depends on what you’re shooting, who you are shooting for, and who the photographer is.
But there’s a considerable amount of film and it’s nice.

PHOTOJOURNALISM

Jesse: What photographers influenced you?

Guinevere: Robert Capa. I wasn’t aware of his work when I went to school at Santa Monica College (SMC). Then, I opened the school textbook and became immediately transfixed by one of the frames he took on D-Day of the Omaha Beach Landings. They stuck with me, and I studied them a bit more.
When I went back to school at The International Center of Photography (ICP), in 2015, I enrolled in the two-year program. The first thing that they asked us to do was to bring in a photograph that inspires us. I brought in a photograph from that series. At the time, I didn’t know that Robert Capa’s brother Cornell Capa was the one that founded ICP. But the photo intrigued me, and it always lingered in my memory.
Additionally, the documentary The Mexican Suitcase, about the work of photographers David Seymour, Gerda Taro, and Robert Capa during the Spanish Civil War.

Jesse: Oh, The Mexican Suitcase is fantastic!

Guinevere: I think the photojournalism obsession started with the Oliver Stone film Salvador. It’s about a photojournalist covering the Salvadoran Civil War. A phenomenal film. It completely blew my mind when I watched it.
Then, I read about the work of Mary Ellen Mark, I was amazed by how a photographer could invest so much time to authentically become a part of a group, a family, a different society in order to tell their story. Or, in the case of war, to place themselves in these perilous scenarios that painfully tug at the soul. I deeply envy the incredible skill, talent and bravery it takes to produce such exceptional work, such an astounding act of service.
Robert Capa’s D-day photographs helped me to understand that you don’t need words, you get an idea of what it is to be somewhere without someone telling you. Somewhere you might never be, something that you might never experience, of a culture, a community, or a situation.

FUTURE

Jesse: Can you see yourself moving more behind the camera? Do you have any photography projects coming up?

Guinevere: It’s a great question. I want to say, I don’t know. I never really had a plan for life. It was more what unfolded into the next thing. I was surprised that I wound up in photography. I didn’t plan for it, and I didn’t expect it.
Half the time, I feel like I shouldn’t pursue it due to my inclination to doubt my abilities. There’s definitely a back and forth. But I still can’t help seeing images that I want to make and see ways I want to experiment with light and emotions through film.
A recent project involved embroidering on SX70 Polaroids, self-portraits, interpreting pieces from Alexander McQueen. So that combining of photography and art, sculpture, and mixed media, I’d like to explore more of.
I’m currently talking to a photographer, who is interested in collaborating on a book together. I really can’t talk more about it, but we’re in the planning stages, and I genuinely feel honored to be a part of it.

I want to express my sincere thanks to Guinevere for generously sharing her memories, thoughts about film, and insights into her personal work. It was a genuine honor to interview someone who has been a consistent source of inspiration for me over the decades, and undoubtedly, will continue to inspire for many more years to come.

Please take a look at Guinevere’s website by visiting www.guineverevanseenus.com as well as Guinevere’s Instagram @guineverevanseenus

Photographs used with the kind permission of Guinevere Van Seenus. Not to be reproduced without permission.

A huge thank you to Jesse Hayes and Guinevere Van Seenus. I really love these in depth interviews. Jesse has a knack for getting photographers to really open up. You can see Jesse’s other articles here.

JCH

About The Author

Bellamy

Camera hunter, photographer, camera geek, Tokyoite and Englishman all rolled into one gracefully balding package. I have been living and working in Tokyo for 14 years now and it is my home. Tokyo is heaven for cameras and I know the secret spots and special places. Let me be your 'camera enabler'.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.