Saint Laurent Creative Head Anthony Vaccarello Taps Unorthodox Photographers for New Pop-Up Exhibitions Around the Globe

Alex Webb is one of the Magnum photographers commissioned to look beyond the fashion editorial.

Alex Webb captures moods both ominous and celebratory in a new collaboration with Saint Laurent. Courtesy of Saint Laurent.

Launched in 2018, Self is Saint Laurent‘s collaborative art initiative curated by its creative director, Anthony Vaccarello. For the seventh iteration of the series, debuting around the world this week, Vaccarello has tapped six different photographers, none of whom work within the traditional fashion realm, and asked them to put his summer 2022 collection within the context of their individual artistic vision.

It takes both trust and a high caliber of collaborator for a creative director to successfully relinquish the reins, and Vaccarello’s top-notch talent pool has certainly delivered. The assembled image-makers include  Alex Webb, Harry Gruyaert, and Olivia Arthur, all members of the famed collective Magnum Photos, as well as Takashi Homma, Daesung Lee, and the duo Birdhead, all of whom generally work within fine art.

From June 9 through 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 mélange of their new commissions with a selection from their vintage oeuvre. (A very limited quantity of each edition will be available to preorder for purchase, on-site only.) The result is decidedly not an ad campaign, but it definitely blurs the boundaries between fine art and fashion. Time, context, and setting are further obfuscated by displaying new and old images side by side within a city that has nothing to do with the photos. These overlapping juxtapositions, designed to give pause, are what makes this such a complex and affecting hybrid. On a much simpler level, the pop-ups will provide an evocative backdrop for discerning passers-by.

From its inception, Self has been a lofty project, mostly delving into 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 both grandiose and intimate. Seventeen new images will be displayed alongside some of his prior work in New York’s Madison Square Park. Ahead of the exhibition’s opening on June 9, we chatted with him about his approach to the project.

Alex Webb's LA. Courtesy of Saint Laurent.

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

How did this project commence?

I’d been in Los Angeles some months ago, and I was very intrigued by the areas on the southern edge of downtown. The flower district and the piñata district seemed particularly intriguing. In many ways, they reminded me of parts of Mexico; they seem quite Hispanic, with bold colors. Much of my photographic life has been spent in the Caribbean and in Latin America, especially Mexico. So I thought that would be an interesting place to do it. I also thought of Venice Beach, but I felt that this area was more evocative and intriguing. Venice has been photographed an awful lot.

I’ve never heard of the piñata district!

Most people don’t know about it, but it is quite startling that you go down to this area and it’s all Mexican decorations.

Basically, what I decided to do was to create a kind of visual conversation between some of my Latin American and the Caribbean photographs and these new Saint Laurent pictures. These pictures are certainly styled—they’re wearing Saint Laurent clothes—but I tried to channel some of the spirit of what I’ve done for many years in Latin America, sort of dealing with similar kinds of moments, similar kind of light.

How did you go about casting the models?

I worked with a stylist, Avena Gallagher, and we looked at a bunch of casting sheets and so forth, and between us we sort of decided which people we thought might be interesting.

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

Are you a fan of fashion photography?

I don’t actively follow fashion photography. When I’ve been asked to do a fashion shoot, it’s because they want something that looks like what I do out in the street, they want the feel of the street. They want the same sense of the moment and sense of the light that I tend to work in.

Alex Webb's unique view of LA. Courtesy of Saint Laurent.

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

There is a real texture play in the surroundings—for instance, the shiny gleam of a car pitted against rough bricks.

I’m very much an environmental photographer. I’m intrigued by how people exist in their environment. I went out and looked for locations that seem to be evocative in which I could bring the models to and try and do something. Often that had to do with a sense of color. A couple of times there’s a brilliant yellow wall. Other times, there’s a place where you see people in deep space, that’s kind of interesting. But you know, basically, it was very important for me to find the locations to put these models into.

I think that there is also a sense of mystery to these pictures. There is a story, but the viewer doesn’t know what it is and it’s up to them to decide. Did you have a narrative 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 does have a slightly enigmatic note to it.

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 machine with many cogs. Your work looks like it’s you on a solo mission.

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

But within the context of the fashion shoot, I try and set things up so there is the possibility of surprise. It’s not all scripted. I’ll have some models walk back and forth, but I’m not directing them. I’ll wait for what comes across as a moment in the street. It’s not a rigid situation.

Webb chanced upon this butterfly decoration while scouting. Courtesy of Saint Laurent.

Webb chanced upon this butterfly decoration while scouting and incorporated it into the this shot, 2022. Courtesy of Saint Laurent.

That really comes through. It’s very un-pose-y. The fashion seems like an organic component to some 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 in the process, even in the context of a fashion shoot.

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