A life in pictures

portfolio 1; To say that David Seidner's photographs had depth would be an understatement: his influences ranged from Greek sculpture to Velasquez. Mallery Lane recalls an extraordinary career
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Photographer David Seidner was only 42 when he died of an Aids- related illness in Miami last June. Although HIV-positive for nearly 15 years, it was only in the last two years of his life that illness slowed down his creative force. He was taking pictures for over 25 years, and leaves for posterity a remarkably large and accomplished body of work.

When he was 17, Seidner left Los Angeles for Paris. Good-looking, intelligent, bold and curious, he immersed himself in culture and nightlife, befriending the set surrounding the world of fashion. He shot his first magazine cover at 19, had his first one-man show at 21, and signed a two-year exclusive advertising contract for the house of Yves Saint Laurent at 22.

Over the following 20 years he created both "commercial" and "artistic" work. The commercial included fashion shoots for the French and Italian editions of Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Vanity Fair and The New York Times Magazine, and advertising campaigns for Emmanuel Ungaro, Lanvin, Christian Dior, John Galliano and Bill Blass. The artistic encompassed shows at the Pompidou Centre and La Maison Europeenne de la Photographie in Paris, the Whitney Museum in New York, and the publication of several books.

His immense cultural knowledge enabled him to draw on the past to create modern yet timeless images. His nudes evoke Greek classical sculpture; his portraits from the mid-Nineties were inspired by Sargent and evoke the paintings of Boldini, Ingres and Velasquez; his black and white portraits of artists recall busts of Roman emperors. Among his sitters were Helena Bonham-Carter, the Miller sisters and Honor Fraser.

"I don't believe that there is another contemporary photographer with such an intense parallel activity of commercial and creative work," says his agent of many years, Renate Gallois-Montbrun. "Although his commercial work was of an extraordinary quality, always identifiable, it was the creative work that counted for him. The artistic work of photographers today such as Peter Lindbergh or Paulo Roversi is nothing in comparison to what David produced."

`Orange Cluster on Green', `Pink and Yellow Orchid', `Yellow Cluster on Purple', 1988

Seidner's work had several defining periods. In its evolution, his images became more and more pure, ending with the simplicity of the orchid series, which was taken in his Miami apartment using an auto-focus camera and colour negative film. "David tortured himself with technique. Everything always had to be perfect, so it is logical his last exploration would be in simplicity - a simple gesture, poetic, liberating," comments Gilles Jaroslaw, Seidner's assistant for over 10 years. "Photography was his tool for self-expression. It was his life. Even when he was practically immobile with illness he found more to do." Gabrielle Tana, a long-time friend, says: "His existence was not only devoted to photography but to the creation of beauty. Even his homes were extraordinary environments. He had an exquisite eye for all things. At the end he told me that if he was no longer able to create beauty in the world then he was ready to leave." Ahn Duong, one of his model-cum-muses, says: "I often used to think his work was consuming him, yet it was the thing that kept him alive."

`Self Portrait', 1989

"Rigour is the word that best describes David," says Renate Gallois-Montbrun. His personal rigour, he adds, made him "a sensitive and faithful, but not always easy, friend". But he was also known for his professional rigour. He was highly disciplined and extremely prolific, a sophisticated aesthete with a lust for life and a wicked sense of humour, demanding of others, but even harder on himself. Portfolio 2

`John Cage', 1992; `Francesco Clemente', 1996

Seidner's superb `Faces of Contemporary Art' series totals approximately 60 portraits taken over a period of 15 years. "Just organising the artists to pose was a feat in itself," says Jaroslaw. "He was unique as a photographer in his immense cultural awareness," adds Gallois-Montbrun. "He not only photographed but wrote about each artist and his work. He had great admiration for, and felt an affinity towards, artists." Each portrait was taken in exactly the same context. From portrait to portrait, it is only the faces that change. Everything was precisely measured and calculated for a perfect alignment of size and background. He used an extraordinarily complicated printing process, each platinum print is on "Arche" paper which has an uncommon density of black. The portraits were shown as a group in 1996 in Paris at La Maison Europeenne de la Photographie. "Walking into the show, all those faces, the installation, the concept - it was so strong, so David," remembers Jaroslaw.

`The Miller Sisters', 1996

This photograph of the three daughters of duty-free tycoon Robert Miller was taken as part of a personal project of Seidner's: Sargent-inspired portraits. The image was published in Vanity Fair magazine when Alexandra, Marie-Chantal and Pia Miller found fame through marriage to, respectively, Alex von Furstenberg, Crown Prince Pavlos of Greece and Christopher Getty. This graceful portrait, with its rich quality, is reminiscent of a Goya painting but with an added skill for presenting exquisite clothing. Ahn Duong, another subject of Seidner's portraits, remembers the experience of working with him: "The way he touched the fabric, put the dress on you - he found the delicate balance between woman and dress, something beyond fashion. Painful positions, tight dresses, high heels; it was excruciatingly hard work, but the result was always amazing. He was obsessed with detail, always criticising his own work, convinced it could be better. His incredibly strong vision is what pushed him forward." Portfolio 3

`Feet', 1987

As soon as one complicated technical process was perfected, Seidner would move on to the next. "He was like a scientist, inventing new things all the time," says Jaroslaw. "He constantly looked for ways to push the limits, using multi-exposures, mirrors, long exposures, angles, lighting, etc." Paints, brushes, black grease, Vaseline, broken pieces of mirrors, metal, wire, glass bricks and old frames were all Seidner's tools. "We were constantly rummaging through second-hand shops, hardware stores, abandoned factory sites," remembers Jaroslaw. "David was like a handyman- cum-sculptor, creating a unique universe for each image."

`Francine Howell', 1987

Working in the Eighties from his Paris home/studio on the Rue Falguiere in the 15th arrondissement, Seidner photographed Francine Howell many times. In this shot, for Harper's & Queen, she is wearing clothes by Victor Edelstein. She was part of a group of women who were not only great beauties but great characters, more muses than models. This group also included Violetta Sanchez, Tina Chow and Ahn Duong. Seidner worked with women with whom he shared a certain complicity, who embodied a serene elegance. "David saw me at a nightclub in Paris, Le Palace," remembers Duong, who became a fetish model in the Eighties and is now an acclaimed artist. "I was a dancer and I had thought about modelling, but people said photographers wouldn't be interested in my kind of look. David took the very first pictures of me. He had a vision of women's beauty like no other photographer. He understood the essence of elegance in a woman. At the time he had the Yves Saint Laurent contract. I have never met another photographer with an understanding of clothes like David's." This early period of Seidner's work was influenced by his admiration for American fashion photography from the Thirties to the Fifties - work by those such as Irving Penn and Erwin Blumenfeld. For many years he had a very close friendship with Penn's wife, Lisa Fonssagrives.

Portfolio 4

`Woman from Front', `Man from Back', 1993

After the portraits of artists, Seidner's second most important creative phase was his series of nudes, which were also collected in book form as Nudes, to accompany an exhibition at New York's Robert Miller Gallery in 1995. Accomplished in a relatively short period of two years, the photographs were inspired by his love of Greek antiquity and a search for beauty. Friends, acquaintances and friends of friends posed in classical, sculptural stances. Seidner was well known for demanding a great deal from the people who sat for him, whether for a fashion shoot, portrait or other. Violetta Sanchez, one of his favourite models of the Eighties, says: "David always had to pull the picture to the point of perfection or, for him, there was no point doing it. No matter what had to be endured, he wouldn't stop until he got what he wanted. He loved graphic, contorted poses and worked them to the millimetre. After posing with David, I would have a sore back and limbs for days."

`Eleonore Le Monnier', 1986

A rare location shot - taken from an astonishing, dramatic angle - this image was part of a series for an Italian fashion magazine. "David was a great lover of cinema, especially Italian cinema of the Fifties and Sixties, of Visconti and Fellini. He was fascinated by the story one could capture in just one frame," says Gilles Jaroslaw. n

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