Sylvie Blum is a photographer in L.A. who's originally from Austria. She worked as a model with the likes of Helmut Newton and Jan Saudek over many years. She was also influenced by the notable photographer Guenter Blum, who became her husband; however, with his unexpected death in 1997, she turned successfully to her own photography with erotic, sculptural elements. Her first book, Venus Selbst, involved a series of nude self-portraits, and it was followed with several other published books such as M Like Male Nudes. Recently she took her gracile erotic tones to the PETA campaign, Nude Against Fur.
Q: How has your work as a model, or other experiences, influenced your later photography?
A: Since I can remember I wanted to become an artist. My love [for] photography is a lifetime story. As a matter of fact, I always was obsessed with the medium of photography. As a working model I was not only the canvas a photographer could reflect his vision [on]. I went to a shoot fully prepared of the photographer's work, having an idea of finding my place in his vision.
Today I know how a model feels in front of my camera and I also know how hard I can push a model to get my vision alive. From the first moment I can tell if there is a good model standing in front of my lens and if we can make it work to create something very special together.
Q: What do you think of assembling a collection of exposed self-portraits in your first book, Venus Selbst?
A: Venus Selbst was made the first year after Guenter Blum died. I did kind of my last erotic shoot with myself before I retired as being a nude model. Nothing was the same any more for me to work with other photographers – my love and my muse has passed away. I needed to find a way into my new future. I needed to make a statement about how I see myself for the very last time. I'm glad I did, even in a very provocating way. All the different roles I played for my old Polaroid camera. This was my way to say goodbye to a loved person.
Q: What do you think of your nude series involving African, Arab qualities?
A: I'm lucky to live in L.A. now, a colourful, exciting city. Many cultures live here and I got the chance to work with some excellent models from Africa here. I always wanted to work with African models, but in Germany I did not have the chance. I was amazed by the beauty and athletic expressions many of those models have, and I have to say I felt in love working with African models.
Q: What was it like developing your series with the big cats? Was this a fantasy?
A: Yes, it was a fantasy. I carried this vision in my head for more than four years till I finally decided to shoot it. You can imagine it was not that easy to photograph the series, as I worked with very powerful animals. The first shoot I planned was years ago in Namibia. I casted the whole crew, found some tamed big cats, but the models were too afraid to shoot [when we were] on location. We had to cancel everything at the end. I was endlessly disappointed and flew back home without any pictures in my hand.
In 2008 I met an animal trainer here in Los Angeles. His big cats have been in the famous movie Gladiator. We decided to work together on my big cat vision. So I started over again, casted models, got all the permits, insurances, locations, logistics, etc., together. This was the biggest production I have ever done with my own budget and at some point I thought, I am so damn stupid to do it, because I was very nervous to fail again.
And indeed one week before, after everything was organized, hotels booked, production RV rented, flights for the models booked, my production manager called me and told me that the animal trainer's cousin got killed by one of his animals during a Pepsi commercial and they had shut down the farm. It was like someone shot me in the head. I had to find another animal trainer in short time, and to be honest this was not very easy, but in the end I got lucky and found someone who was willing to work with me at the last minute.
Q: What do you think of your behind-the-scenes video around this and how the girls felt in this atmosphere?
A: Each single girl I had during the shoot I knew before, and I also knew they would enjoy being part of this unique production. We worked for one week in the Californian desert. I think it was a magic place to work. We were out in the heat, had sandstorms and at the end of the day we were all exhausted. The pictures look so calm and surreal, so I think it is important we have it documented that all you see in the pictures happened for real. Those pictures were not easy to get and working with an animal is different. You need to wait and see what is going to happen.
Q: What do you think of the geography in your various photo series, from desert to city to the Pacific Ocean? Do you feel personally drawn to certain areas, in relation to your figurative imagery?
A: The world is my playground. I always keep my eyes open, get inspired of what is surrounding me. I love playing, catching different situations and, as I am a dreamer and traveller, I always picture an area as it would be already a picture of mine ... and if this imagination gets so strong, I will find a reason to photograph where and what I want.
Q: Are there certain areas you’d like to shoot in, which you haven’t yet?
A: Underwater in my pool ... I'm very sure to do it this summer. Sometimes it is not always necessary to go far away, if good things are just in front of you.
Q: I’m curious how you see the fine art nude, given the history of art nudes and the growth of pornography.
A: Personal pornography to me is sometimes very boring and stupid. It is too easy and straightforward.... The nude to me is timeless and interesting. Pornography is like fast food and this makes it less enjoyable to me.
Q: Are you interested in the work of other erotic photographers?
A: I'm not sure if I see myself as an erotic photographer. The naked body is a natural thing and only shooting nude people does not mean it is erotic at all. But yes, I'm interested in nude photography by many good photographers from the past and present.
Q: You’re aware of how commercial imagery often uses body exposure and it’s interesting in your blog that the model Ariane Sommer said working with you was the biggest challenge – different from appearing in GQ, Maxim.
A: Maybe because she exposed her naked beauty for me and got excited about herself trusting me that much ... but at the end I guess she knew it was the best thing to do.
Q: What do you think of how PETA uses nakedness when you shot for their campaign?
A: I love it very much and I'm proud I did a campaign for PETA.
Q: It seems you’re working on another book. What can we look forward to?
A: I'm working on my fifth book, called Body Parts, right now. The famous Fahey/Klein Gallery is curating the project. It is my personal sight on the female form, collected in the past years since I [started living] in the U.S.
Related link: images by Sylvie Blum
More info: Sylvie Blum's website