The Genteel
April 22, 2021


Behind the scenes at Paris Couture Week 2011. Source:
Emmanuel Sarnin photography
Jeremy Scott backstage.
Photograph courtesy of Emmanuel Sarnin.

Handsome men in suits rush to peel back metres of cellulose lining the runway. The lights dim, music booms and the first face appears from behind a branded backdrop. As she sashays down the catwalk, fiercely confident with her glossy hair, immaculate makeup and couture clothes, it's hard not to believe a fashion model's life is anything but pure glamour - unless you're Emmanuel Sarnin, that is.

The French-born photographer spent many years at the end of Paris' top runways, shooting models in the pit. But he soon became tired of taking the same posed and planned pictures that dozens of his colleagues were also capturing, and decided to specialise in behind-the-scenes fashion instead.

"I was more attracted by the atmosphere backstage; I felt this is where everything was really happening, a buzzing place to meet the 'technicians' of fashion," he explains. By technicians, he means the tailors, hairstylists, makeup artists and choreographers who create runway atmospheres for audiences. For Sarnin, however, this is nothing but artifice; a theatrical stage, strictly produced for consumption. There is no reality in it - but there is plenty backstage.

I consider myself privileged to be able to witness all this creativity and energy; backstage access, in particular, is very difficult to get...

He recounted his fascination with what the models must feel: "With dressers pinning clothes to their nearly naked bodies and makeup artists and hairdressers pulling at their skin and hair, the girls really have no privacy. You can see how they try to create a bubble of personal space by either zoning out, their eyes on something in the distance, or by blocking out their surroundings with an iPod or mobile phone..."

However, he says the girls are so used to having their photo taken, as soon as they see a camera, "they almost instinctively pout and pose." Consequently, Sarnin often uses telescopic lenses to, "capture emotions rather than poses. Everything is happening super fast there, sometimes I witness a scene, but I only have a split second to capture it, and there is no second chance. That's also what makes a picture so special."

Although most models arrive about 90 minutes before a show begins, the photographer says he gets very excited when top models rush in from a previous job. "I love when they arrive at the last minute and the beauty pros backstage have to remove all the hair and makeup from the last show. You can have up to ten people around one model, all working at the same time," Sarnin elaborates.

Backstage scenes are not Sarnin's only forte; he also has a talent for dramatically employing light. He first became fascinated with light and shadow after working as an assistant for Annie Leibovitz, and then later honed his technique at the prestigious Studio Harcourt, where he shot many celebrities. The dramatic quality of his work lends a painterly quality to his images, principally to the Dutch masters, particularly Vermeer. 

Emmanuel Sarnin photography
"Ben inspired by Caravaggio."
Photograph courtesy of Emmanuel Sarnin. 

In keeping with his eye for the natural, he prefers to use the light around him rather than a soft box or other photographic tools. "I also consider the site where the fashion show is taking place," he continues, "It allows me to play with backgrounds and light to give my pictures more depth and purpose. I've taken great shots at the Grand Palais, City Hall [Hôtel de Ville] or, sometimes, outdoor fashion shows in gardens or in train stations. All these different settings offer me different light and backdrops, and contribute to giving each frame a totally different atmosphere."

Sarnin takes nothing for granted and is grateful for his position in the world of fashion. "I consider myself privileged to be able to witness all this creativity and energy; backstage access, in particular, is very difficult to get and there are often very few photographers lucky enough to be there, which makes these pictures even more valuable to me."

Although he is content to continue his career in fashion photography, circulating with the biggest designers, models and experts of his age, his ultimate goal is to share his experiences in this fascinating, exclusive industry with a wider audience. "I've accumulated more than five years of backstage pictures, and I am hoping to publish them all one day into a coffee table book to share these fantastic moments; to share that search for the beauty of reality."



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