Skin on Skin

Olivia Arthur tells Maisie Skidmore the thinking behind her commission from Saint Laurent, drawing on her ongoing interest in “how we feel comfortable in our own skin”.

Olivia Arthur

From the series So Not So. All images © Olivia Arthur/Magnum Photos for Saint Laurent, curated by Anthony Vaccarello.

Olivia Arthur grew up in and out of London, traveling from place to place with her family following her father’s work as a diplomat. She’s long since called the city her home – but perhaps those years looking on from outside it have offered the photographer a kind of objectivity.

Now, as the UK weathers a period of difficulty in its connection to the European continent, she looks at the city with both a fondness, and an unblinking recognition of its current struggles. “I wanted to show the texture of London,” she explains of the body of work she created about the city for the seventh iteration of Saint Laurent’s SELF.

In So Not So, the photographer considers peripheries, and the contrast of human warmth with the cool of old architecture. The series is an exploration of connection; of the natural to the manmade; of the real to the uncanny; of one person to another.

Olivia Arthur © Olivia Arthur

"I wanted strong models who were expressive, who were older, who had something different. They all brought a certain energy to the shoot."

Olivia Arthur © Olivia Arthur

Part of the resulting story is photographed in an old Victorian hospital, its spaces at once familiar and slightly surreal, while part takes the viewer to Dungeness, two hours drive southeast of the city, with the organic forms of the surrounding natural landscape and the enormous concrete ‘sound mirrors’ that look out along its bleakly beautiful shingle coastline.

“They were originally designed for listening to airplanes after the First World War,” Arthur continues, “and so it’s a strange place. It very much captures the feeling of being an island.”

In these images, the human body is captured in its most elemental gestures: falling, colliding, clutching onto or reaching out to another. Touching. “That was very intentional. It comes out of the work that I’ve been doing for the past two or three years,” she says. “After my second daughter was born I had a period of being a full-time mum, and I found myself more and more drawn to photographing bodies, and how we see ourselves.”

In the time since, Arthur has worked on a number of projects making intimate portraits underpinned by themes of connection, interaction and intimacy. About “how we feel comfortable in our own skin,” she continues. Then, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic brought about an intermission – a period during which we weren’t allowed to touch one another at all. “I knew I wanted to bring those ideas into this work,” she says. “It’s not about models on their own, standing there in the clothes; it’s about how they relate to one another. It’s that connection, the skin on skin. I wanted it to feel very physical.”

The textures and translucency of the collection itself reinforced this idea. She chose to work with pieces that would give the models the freedom to move, but also which lent a sensuality to the images, juxtaposed with the smooth, cold surface of a pebble, or a crumbling wall, or a stream of falling sand. It’s about “physicality”, says Arthur. “I come back to this word, not finding a better way to describe it.”

Moving together, the models begin to resemble a troupe of dancers. “We spent a lot of time casing the models,” she says. “I wanted strong models who were expressive, who were older, who had something different. They all brought a certain energy to the shoot.” So, too, did Kaduri Elyashar, who consulted on style and image. “Working with him was great. He was almost more like a choreographer,” she says. “Through the process we had, the whole thing came alive.”

• SELF 07 launches this week with six spectacular pop-up public exhibitions staged across six cities, from June 9–12th:

Olivia Arthur
Observation Point, Riverside Walkway, London SE1 9PP
Open 8am to 9pm on June 9–10, and 10:30am to 8pm on June 11–12.

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