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Photographer Intertwines Work and Love

Veronique Vial, the official backstage shooter for Cirque du Soleil, finds passion and spirit in the varied subjects of her craft.

July 11, 2001|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Wasn't it Freud who said that only two things matter in this world? Love and work. And yet so often they seem to inhabit different physical and emotional spheres. They have different languages, different tools, they feel different. Most importantly, you are supposed to keep them separate. Love is too messy, too scary to let it in the office door. Don't sleep with colleagues. Don't bring your emotional problems into the office. And please, don't use your work to express your rage or happiness.

It is this last rule in particular that lies broken in tiny pieces all around Veronique Vial, a small Frenchwoman with green eyes, wild hair and a Hasselblad camera her father gave her when she was 19.

She's been a photographer ever since, with widely published work that has appeared in Elle, Vanity Fair, Vogue and you name it. She has made six books in the last decade, including "Men Before Ten" (1996) and "Women Before Ten" (1998)--photos of people (many celebrities) in various stages of waking--and "A Day in the Life of Hollywood" (1991). In 1993, Vial became the official backstage photographer for Cirque du Soleil, publishing "Cirque du Soleil" (1993), "Wings" (1999) and, this month, "O Cirque du Soleil," 98 duotone and four color photographs of the circus at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

"You have to use your whole life in your work," Vial says, curled up in front of a fire in the Venice, Calif., house she shares with photographer Phillip Dixon. It is an astonishing house that Dixon built from nothing, a splendid Moroccan dream of stone, cacti and water that flows like a green river between rooms. She gives examples from her life:

"I came up with the idea of 'Men Before Ten,' really, to interview my next boyfriend." (Sound of rules breaking in the background.) "I wanted to see what these men looked like before they had a chance to put on their image of themselves." (Arthur Miller was grumpy, Peter Fonda was asleep, Tim Roth having his first cigarette of the day.) "And I met Phillip. I was ending my last relationship, angry and needing to get rid of the anger. At that moment, on that very day, a magazine called and asked me to come up with a story idea for a fashion shoot. I said how about a woman throwing a man out of the house. That was in 1990. It is still one of my favorite magazine spreads."

And then there is the circus. "Just when I thought I was losing my spirit, came the opportunity to photograph these amazing, free, lighthearted people," she says. "I had always thought of the circus as nice but kind of depressing. I fell in love with them. The circus performers are also athletes, so much physical pain and magic. They have a common language. They are also like children, they just want to play and laugh."

Vial grew up in a very traditional family in Paris. Her father owned a publishing house, Editions Vial, that had been in the family for generations. Her mother is a painter. She had five brothers, one source, she says, of her self-esteem. "When we were kids, we said that the first one who really made it would take the other across Paris on a camel. Now, of course, success has all kinds of complicated definitions. But then, we were gracefully ambitious."

She taught windsurfing in Tunisia, met a photographer looking for an assistant, married, traveled around the world, landed in Los Angeles in 1989, ended her marriage.

"You have to have your own life, whatever it takes. I wish I could tell all those girls who think you need someone to be happy. My happiness comes from my own life and my work. I do not depend on love to make me happy. When I finished 'Men Before Ten,' my marriage was over, and I had a taste of freedom. Then I never wanted to go back. My work took off. When you are free, you can really live, then you have something to say in your work. I get influenced by life, by getting lost, for example, in different cultures. It wakes up all your senses."

Vial is now finishing another book, "Men Before Ten Too," due out in September. She is also shooting photos of celebrities jumping into their pools (including Claudia Schiffer, Gabrielle Reece, Michael Bay). "This book will be in color but I love black and white. Color can be distracting. The emotion is stronger with black and white."

Each of her books has a different look. "Men Before Ten," for example, is very contrasty. Vial wanted the photos to look "real and strong." The circus photos are festive and there is more play with lighting. "Before you do a book," she explains, "you dream of what feeling you want. It's not composition I'm after anymore. It's people's souls, even in the fashion work."

Vial has done several ad campaigns for Dove and Mexx (a European version of Banana Republic) and European Levi's. In November she did a poetic photo essay for Femme magazine of Touareg women in Africa. There will be an exhibit of her self-portraits in Paris this month. Her work is also exhibited frequently at the Fahey Klein gallery in Los Angeles.

Vial has shot a lot of beautiful people, many of them in the wee hours. "It's not really beauty that intrigues me. It's how much beauty has to do with reality. In this way, art is very much like love. Healthy love means really knowing the person. Art means really knowing the world, getting closer to the world, shooting what's real, the laundry, the mess. We all perform, we all pretend. It's a gift we give the world. But what's beautiful is what's real. I didn't know this when I was younger."

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