Claiborne Swanson Frank has not taken her transition from working under Anna Wintour at Vogue to fine art photography lightly. After years embedded in the world of fashion, she has spent the past two years working on a book released by Assouline and a solo show at Lu Magnus in NYC that includes over one hundred portraits of American women. The stunning full-length portraits capture not just women from powerful families but women of incredible beauty and intense motivation. While the art world and the media may go crazy just hearing names like Lauder, Bush, and Kennedy, each subject was carefully chosen and all have inspiring stories. We talk to Claiborne and get a small peek into her work and her world.
The title of your show and new book is American Beauty—what does it mean to you?
American beauty to me is diverse—it comes in all colors, all shapes and sizes. I think American women carry a beauty that is unique and very much a result of being raised in a country of so many diverse cultures and nationalities. The title is American Beauty because the women in my book are all American and the book explores what American beauty looks like today through my lens. This body of work is my vision of modern American beauty shown through portraits of interesting young women who are leaving marks across America.
Your subjects are said to defy “the stereotypes of privilege and the misconceptions of beauty.” Can you talk about a few of your subjects and what inspired you to chose them?
Each woman in American Beauty is creating and contributing to America in some way. I wanted to celebrate women in the worlds of art, film, theater, tech, news, interior design, fashion, and music. I then felt that as an artist I needed to be inspired by each of these women. I felt inspired by Jenna Lyons and the way she is redefining American fashion; I felt inspired by Isca Greenfield-Sanders’s paintings and the way she sees life. I felt inspired by Solange Knowles and the way she expresses herself through her music and her clothes. Each woman in this book moved me in a unique way. Each woman had the courage to follow her heart and become her great dream of self, and that is what inspired me the most.
How has your experience at Vogue shaped your work?
Working at Vogue was a gift and it gave me the courage to see that all things are possible. I have always had a clear style and aesthetic in my work. I have had a great love of photography since my early twenties and have always been wildly passionate about portraiture. In leaving Vogue I finally had the courage to pursue my great dream in a professional capacity.
How has Anna Wintour affected your pursuit of your art?
I feel very lucky to have had the support of Vogue through this chapter of my life. I feel grateful for all the time I had under Anna. I think she has an amazing eye and is a true visionary. It was an honor to absorb her vision and see her translate art, culture, and fashion into the pages of Vogue magazine.
How did you feel about participating in the fashion world, where misconceptions of beauty are perpetuated as a way of life?
I deeply believe that beauty is both inside and outside. I believe fashion celebrates beauty, as does the world of art. Fashion is an art form, a means of expression. Beauty is subjective—beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder, one who thinks it so or feels it so. My focus being portraiture, I use fashion as a means to express my subjects, to celebrate their individuality and beauty. Our bodies are our canvases and our clothes are the way in which we express ourselves to the world. I don’t look to fashion or art or anyone for that matter to define what I see as beautiful. Beauty isn’t an intellectual process. It is an emotional response to a visual reality. Beauty has the ability to move you, to inspire you, to transform you. It is beauty that I am looking for, and it is beauty that I am hoping to capture.
Who do you feel is celebrating the right conception of beauty?
I don’t feel that one organization or medium or person can celebrate the “right” conception of beauty. There is no “right” conception of beauty. Beauty is so personal and each human being has a unique vision of beauty. Beauty is so much larger than art or fashion or the media or any one person. It comes in so many ways—those seen and those unseen. It comes through nature, through light, through the eyes of a child. Beauty cannot be put in a box. It cannot be defined.
You cite John Singer Sargent as an inspiration—why? Who else has inspired your work?
My work is classical in composition and weight, as was Sargent’s. I love the balance of his portraits, the weight of his subjects on the canvas, the formality of placement. I love the way he documented and celebrated women through his portraits. I love the idea of creating a portrait and telling a woman’s story. I am inspired by William Eggleston’s use of color. I am inspired by Diane Arbus and Yousuf Karsh. I love Sally Mann and the way she captures humanity and innocence.
Are you ready to jump into your next project, and if so what’s next?
I turned in American Beauty last October and am ready to dig into another project. I am ready to tell more stories of women through portraits. Stay tuned.
The show opens at Lu Magnus on Friday, March 30th and runs through May 20th.