Photographer Yvonne Todd Puts Sugary Pastels Through Their Paces

By Dan Ahwa
Photo / Yvonne Todd

An image revealed its own meta moment on the day of this shoot.

Our model 20-year-old Massey University fine arts student Jillian Allen, wearing a pearl-embellished wool choker from Dunedin-based artist Victoria McIntosh, photographed by one of Aotearoa’s eminent contemporary art photographers, Yvonne Todd.

Three degrees of artistic potency captured

Fashion’s obsessions with the whimsical and frivolous felt like the perfect jumping-off point for this fashion director to find someone with the perfect amount of psychological faculty to document it.

It’s the hyper-femininity prevalent in the collections of Valentino and Rodarte, and the internet trend of Barbiecore.

When the invitation to collaborate on this shoot was emailed through to Yvonne with an image of bonkbuster novelist Dame Barbara Cartland wearing a pink embellished gown holding her pet Pekingnese dog Twi-Twi surrounded by giant urns of garish flowers, Yvonne simply replied: “Yes, I am interested. I could certainly do with some glamour in my life... I haven’t done a fashion shoot since 1998, so am a bit rusty lol.”

Several back and forths, meetings and fittings later, here in all its saccharine glory is the result of Yvonne’s point of view a convergence of the psychological, the glamorous, and the ridiculous.

“My attempts at making earnest, ‘serious’ work never really turn out that well,” she admits.

From gaudy gowns to a buttoned-up blouse not unlike something plucked from a Gloriavale tallboy, the shoot celebrates the medley of references that have helped shape Yvonne’s taste in clothes over the years.

There are childhood memories of shopping trips to Rendall's department store, the uncompromising wonky glamour of fictional characters such as Shelley Duvall as Millie Lamoreaux in Robert Altman's 3 Women, and Kath Day-Knight's unflinching shopping-centre pizazz in Kath & Kim.

“The idea of photographing pastel clothing with unexpected elements really appealed to me as it felt like an extension of my exhibition work. There were no constraints or prescribed expectations, so it was something I could obsessively channel my energy into. I liked the idea of capturing a range of powerful looks and staging an ‘exhibition’ of my photography in a magazine format."

"There was also the collaborative aspect of working with a small team of creative enablers. To me, this shoot is a joyous celebration of the things that make clothing and textile design such a compelling art form.”

It's this combination of perversity, aspiration and humour that makes Yvonne's work compelling. It might be her collection of posed portraits of consultants from beauty counters around Auckland from her Bellevue series (2002), with its pseudo-scientific study of glamour brimming under the surface; or her imposing corporate headshots of middle-aged men wearing business suits as part of her The Wall of Man series from 2013, the hired models and actors cast from an advertisement she placed in her local newspaper.

Yvonne’s well-documented win of the inaugural Walters Prize in 2002 saw her winning suite of images entitled Asthma & Eczema (2001) receive high praise; photographs of a dewy pale pink rose framed in an oval vignette and the portraits of overly made-up young women were likened by judges to “Stepford brides who loom like zombies”.

One seal of approval came from judge Harald Szeemann, who described the entry as “the work that irritated me the most”.

Her vast solo exhibition Creamy Psychology, shown at City Gallery Wellington in 2015, was another career highlight, and included photographs that displayed her innate ability to document invented female characters.

"Our model Jillian and I connected over our interest in art, particularly as she had grown up with my book Creamy Psychology on her parents' coffee table. I was drawn to her for her ability to convey a range of personas: gentle, wholesome, formidable, stern, nonchalant, but never bland. She imbued each look with a distinct sense of purpose and character."

Unafraid to work with rising talent, Yvonne also shares her knowledge with the next generation of image-makers through teaching.

“This is my second year doing the Creatives in Schools project and I’ve enjoyed channelling the random energy of teenagers their spontaneity and fearlessness back into their work."

"The project I'm currently doing is totally 'me' as it involves Year 11 students working with costumes, props and staged photography to create characters they've selected from myths, legends and pūrākau. These have ranged from Persephone and Hades, Thor, Māui, Alice in Wonderland, to the twins in The Shining."

"No one seems particularly concerned when I turn up with the latest prop for a shoot, whether it’s a realistic fake baby or a faux-fur wolf’s head or a croquet mallet. I’ve found myself doing pleasingly arbitrary tasks like scraping moss off the driveway with a spatula to take to school for a student’s photograph. All this has led me to think about image-making in a more inventive and spontaneous way."

It's this inner child that keeps her ever curious and continuously evolving, testing the limits of where art and commerce collide.

“My art is the evolution of the formative experiences I had as a child, where I’d spend hours arranging my motley collection of dolls and ornaments into strange little tableaux. There were escapist elements to this practice that provided me with a sense of respite from the world. I found interactions with other children fraught with odd and confusing power dynamics and assumptions of ‘expected’ behaviour. My staged tableaux reflected my need to retreat into a fantasy world and process my experiences by creating my own visual narratives. This is something I’m still doing, years later, as an artist.”

Personal Mythology

A tonic to the sea of ubiquitous streetwear and apocalyptic deconstruction sugary pastels, prints and motifs are put through their paces by one of Aotearoa’s foremost image-makers.

Photo / Yvonne Todd
Photo / Yvonne Todd

Mohair unicorn

Photo / Yvonne Todd
Photo / Yvonne Todd

Day tripper

Standard Issue polo neck top $299. Twenty-seven Names blouse $420. Benjamin Alexander skirt $449. Simone Rocha socks, $160, from Zambesi. Victoria McIntosh handbag Her First Purse, 2019 (vintage and mixed media), $2600, from Masterworks Gallery.

Photo / Yvonne Todd
Photo / Yvonne Todd


Arianne Elmy dress, $695, from Muse. Johnstons of Elgin polo neck top $159. Gucci tights $465. Dr. Martens shoes $270.

Photo / Yvonne Todd
Photo / Yvonne Todd

Formal casual

Photo / Yvonne Todd
Photo / Yvonne Todd

Faux bois

Custom romper suit and matching headscarf from Yvonne Todd’s personal archive. “This woodgrain romper was designed by me for a portrait of my husband Colin that I produced earlier this year. It’s made of high-end upholstery fabric. I made Colin wear the romper suit with a pair of 1960s roller skates with oversized red wheels. He was also wearing a long cascading soft blue wig and was backlit and quite Jesus-y in his disposition. It was what I’d consider a renegade image, an outlier, in my canon of male portraits. My mum made the matching headscarf for the shoot with some of the leftover fabric. It was fun to inject this outfit into the shoot; especially with one of my unhinged teenage diaries as the prop. You never know when something will come in handy.”

Photo / Yvonne Todd
Photo / Yvonne Todd

Next level

Skims polo neck top $109. Kate Sylvester skirt $379. Tania Patterson horse necklace (sterling silver, wood), $1150, from Masterworks Gallery. Vintage gogo boots from Yvonne Todd’s personal archive.

Photo / Yvonne Todd
Photo / Yvonne Todd

Crystal clear

Polo neck, faux-fur pinafore and tights from SaveMart. Mi Piaci heels $300. Simone Rocha porcelain and crystal tooth earrings, $420, and pearl tooth necklace, $470, from Zambesi.

Photo / Yvonne Todd
Photo / Yvonne Todd

Ruffled certainty

Standard Issue polo neck top $299. Jojo The Label custom dress (POA).

Photo / Yvonne Todd
Photo / Yvonne Todd

Ice pink

Vintage dress from Yvonne Todd’s personal archive. Victoria McIntosh Blanket Choker from Blanket Protection series (blanket, pearls), $1800, from Masterworks Gallery. Simone Rocha purse, $1250, from Zambesi.

Photographer / Yvonne Todd. Fashion director / Dan Ahwa. Model / Jillian Allen from N Model MGMT. Hair and makeup / Rebekah Banks.

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