Colorful World

When you read the biography of well-known American fashion photographer Sean Riva, one thing stands out: beauty and art have always played a significant role in his family. He is the great-grandson of Marlene Dietrich, who has always been a role model for him due to her vision of beauty, her artistic discipline and her demand for total perfection.  And that, says Riva, is exactly the reason why he has never attached any other lens to his cameras than a ZEISS lens.

Makro-Planar T* 2/50 (f/11, 1/160 S., ISO 100)
Makro-Planar T* 2/50 (f/11, 1/160 S., ISO 100)

“For this picture I wanted the model to become one with the elements -  the wind playing with the light material of the green dress, the proximity to the water refraction of light, waiting  for just the right wind … on a stormy day, a real challenge!”

His great grandmother was not only source of inspiration for Sean Riva. His grandfather William Riva, a successful set designer, and grandmother Maria Riva, an actress and Marlene Dietrich’s only daughter, both immersed him in the world of the beautiful and creative from an early age. His father Peter Riva also plays a very important part in his photographic career. Riva senior is a successful literary agent who has organized dozens of photography exhibitions around the globe.  So it comes as no surprise that Sean met some of the giants of his craft, including David Hockney, Robert Rauschenberg and Irving Penn, early on.

Makro-Planar T* 2/50, (f/8,1/125s, ISO 100)
Makro-Planar T* 2/50, (f/8,1/125s, ISO 100)

“Sometimes, obstacles, like the fabric color, make the creative a little more challenging. Two components came together for this picture: the rugged surroundings, including the cactus and rough cliffs and the wind, which plays a hand here too. Given the salmon color involved, I struck on a concept - to evoke the image of a mermaid who has just emerged from the sea.”

Well-known photographers such as Lucien Clerque and Peter Beard are also role models for Sean Riva. He raves enthusiastically about the art of both photographers: “Lucien sees things that remain hidden to most people, even if they wanted to see them. And where others only see chaos, Peter finds the quintessence of a picture. I learned these lessons very early on.”

Riva says he is grateful to both for one thing in particular: his great love of fashion photography, which allows him to constantly work with the most beautiful models in the fashion scene. He likes above all simple, classical beauty, which inspires him time and time again, combined with the desire to make that beauty a bit more beautiful. For Riva believes strongly that, without the right form, beauty has no raison d’être. “Only when beauty transcends its mere form can it exert an appeal on the beholder, but also on the object or the person itself.”

Makro-Planar T* 2/50, (f/8, 1/125s, ISO 100)
Makro-Planar T* 2/50, (f/8, 1/125s, ISO 100)

“The essence of this shot is how it’s divided, one side reflecting – impacting – on the other. The tree in the middle acts as a boundary that I wanted to create between the two models, also important because this picture was used for a double spread. I selected a somewhat longer shutter speed of 1/125 seconds in order to make the wind more visible.”

But there is something else that drives Sean Riva in his photography: namely, the desire to uncover another layer of beauty that lies inside the model:

“When I take pictures with models, not of models, these wonderful women should become even more beautiful. My aim is to transport their inner radiance to the outside. I want to make this inner beauty visible.”

Sean follows a very simple rule in fashion photography: “There are numerous parameters to consider during a commercial photo shoot. Whether it’s the right location, the logistical challenges, the make-up, the wind – they all play a major role. But at the moment of creating images, all that has to be pushed into the background. Then it’s only about the subject and the ability of the photographer to capture it well.” Gleaming colors help intensify shadows and make the hems on the clothing radiate.

Makro-Planar T* 2/50 (f/11, 1/160s, , ISO 100)
Makro-Planar T* 2/50 (f/11, 1/160s, , ISO 100)

“What makes this picture special is its interrupted symmetry. The pier is placed right in the middle of the picture, but I put the model a bit to the left. In this way, one’s view falls directly on the model, giving the image its appeal. It is all about the movement of the eye. By the way, it took almost 20 minutes for the model to get dressed into this wonderful piece of fabric.”

Sean Riva uses exclusively ZEISS lenses, for example his ZEISS Makro-Planar T* 2/50:

“In order to capture, to concentrate on, this one moment with its perfect light and perfect gleaming, you need technology you can count on because that lets you focus on the most essential thing in your work: creating your picture.”

But perfect images require not only perfect equipment, but also a well-trained eye for the beauty present. For this reason Sean offers the following advice:

“Every photographer should be inspired by outside influences at least once a week. One of the best ways to do that is to go to one of the world’s great art museums. This isn’t so much about the history of art, but about the visual stimulants that are evoked by art treasures. Art, any art, is not created out of nothing; it splendidly combines the past and the present.”

All the images shown here were shot in mid-2012 in the Dominican Republic for the fashion magazine Blush Magazine ( and a series called “Paradise Circus.” Sean photographed well-known models wearing the couture of young fashion designers who have been inspired in their creations by the colors of their native countries. The result is a collection of pictures bursting with sensuality and elegance, and that instantly captivate the viewer from the first moment thanks to their radiant colors and sometimes unconventional compositions.

About Sean Riva

Sean Riva, 34, lives and works in New York where he has his own photo studio. He is the great-grandson of actress Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992), whom he knew and who he says has always been his inspiration. Sean Riva is a firmly-established fashion photographer on the US fashion scene and has worked for various world-famous labels. He is currently doing a project for Oscar de la Renta.

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  1. Paul Riva

    As always Sean has hit the perfect balance between 'beauty' and 'image'.Bravo certainly... but more than that for anyone can take a picture these days and make it look (through Photoshop or some other program) into something more than it was originally... Sean does so much more without any outside manipulation. Just by using the environment, the people, and his eye he is able to capture the essence of what he is looking at through his view finder.

    Sean makes it look easy if you have ever seen him at work. There seems to be no forethought and no panic in his setting up. It flows with an ease that almost seems unbelievable. His the late Uncle, J. Micheal Riva (a Production Designer in Hollywood), was able to do the same. He was always so far ahead of the rest of the crews he worked with and had the design already worked out simply by being able to walk onto a bare set. HE could 'see' what needed to be done and how to do it. Sean seems to share that ability.

    It certainly helps that he has his family to fall onto and have behind him at all times. But it his capability that creates the images that we see and for that I thank him!


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