Marianna Rothen must have started modeling around the same time I moved to New York. She was always that mousy, quirky girl with the pixie haircut and exemplary posture. She reminded me of a ballerina-gone-rockabilly, fragile and aloof. She had a sort of intelligent dorkiness, like Audrey Hepburn. And though she was a consistent, composed presence at castings throughout the years, we never went beyond the polite ‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye’. And here I am in her Maiden Lane loft, with just those little bits of information and the exciting prospect of getting to know the young girl behind those amazing images of Julia Roitfeld for Kiki de Montparnasse.
You see, I never know what to expect when I set off on a shoot. In fact I have no expectations at all; the whole thing is improvisation. What will the apartment look like? How is her vintage collection? Will there be enough light? Will she be in a good mood? It’s all a great, fun gamble and a conscious exercise in imagination. Marianna’s penthouse apartment is located on one of my favorite streets in Manhattan, and not just because of the name. It’s a well-kept secret. “It is quiet at night and bustling during the day,” she agrees. But no one looks up. She lives here with her boyfriend of seven years, Urs who is a freelance Assistant Director. I always thought Marianna was German but turns out she has a Swiss dad, a Polish mom and grew up in Canada. I must have imagined the accent… She does a mean Borscht, loves to hike and has a funny obsession with checking her alarm millions of times before she goes to sleep. The soft box she shoots with is perched in the hallway – it’s a monster.
Marianna’s photographs are magnificent. I’m sure you understand why I am especially smitten with them. She prefers the term “classic” because, she claims, “retro is the guise, but there’s more beneath that. I like an image that transcends time, that is relatable but not necessarily modern by our standards today. Retro is limiting because to most it refers to something passe.” At 15 she began taking pictures of the models in the model apartments and landscapes she saw on her travels. She attempted to got the sharp, sleek, digital fashion route but soon came to realize her work looked like everyone else’s because “it’s trying to be perfect”. Instead she started putting wigs on her friends – “hairstylists are not cheap; a wig was an easy fix” – dressing them up in vintage and shooting polaroids in front of a baby blue backdrop. Her models came to emulate the glorious, confident women of the sixties and seventies: Faye Dunaway, Claudia Cardinale, Catherine Deneuve, Monica Vitti, Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren and Lauren Bacall. And so she found a sexy little niche for herself.
When I ask Marianna what she’s going to be wearing she guides me to her closet and pulls out eight meticulously selected, head to toe vintage outfits. “I have three styles,” she sums up, “my photographer style, my model style and my weekend style. My crossover outfit is a navy mini skirt, white shirt and my brown biker jacket with black ballet flats.” I see that the quirkiness persisted. She gets all her vintage from a grateful, generous director friend in Australia, who sends her packages on a regular basis – “vintage is very inexpensive in Australia. He does this with a few of his friends and we call the clothes ‘House of Perano’!” Her style is influenced by the imagery and old movies she references for her work. She even poses herself and creates a world of everything and everywhere Marianna. It’s the purest form of fantasy.