On a warm, bright July day in a rural corner of Connecticut where narrow roads wind around overgrown meadows and low stone walls, a strange scene is unfolding behind the old guesthouse. A young woman in a dark green evening dress is sprawled out by the pool on the flagstone patio, the scrubby moss and weeds tickling her cheeks. Another figure looms directly above her. This second person—this creature—is blue. Arms, legs, feet, face—even hair—are bright cyan. “Raise your arm a tad?” says the painted alien in a low, steady voice, holding a camera. “And can you shift to the right? Yes, just there. Beautiful!” Click, click, click.
Welcome to the creative lair of Guinevere van Seenus. The chameleonic model—who made her reputation as one of the industry greats in the 1990s and aughts in shoots with Craig McDean, Steven Meisel, and Paolo Roversi—has in recent years established herself as a talent on the other side of the camera. She’s published her work in a variety of European magazines and lensed three campaigns for the denim brand Agolde. Today’s shoot, for W, is set at her house in Fairfield County, a ramshackle 1911 structure that she and her partner, Beau Friedlander, are deep in the process of restoring. While the portfolio’s primary model is the British runway fixture Celina Ralph, its undisputed star is its 46-year-old photographer. Earlier in the day, van Seenus had asked makeup artist Francelle Daly to paint her body from head to toe for a dreamlike setup in which a gorgeously dressed Celina would pose in the trees while van Seenus, stark naked and electric blue, would prowl in the background, providing an eerily dissonant note.
“Ack—I almost forgot I was still blue!” van Seenus cries when she returns to the house for lunch, still looking like a wayward member of Blue Man Group. “Taking the time to wash off didn’t feel worth it. And I’m pretty used to it anyway.”
The house is lively, a jumble of her and Friedlander’s eclectic possessions and the clothes selected for the shoot. Her dog Finn, a corgi mix with three legs, sniffs at everything unfamiliar. Racks of Marc Jacobs, Dior, Alexander McQueen, and Saint Laurent are parked along the dining room walls, beneath the couple’s collection of paintings, drawings, and photography. Platform shoes and boots are lined up neatly on the worn Persian rugs alongside stacks of books about fermenting, home preserving, and knitting. On the enclosed porch, which van Seenus uses as a studio, half a dozen wigs and a table laid out with makeup share space with lighting equipment, Polaroid packets, and dog crates. She and Friedlander, a writer and the founder of the podcast network Loud Tree Media, are devoted to their animals—three dogs and two cats, all rescues. “This is Tom,” she says, picking up her fat gray tabby. “He always ends up in a lot of photos because everybody falls in love with him.”
Model, muse, photographer, crafter, animal lover, natural-foods enthusiast, and all-around creative spirit, van Seenus doesn’t fit into expected categories. “She’s intensely focused about her work,” says Daly, who’s known van Seenus for more than 15 years. “As a model, she’s almost like a method actor—she embodies the character. And as a photographer, she has this same vision and passion. She’s all in.”
Veteran fashion editor Phyllis Posnick, who has known van Seenus for more than 20 years through their collaborations with photographers including Irving Penn and Steven Klein, recalls that van Seenus was never a passive participant on their projects. “She always understands what the photographer is trying to get, and she’s committed to getting the picture,” she says. When Posnick saw a self-portrait that van Seenus made for a special Alexander McQueen project this past spring, she was convinced that hers was a talent worth taking seriously. “The picture was totally original and very technically complicated,” she says. “I thought to myself, She knows what she’s doing.”
Van Seenus was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, and grew up in the Washington, D.C., area and Santa Barbara, California. Her hippie parents were immigrants from the Netherlands who owned natural-food markets and encouraged an appreciation for handicrafts, the environment, and animals. (One of the very few photos of van Seenus a visitor can spy in her house is in an old black and white advertisement for her parents’ store. She looks to be about 3 years old and has an ice cream cone in her hand and a delighted expression on her face. The copy reads: “I only eat Hugo’s natural foods.”) She learned to knit and sew from her grandmothers, and recalls that she would drive the teachers at her Washington Waldorf School crazy because she’d finish, say, a knitting project “that was supposed to take six months in one weekend, and then they wouldn’t know what to do with me.” In high school, she was good at basketball but also sewed her own prom dress and learned her way around a toolbox. “Most people probably don’t know she knows how to work on old muscle cars,” says the model Shalom Harlow, one of van Seenus’s closest friends. “That’s how cool she is.” Van Seenus’s mother, Gwynn, had done some modeling in her youth and suggested her daughter try it. By age 18, the just-hatched model had landed in Europe and was soon on her way.
With her striking blue eyes, porcelain skin, and chiseled jawline, van Seenus has often been compared to the fair subjects of Pre-Raphaelite and Renaissance paintings. But she was never obvious supermodel material, even when she was literally nominated for VH1 Supermodel of the Year in 1996, when she was 19 years old. “I’m perhaps slightly taller and thinner than your average person, but I’m not as tall or as thin or, maybe, as flashy as what most people imagine a model to be,” she says, with a wry smile. “Many times when I’m with friends, people say, ‘You’re a model? Like, a fit model?’ ”
Money, glamour, and exotic globe-trotting aside, what van Seenus says she has most cherished about modeling is the creative process. She remembers a photo shoot she did for the March 2000 issue of W with Philip-Lorca diCorcia, in Cuba. “Those photos were exhibited at MoMA,” she says proudly. “I’ve always fit into this weird artistic side of the fashion world.” At Santa Monica College, where she enrolled during a hiatus from modeling in 2001, she studied theater makeup, figure drawing, ceramics, mechanics, French, and photography. In 2015, back in New York, she began studying at the International Center of Photography.
“I love the whole act of building a picture,” she says. “Not just capturing something that’s already there, but constructing an image with a lot of elements, like building sets.” For this shoot, for instance, she wanted to explore the theme of nature taking back an old house, so she used some of the double-hung windows she had saved from her renovation to create a striking installation of mysterious free-floating windows in a clearing near her barn. She’s also attracted to Surrealism and images that have a fantastical “dreamlike” quality. Thus, her recent interest in the theatrical possibilities of body painting.
“I love makeup as an expression—as a rebellion, a statement,” she elaborates. Back when she was living in Los Angeles, she went through a period when she’d go out at night with dramatic crystals on her face, or other “eccentric” decorations. “That makeup was, for me, a kind of protective layer that let me hide,” she says. “It helps me become somebody else, and for me, that’s a really easy space to work in. You know how people always say, ‘Just be yourself’? I’m like...”—she pauses and grimaces—“being myself is not really that interesting!”
Indeed, despite being such a famous beauty, or perhaps because of it, van Seenus comes across as supremely self-effacing, more interested in others than herself, and intent on doing things: using her hands, getting dirty, feeding others with her home cooking. “Who wants more curried lentils?” she calls out to the crew. (The shoot is catered, but everyone seems to prefer her food.) “Wait, you gotta taste this,” she says, whipping a tub of her homemade vegan and sugar-free chocolate pudding out of the fridge. She walks around spoon-feeding Ralph; Jordan M, the shoot’s hairstylist; and anyone else she can persuade to take a bite as they start prep for the next setup. “Can you believe it’s made with sweet potatoes?” she says, beaming.
In many ways, the atmosphere is a throwback to her early modeling days, when sets were a more intimate affair. Today’s crew is decidedly bare-bones, which is how she prefers to work: no hair and makeup assistants, no creative director, and no photo assistant. “I loved the shoots where you didn’t go in with a lot of preconceived notions and there was time for exploring ideas,” she says. “Sometimes we’d spend half the day experimenting with hair and makeup, and we were lucky if we got a shot in before lunch.” Of course, back then, film and Polaroids were the medium, something she also prefers. “I’m such a fan of film and not knowing what exactly you’re going to get,” she says, adding that digital photography chips away at the feeling of intimacy she so appreciates. “When you have a huge digital monitor between you and the photographer and so many people on set offering their opinions, something often gets lost. I love when you get that direct connection and everything else sort of falls away.”
Ralph, the 22-year-old model, is one of the few people here today who doesn’t know van Seenus well, having met her only once, briefly. But the two seem already connected. “Guinevere is a legend to models my age,” she says. “And because she’s been a model, she understands that we might have ideas for things too.” (After the shoot, at van Seenus’s invitation, Ralph ends up staying at the house for three nights.)
Van Seenus looks admiringly at Ralph, still so young. “I think if I were 22, she’d be my best friend,” she says. “I mean, her shaved head alone—in this industry, that is taking a real risk.” But van Seenus doesn’t seem to long for youth. Quite the opposite, in fact. “There was always this daunting feeling with modeling that your value decreases as you get older. For me, it felt like I hit a point in my modeling career where I really couldn’t go up from there, as far as what I could deliver in terms of my skill level or even my skin elasticity. But with photography, those limitations don’t apply—you just get better with experience. There’s always something more to reach for.”
Hair by Jordan M for Suite Caroline at Susan Price; makeup by Francelle Daly for Love+Craft+Beauty at Home Agency. Models: Celina Ralph at the Society Management; Guinevere van Seenus at DNA Model Management. Casting by Michelle Lee at Michelle Lee Casting.
Fashion Assistant: Conor Manning.