A Two-Tone Stretch Satin and Lace Pantsuit by Bertrand Marechal, shot for The Face, 1994. Image © Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin.
When Inez van Lamsweerde was a child, her mother, a fashion journalist for the Dutch newspaper De Tijd, used to bring home copies of French Vogue. Filled with images by the likes of Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton, they sparked a lifelong interest in fashion photography and a certain kind of alternative femininity.
Bold, strong and sexy, van Lamsweerde’s women, like those of her photographer forebears, look like extras from 1970s B-movies, or the world of Paul Verhoeven, the director and fellow Dutchman she cites as another key influence. But her relationship with these influences, or with fashion photography more generally, hasn’t always been straightforward, and nor does her work reflect her ideas alone. She’s worked in tandem with her partner, Vinoodh Matadin, since 1986, and as they’ve got older their work has become less overtly critical of the fashion industry and more whole-heartedly celebratory.
Early work such as Thank You Thigh Master (1993) or Global Warming (1994) used then-cutting edge Quantel Paintbox software to create highly retouched compositions that lampooned the fashion industry, removing models’ hair and genitalia to create perfect but impregnable bodies, for example, and parodying its obsession with sex and youth. The couple spent a year as artists in residence in New York at the Museum of Modern Art’s contemporary art lab, PS.1, from 1992-1993, and shortly afterwards started publishing work in style magazines such as The Face. Now they create iconic, conventionally beautiful ad campaigns for brands such as Chloe, Gucci and Chanel, and work with the American, French, Japanese and Italian versions of Vogue, along with V, Visionaire and W.
Going to extremes
“I think at some point we realised that in order to play the game we had to immerse ourselves in that world,” says Lamsweerde, speaking on behalf of the couple who are partners in work and in life. “We chose to work out the questions we had from within. When you’re young you go to the extremes, but with experience you become more subtle. Now we are glorifying fashion, and exposing the road to glamour through images.”
She adds that they have an unusual degree of creative control in their advertising commissions, working one-on-one with fashion houses as equal collaborators, but to her, fashion photography is one big role-play game anyway. She and Matadin create a fantasy woman and whether they’re doing it to express their own desires or a brand’s ideal woman, she says, it’s essentially the same approach. That’s something made clear in their forthcoming retrospective at Foam gallery in Amsterdam, Pretty Much Everything, 1985-2010, which deliberately combines images taken from every aspect of their career. A much larger retrospective put together in a similar vein will be published in a limited edition volume by Taschen next year.
“The show is a reflection of all the images in our heads, how we’ve lived with them and how we feel they fit together,” van Lamsweerde explains. “It’s like a long sentence – it works as a whole. It’s not arranged chronologically, it’s based on what relates to what, and we’ve picked out the images most relevant to our work. There’s no sense of hierarchy between the advertising, editorial or art, they all work on the same level. After all, we communicate through images, and since we mostly talk through magazines, we do not feel the need to do something radically different for the galleries.”
But she also accepts there’s a difference between advertising, editorial and art, and recognises that the context in which the images are shown changes how they are read. If she and Matadin present a photograph in a fashion story, for example, the clothes are key; if the same image is put in a gallery the emotional or political scenario is what’s dominant, and the clothes are read as an aspect of that. Van Lamsweerde is also realistic about how much they can explore in straight fashion photography, and says she and Matadin use art projects to explore less commercial ideas rather than trying to shoehorn everything into one place. The Now People parts one, two and three, for example, explores political engagement (or the lack of it), and uses formats such as stickers, posters and sculpture.
Reservoir of images
The couple are represented by Matthew Marks Gallery in the US, are widely shown at the world’s top public and private galleries, and have shown at the Venice Biennale twice. Van Lamsweerde says there’s more to do on the Now People project, but she and Matadin will probably have to wait a while because they’re currently working on three editorial or advertising commissions a month. It’s a busy time, and that means they have less time to develop characters to feature in their work.
“When we were working with Yohji [Yamamoto, in 1997 and 98] we had whole stories worked out [for our subjects] – who the woman was, where she came from, what films she liked, even what she ate,” says van Lamsweerde. “She was almost like a character from a movie and everything flowed very easily from that. Now we work much more and we have to be much quicker to react, but I feel lucky that we can grab from this reservoir of images [that they have created in the past]. I always advise young photographers not to work commercially right away – you need to work on your own stuff for as long as possible. If you’re shooting 12 images in a day with the client you need to have something in your bag.”
This also means that the pair work with the same kind of character invention over and over again, but van Lamsweerde says they’re very happy to do so. They believe that all [fashion] photographers rely on nostalgia, and in particular nostalgia for the mental images fostered in their youth. She says that Newton and Bourdin’s images are “in my blood”, for example, and expects elements of their work will always recur in hers. Unsurprisingly given this interest in fantasy, she and Matadin are also inspired by fiction, and their forthcoming book includes two short stories, written by controversial novelist AM Homes and cult cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling. “I’m interested in science fiction because it explores possible realities,” says van Lamsweerde. “I’m inspired by the potential truth in it.”
This imaginative world is very personal at times – van Lamsweerde has created three different images of herself kissing Matadin, for example, through which she explores her fear of losing him. But their images remain a shared effort, representing a world on which they rarely disagree. One will think of an idea and discuss it with the other, she says, then they’ll pick out the model, clothes and styling together with the editor. And while Matadin started out as a fashion designer and for years styled their images, he now takes photographs too. It’s interesting to see his take on the scenarios they dream up, says van Lamsweerde, as he’ll often take the same scene at a more oblique angle or time.
The pair have also started exploring fashion film together – fashion houses and magazines are keen on behind-the-scenes footage, says van Lamsweerde, so she and Matadin decided to take control of it. They’re also interested in shooting moving fashion ads, a field that’s reasonably familiar to them having shot Björk’s Hidden Place music video in 2001. Featuring coloured lines and scratchy drawings moving over the Icelandic singer’s skin, it also played with portraiture and fantasy. In fact, she and Matadin have shot seven music covers, mostly for Björk, and have referenced album art in their forthcoming book, printing images at 12×12 inch and including 666 images in a homage to the death metal scene. It’s not the last of their esoteric reference points – they produced series of works named after a video game, Final Fantasy (1993).
“It’s difficult to invent a new way of working in fashion photography because everything was explored so well in the 1960s and 70s,” says van Lamsweerde. “The big new thing we have initiated into fashion is the use of computers. Now with the addition of moving images, it seems like the possibilities are endless.”
Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin’s Pretty Much Everything – Photographs 1985-2010 is on show at FOAM – Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam, 25 June to 15 September.
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