The Image Makers: Inez And Vinoodh
In a new series, Style.com sits down with the best in the field of contemporary fashion photography to talk about both the process and the product. First up: the husband-and-wife Dutch shooters Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin.
At exactly 34 characters long, Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin easily have the longest photo credit in the business. Admittedly, the count includes A-N-D, but that little linking word is crucial. Van Lamsweerde and Matadin are partners in every sense—creatively, romantically, as parents of their 9-year-old son Charles Star Matadin, and seemingly everything in between. The Dutch natives have been together for 26 years, and to sit with the two of them for an interview is to witness genuine sentence-finishing synergy.
There’s yet more neat duality in their work, which straddles art and fashion, gives you high glamour with a touch of the surreal or grotesque, ranges from classical black-and-white portraiture to near camp, and inevitably includes some degree of gender-bending. It also extends to their hefty new monograph, called Pretty Much Everything ($700, www.taschen.com), which comes out this month and encompasses their work for magazines like Paris Vogue and V, campaigns for houses like Yves Saint Laurent and Balenciaga, and their art projects. In the two volumes, van Lamsweerde and Matadin scrapped chronology, and instead painstakingly went through the 666 photographs to create very specific pairings, each with their own visual logic. “It takes time away so it becomes one body of work,” explains Matadin. “You see a picture from 1985 next to one from 2011, and they’re still holding up.” Van Lamsweerde and Matadin talked to Style.com about their unique relationship, the wonders of Lady Gaga, and why you shouldn’t peer into the inner workings of a fashion shoot.
You have this book now but you had the retrospective exhibit last year in Amsterdam. Had you always planned to do that at 25 years?
Vinoodh Matadin: This actually started nine years ago when Inez was pregnant. Karl Lagerfeld said, “Oh, you’re pregnant. You should do a book.”
Inez van Lamsweerde: He said, “Oh, you have to have a project while you’re pregnant.” Which is very cute.
And very Karl.
IVL: Yeah, it was sweet. So we started working on it and kept shooting and kept adding pictures and the book grew and grew. When it was done, it was kind of 25 years of us together. And by now, it’s again a year later so it’s 26 years of work together. But the show was based on the book.
VM: Basically we started the book putting everything in order.
IVL: Chronological order.
VM: But then we thought, it’s too soon. We’re not there yet. So we decided to redo the book.
IVL: The exciting thing for us was the editing and putting it together. Once we decided no chronological, which for us was not interesting, it became really about the combination of the pictures.
The pairings have a nice rhythm.
IVL: It’s really about how all those images that we’ve made in the past 26 years live inside our heads, especially this idea of art, fashion, and portraiture being all the same, from the same source. It really depends on the context or the venue in which you see the image.
VM: It also became one body of work because it takes time away. You see a picture from 1985 next to a picture of 2011 and they’re still holding up. You don’t know when this picture is from. It could be yesterday or 26 years ago.
It’s true. Other than Final Fantasy and Thank You ThighMaster, it’s hard to tell.
IVL: That’s what was really exciting for us also to discover while we were making it. Like, wow, there’s still the same inspiration going on or similar body language. Or the same people that we’ve been shooting for such a long time.
The Kissing pictures seem like a no-brainer for the covers. Was that always the choice?
IVL: Yeah. Like you said it. They stand for everything—us, our love, two people, two volumes, the way that those three pictures have evolved. The last picture [on the outside cover] especially, you know, was made for Lanvin Homme (left)—something that started as an art piece became an ad campaign and ended up as a silk screen and became an artwork again for the show. It’s full circle.
You give every subject a name in your book but you also name models, which is rare. They’re usually nameless. I’m interested in the way that you relate to models, because it’s a bit different from other photographers.
IVL: They’re people!
VM: People always ask us, what kind of pictures are you doing, and I say, “We photograph human beings.”
IVL: It’s an exchange of inspiration, of trust. You spend a day together and definitely anyone that poses for anyone is in a very vulnerable position. It’s not nothing to let yourself be photographed. We approach everything that we do with as much respect as we can possibly have for the person that we’re photographing. That’s also why in most of our images there’s a big awareness of the person knowing what’s happening.
I suppose that explains the way that nudity and sexuality exist in your work. It’s definitely sexy but there’s a kind of strength to it. I guess because the girl is aware.
IVL: And in control. There’s also a fascination with how beautiful human beings are, and not just Daria Werbowy. I think we could take an incredible picture of literally everybody. What is exciting for us is finding that one particular thing in someone that we find the most exciting and then heightening that and bringing that all out into the foreground.
Your portraits really do make people look amazing. Glenn O’Brien in his foreword says that the portrait you took of him makes him look like a hero. Did you always have a natural facility for finding that one thing?
IVL: Yeah, it comes naturally. The moment the person walks in, you know it. You see right away what is in there and what it is for us that makes that person incredible. And then it’s about heightening it through body language, through hair and makeup, sometimes what the person is wearing.
VM: And also being there a hundred percent for that person.
IVL: I guess the big difference is the amount of concentration. That real intense moment of pure concentration is what makes it so beautiful and so rewarding, even more than the final result. We always imagine that it’s these arrows of energy going from everyone, like hair and makeup, everyone that’s standing there. Everyone is focused towards that one point.
I read that you don’t shoot models under the age of 18. Was that a conscious decision?
VM: Very conscious.
IVL: We saw this happen to so many models, especially with girls. They start at 14 and everyone says to them, “Wow, you’re incredible. You’re so skinny. You look like a boy.” And once that girl is 18 and her body is finished growing, all of a sudden it was like, “Oh, she’s fat.” The poor girl. She’s just growing. We felt it was unethical to support that. You get judged anyway and it’s not easy. You have to really know who you are first. And at such a tender age—between 14 and 18—you’re figuring out who you are.
But also I love seeing these girls like Malgosia who get older and just get better.
IVL: Yeah, more beautiful and more interesting. And as they grow, we grow with them. You never get bored of shooting someone that has made an interesting life for herself.
You have a really varied crew of favorites—Daria, Tasha, Guinevere, Kate Moss, among others. What do you respond to in all these different girls?
IVL: It’s all about personality. For instance, we love working with Raquel [Zimmermann] because she’s someone that doesn’t necessarily care whether she’s beautiful in a picture. She has this incredible amount of trust and she’s ready to be anything, because she’s interested in the process of creating an image.
VM: Gisele is the same.
IVL: Shalom [Harlow]. Jessica Miller. Maggie [Rizer]. All of the girls who are in there have that quality. I think that’s what it is. Once they can know themselves well enough to let it go and go for the idea of making something together. What’s exciting for us is when someone is not afraid to be someone else, and it takes character to be able to do that. Christy Turlington is another one. I could shoot her every day of my life. The same goes for Daria. We’re shooting a whole issue on her for French Vogue for February.
Can we talk a little bit about your creative relationship? How does it work? How has it changed over the 26 years?
IVL: Well, we met in school. We started out working together when Vinoodh had his own label as a designer.
VM: We really liked the process of talking about creating that image.
IVL: And finding casting. We sort of did everything together. So when Vinoodh stopped his label, we started working together on the pictures even more closely and then it just evolved. I think the moment we started working for Vogue, it changed. Before that we would do everything.
VM: The styling. The concept. The layouts.
IVL: Sometimes the hair and makeup.
VM: Every shoot would take over two months because we did everything ourselves. We even picked up the clothes ourselves in Paris at the press agent.
IVL: But then we were asked by Vogue to shoot for them and then we had to work with an editor—it was Camilla Nickerson—which was completely new for us. All of a sudden there was an editor and the clothes, it was all done for us.
VM: When we started, we said, “OK, Inez is the photographer. You can call me a stylist.” That was our first credit. But then we came to Vogue and we had to invent a new credit, so we just said “photographer.”
IVL: Then at some point I remember we had an extra camera on set that we were trying out and Vinoodh was like, “Let me just try it out.” From that moment on, he started shooting as well. All of a sudden it was like, wow. Also the level of stress reduced greatly. Between the two of us, we knew the picture was there. It’s great. We look at each other’s [cameras] and we can say, “Oh, that’s better. Let’s go in that direction.”
Can you tell when you’re looking at the images which one is your own?
Can other people?
VM: But sometimes we don’t even know ourselves. Especially when we shoot on location, and we move a little bit more around.
Do you disagree while you’re working?
What is it usually about?
IVL: It’s hard to tell. It’s little things but then we…
VM: But it’s all about the end result.
Was there ever a point that someone told you that you had to choose between art and fashion?
IVL: No. Do you?
VM: Well, people did say, “Are you art? Do you do fashion?” I would just say, “This is our work. We never choose ourselves.”
IVL: I think there’s a different way of communicating in a gallery than there is in a magazine or an ad campaign. It has a different purpose. For us it was exciting that in one way the work sort of finds its own venue or own context. And we like playing with the context of a magazine or a gallery and trying to twist things around.
You do blur lines.
IVL: At some moment, there was that big deal about art and fashion, and how it all sort of blends in. But we were like, “We just make our photographs.” To us, that discussion is not very interesting. Like we talked about before with the Lanvin. An art piece became an ad campaign became an art piece. Also, it’s kept us independent in a way from either world. It’s been very interesting in a way for us to see how the art world has become much more commercialized and how artists are now on the best-dressed lists. Everyone now understands the power of publicity, whereas before it was not done.
You guys aren’t known as quote-unquote celebrity photographers, but you’ve done some great ones. Do you find them to be a challenge?
IVL: Actually, one of our favorite moments is making an incredible portrait of someone that you admire that has done either an interesting movie or is a great musician. It’s scary sometimes but it’s always extremely rewarding. And you know, we’re very fast. Most of the portraits in the book were taken in the first 15 minutes that someone was on set.
VM: And I think they’re the most pure photography. There are no elephants, no motorcycles. Also we like to show a different side of a celebrity. Most of the people are thankful. They say, “Oh my God, I never saw myself like this.” Bill Murray was funny because when Inez put the flowers in his beard he said, “Do people ever ask why?”
IVL: Yeah, while I was putting them in, he said, “Do people ever ask you why?” I said to him, “No.” He said, “OK.” And that was that. No discussion. We’re always very direct. We always have some kind of fantasy on that person. I’ll just say, ‘My fantasy on you is this.’ And they’ll say, “OK, let’s do it.” Vanessa Redgrave came in and I said, “I have this fantasy of you in a hoodie.” And she looked at me like, “Oh!’ She brought evening dresses and the whole deal. But then she said, “If that’s what you feel strongly about, let’s do it.” The more direct, the better. We never try to cajole someone into doing something they don’t want.
Speaking of fantasy, you’ve worked a lot with Lady Gaga. What’s that relationship like creatively?
IVL: It’s interesting because she has literally 400 ideas a minute. And they’re all great. We’re very similar in our inspiration and she reminds me a lot of when we were young and starting out in the types of things that she’s fascinated by, and having so many ideas and wanting to put them all in one thing. We have learned in the last 25 years not to do that.
VM: When we took her picture for the first time, she said, “This is the first time I see myself as the pure me.”
IVL: The V cover (left). She cried when she saw it. She never really considered herself a beauty. And we think she’s incredibly beautiful and I think that was a big thing for her to sort of accept that she is really beautiful. That purity in her is what is exciting. She’s an incredible human being and she knows exactly why she’s here. It’s an amazing exchange.
You’re always tweeting back to her little monsters.
IVL: Oh, the monsters are so wonderful. They’re incredible. Her thing is all about love. And it’s not about her and that’s why it works. They respond to that. It’s all real. And all her feelings, she puts them on the outside and puts herself in a very vulnerable position. But everything comes from her. There’s no one saying to her, “Oh, you should wear…” Everything is a metaphor. Everything comes from very deep place.
It’s impressive that you’re on both Twitter and Tumblr and seem very adept. How did you start?
IVL: Because of Gaga.
VM: And then we started using it and especially the Tumblr; it’s like having your own magazine. It’s like you can do whatever you want.
IVL: Or just show your inspiration. Tumblr made us look at photography completely differently. It’s like “OK, this chair is great. Let’s take a picture of it.” It’s a wonderful way to communicate and it’s so direct. Everybody now is about real time. The immediacy of it is really rewarding and the fact that people right away respond is even more wonderful. Especially on Twitter, the atmosphere is so positive. You reach a whole new group of people. And it’s liberating for parts of our work that could never run in a magazine or that could never run immediately.
VM: And it’s 100 percent us.
You can tell that it’s not some assistant.
IVL: No, it’s too much fun to let someone else do it. It’s fascinating too to see which images get the most notes or what people retweet.
You’ve also been doing fashion films for a while. Do you get the same thing out of those as a picture?
IVL: Different. It’s a new challenge. And it came in sort of at the right time. Obviously there is a big difference. Nowadays almost every brand wants a BTS [behind the scenes] video for Web content. I think it’s a learning process for our clients to understand the difference between a BTS video and a fashion film. For us, it’s a very different type of thing. A fashion film is where it’s conceptualized. It’s a mini movie. And a BTS…
VM: It takes away the mystery. How many double chins do you want to see?
IVL: We’re kind of…
VM: Against the BTS.
IVL: That’s why we’re trying to steer our clients, saying, let’s make a fashion film instead of a BTS, where you see the model being made up, people panning over racks of clothes. It demystifies the process. And it doesn’t really add anything. Whereas now with making a fashion film, there’s music, there’s editing.
And animation like the Kate Moss one for Balmain with Jo Ratcliffe.
IVL: Yeah. There’s so much that you can do there and it’s just a shift in the minds of the client. We always say, maybe you just have to move your budgets around so you can make a video that lives on the Web…
IVL: People look at our Yves Saint Laurent video with Daria. You know we still get requests about it. It has a much longer life and a bigger reach.
Another one of my favorites is the French Vogue “Girls on Film” one.
IVL: We’re making a new one with Daria now.
M/M Paris designed the book, and you’ve collaborated with them for a very long time. How did that relationship start?
IVL: We were introduced in 1994 or 1996 by a mutual friend called Grégoire Marot, who had a PR agency called Favori, who thought we had a similar sensibility. We clicked right away, noticed that a lot of the movies we were watching or music that we were listening to or images that we referred to were very similar. Our approach to fashion was similar. We all had a certain longing to push things forward. Grégoire also introduced us to Nicolas Ghesquière. He said, “Oh, he did his first collection. You should check it out.” The four of us went to the next show and liked so much what he was doing that we immediately started thinking about campaigns. From then on it became a very strong collaboration with the four of us and Nicolas and Marie-Amélie Sauvé.
What’s made the relationship work for so long?
IVL: It’s never an easy way out. That’s what’s great. They don’t try to solve a problem quickly. They really go for it. But it’s a very happy and humorous relationship that we have, and still very fulfilling. They think differently about everything. What was great about the [early] Yohji Yamamoto and the Balenciaga campaigns, it was really about together figuring out what the life of the Yohji woman was or the life of the Balenciaga woman, and almost writing a script to derive the imagery. Another favorite was one that we did for Calvin Klein [in 2002] when Calvin was still there. Michael and Mathias had the naïveté or maybe the audacity to change the logo. They made it into a scribbled hand-colored red, white, and blue logo that looked like the doodles you make when you’re making a phone call. I remember having a meeting with Calvin Klein and suggesting this kind of a logo on the layout and all the cut-up layouts that we did for him. I remember Calvin going, “OK, they’re all going to think I’m crazy but I love it and I’m going to go for it.”
I remember being blown away by the Spring 2002 Balenciaga campaign with the collage you did with them (below). It was so different from everything at the time. How did that come about?
IVL: It was all at the right time and the right place. I think people needed something else to happen again. What was great was that us, Nicolas, and M/M Paris, together we were a very strong unit. All the inspiration came not from other things in fashion. It just came from our own backgrounds and ideas and interests. It was just such a fluid creative synergy. It was beautiful because we had no point of reference. I don’t think there has been more creative advertising around. And it was possible, which is something that was part of that time. The way the fashion world functions now, it’s very different from the way it was then. It feels weird to be able to say that. People were definitely more interested in pushing things a little.
You might have to sell the idea a bit harder today.
IVL: Yeah, I think so. And that’s what’s great about fashion. It evolves with the time and it’s a reaction to society and what’s happening. And it’s one of the most immediate reactions to what’s happening in society. And it’s all part of it. Things change but there’s always a good side to the change, too. That’s what fashion is: It’s change.