Inez & Vinoodh: The Art of Transformation
Guest editors Inez & Vinoodh have collaborated for more than twenty-five years, creating an uncommon range of distinctive fashion imagery, fueled by a curiosity about the flexibility and possibilities of photography. Here, writer Donatien Grau reflects on how their powerful creative union underscores their restless output.
Inez & Vinoodh: two people, one name; a couple, in life and for art. Such a creative situation is rare in the field of photography. In many ways, photography is the art of the individual. If we take for granted, as Robert Doisneau once described it, that photography’s original goal is to “capture what is ephemeral,” then, we need only one perspective, not two, to capture it.
The gesture of capturing a timely moment provides a person with the opportunity to explore his or her own intimacy, dreams, and fantasy, in the process of selecting, stealing, and appropriating from reality. The situation with Inez & Vinoodh is different. Over the twenty-five-plus years that Vinoodh Matadin has been collaborating with fellow Dutch artist Inez van Lamsweerde, their work has changed art and fashion photography, first altering the way art photography was perceived by bringing harmony and elegance into it in the late 1990s, at a time when reality was the rage; then bringing strangeness into fashion imagery; and eventually, today, creating their synthetic world that is displayed in a range of contexts: from magazines to fashion exhibitions as well as on the walls of some of the world’s most prominent contemporary art galleries. This kind of crossover and experimentation is exceptional both in contemporary photography and fashion.
An early photograph from 1999, Me Kissing Vinoodh (Lovingly), might well be the visual emblem of their union.
It brings together the different components involved in the making of their works: the presence of art, the symbols and ethics of love. This picture can be paralleled with Gustav Klimt’s 1907-08 painting The Kiss, the composition of which is echoed in Inez & Vinoodh’s photograph: a man on the left kissing a woman on the right. Vinoodh’s black hair is strikingly reminiscent of Klimt’s male model. But the dynamics are different: in Klimt’s painting, the kiss itself is a rather small, albeit central, part of the image; in Inez & Vinoodh’s, the kiss is located in the same area of the image but is far more conspicuous. In 1907, the man is in a dominating position, taller and leaning over the girl, whose eyes are closed, as are Inez’s. In Me Kissing Vinoodh, Vinoodh is leaning his head too, but he reaches out to Inez, and doesn’t affect a posture of protection. Another key difference: in 1999, the picture is taken by a woman, Inez—hence the title. She is the one engaging Vinoodh, the one “kissing” him, and not, like the passive woman in Klimt’s painting, the one being kissed. Femininity is activated symbolically by Inez’s situation in the picture, through the appearance of her bare breast. It is a picture about Inez van Lamsweerde, and yet it signals the importance of the couple, both creatively and personally—they are both represented and they co-author the photograph.
They want to malee people look beautiful—though not in a classical, ordinary way but often in a rather uncanny fashion. Their style is restless and all-encompassing, as is their subject matter.
This notion of shared exchange is one of the best lessons Inez & Vinoodh’s work provides. Their generation of artists and créatives, which blossomed in the 1990s, valued collaboration and conversation. Inez & Vinoodh collaborate not only with each other, but also with other artists, critics, editors, and designers—producing a twofold displacement of the authorial figure, a collaboration embedded in collaborations. It is difficult to think of any other photographers who would be as much at ease with the video and installation artist Philippe Parreno, a prominent figure of relational aesthetics, as with Lady Gaga or Kate Moss. An immediate parallel from their generation is M/M (Paris)’s Mathias Augustyniak and Michael Amzalag, the collaborative duo that hybridized graphic design and other practices, notably engaging in an ongoing artistic dialogue with Inez & Vinoodh. Bringing together the initials of their first name, M/M (Paris) decided to coin a new name for a new way to collaborate with other créatives, ranging from design and art direction to filmmaking and art.
One of the reasons why Me Kissing Vinoodh (Lovingly) is such an important picture has to do with the fact that it signals that very tension. It is the sign of a movement toward a new unity beyond individuals: a couple, a synthesis. The adverb set between parentheses—“lovingly”—carries much weight: it signifies the feelings of two human beings toward each other, but it also conveys a more universal meaning. All of Inez & Vinoodh’s pictures might be viewed as acts of love: they are words in a global declaration of love to the world in which they live. Collaborating, conversing: these are gestures of interest in others. It could be argued that their passion for portraiture somehow emanates from their love, which is at the same time very specific, open, and generous: they portray very different kinds of people, models as well as actors as well as singers as well as their friends. They want to make people look beautiful— though not in a classical, ordinary way but often in a rather uncanny fashion. Their style is restless and all-encompassing, as is their subject matter: they make photographs of flowers, turn mass-market products into contemporary still life, portray people in black-and-white or in vivid color, zoom in on a face or situate a portrait in a complex environment. They never gave up on the notion of beauty, an idea that was not popular among their generation of photographers. They want to see the beauty in people and allow other people to seize the objects of their love.
This ever-expanding embrace explains their interest in the language of fashion photography as well as their collaboration with the pop star Lady Gaga: fashion is designed, among other things, to make people feel good about themselves, to give them a sense of belonging; Lady Gaga’s message is based on the idea of welcoming people who seldom feel as though they belong anywhere. Inez & Vinoodh, by taking the language of fashion and making it their own, by challenging and twisting it, help us understand that those who feel different from the rules of common existence have a place to stay, a place of fantasy.
Therein comes a crucial notion: transformation. Inez & Vinoodh’s pictures are not mere depictions of reality. They intervene heavily in the making of them: they very obviously
use postproduction to manipulate the shape of bodies, the acuteness of light, the intensity of colors. Other photographers of their generation wanted to engage with reality, dig deep into it, and introduce realism into fashion photography, a genre often defined by the idealization of forms. Inez & Vinoodh seek the opposite and instead play with creative patterns— they embellish, they add elements of distortion, so that the final picture is almost never a transcription of something in the real world. It is a transfiguration. They change the visual nature of reality. They create fictions.
They do not only capture the ephemeral: they also make the eternal. The models and objects present in their works— from young people to flowers—all exist as such in a specific moment of time, and then, after the picture has been taken, disappear: the young are no longer young; the flowers die.
Their signature lies in the fact that they make us believe, for a second, while we look at the picture, that eternity might well exist—it exists in the fixed version that is a photograph.
Even if the rest of the world rots, the picture of it will remain.
The idea that they could bring all their models and subjects to eternity is a fiction, but their work, which involves transforming what their subjects actually look like, is a fiction too. These processes of fiction coincide with ethics of representation.
In the same way that Lady Gaga creates a fantasy world for her followers, Inez & Vinoodh offer viewers a visual rendering of fantasy, complete with beauty, danger, and uncertainty, the longing for eternity, the ecstasy of the ephemeral. Their world carries the ethical imperative of fiction and the necessity of an underlying realism.
If you want to love the people and things that surround you, if you want love to govern your life, and life to be at least bearable, and hopefully wonderful, you need to invent the world, and make the fantasy of its eternity believable. As Giacomo Casanova once said about Nattier, “his genius lay in the fact that his portraits looked far more beautiful than the persons he portrayed; and yet, if one was to look closely and compare every inch of the painting to the face of the actual person, we could not see any difference.” Photography, like Nattier’s portraiture, may often be an art of the individual, but Inez & Vinoodh make photography an art of the community.
It is difficult to think of any other photographers who would be as much at ease with the video and installation artist Philippe Parreno, a prominent figure of relational aesthetics, as with Lady Gaga or Kate Moss.
Donatien Grau is a member of New College, University of Oxford, and a contributing editor of Flash Art International, an editor of Purple, and a contributor to The Times Literary Supplement. He is the author of The Age of Creation (Sternberg Press, 2013).