Elle Verhagen and Carmen Freudenthal: "To recognize the same urge in the other is special and stimulating"
"To call these subjects obsessions is perhaps a too-strong statement, but they do preoccupy or absorb our minds"
By Hannah and Cailin Loesch
Based in Amsterdam, Dutch artists Carmen Freudenthal & Elle Verhagen met right after graduating from the Gerrit Rietveld Academy—where Carmen studied photography and Elle studied fashion design—and their connection was as electric as it was immediate. With a recognition of a mutual taste in image making and what fashion imagery should look like, Freudenthal and Verhagen began a creative partnership which started with a publication in i-D Magazine in 1989. With a goal of expanding the definition of fashion photography, crossing lines between fashion and art, and looking for cultural relevance, the duo have succeeded in stretching the confines of photography, merging photographs into 3D installations, projecting video onto photographs and printing photographs onto draped silk. Most recently, Freudenthal and Verhagen continued their collaboration of almost three decades with a series of new work, in which they further explore the boundaries of photography and the possibilities for the creation of visual illusions. Presented by The Ravestijn Gallery, their second solo show ‘Absorptions’ “seeks ways to both deform and enhance the human body in all of its imperfections, resulting in images wherein body parts are either masked or brought to an alluring light, subtly making the weight of human existence palpable.”
Cailin Loesch: I’ve read that you two met right after you both graduated from an academy where Carmen studied photography and Elle studied fashion design, and you both found that there was, as you said, “an immediate recognition of a mutual taste in image making, and what fashion imagery should look like.” How would you two describe this visual language that you both share?
Carmen Freudenthal & Elle Verhagen: Back then, in the late 80's, fashion photography was very glamorous, polished, and focused on the outfit, all very serious. We were both into stirring up the conventional world of fashion photography. We liked to tell stories, exaggerate real-life situations, and comment on society, but always with a humoristic approach. We created images with a sense of realness, but in a carefully-constructed, staged situation. First by hand, later with the help of the computer. Every detail was important and discussed thoroughly. The models could be older or not necessarily pretty, but they needed to have character and be able to express themselves. We collaborated with dancers, actors, and designers. Our visual language was very layered, narrative, and surreal.
CL: I’d imagine that in some ways, being able to work together as a duo, especially with your similarities as artists, makes your work easier for you at times. Is that how the work relationship works for you? Or is it sometimes more difficult—because you are so like-minded—when there are times that you don’t see eye-to-eye on a creative decision?
CF and EV: It's not only the similarities that make the working together easier. It's also the differences. We each have our own qualities, and over the years they became more clear. Now we are able to divide the roles, and therefore have more time to perform. These differences are also our strengths as a duo. We respect them, thus making it easier to give in in case of possible disagreements.
HL: How has your artistic collaboration changed over the course of three decades? Does your dynamic feel the same as it did 30 years ago?
CF and EV: Things did change over the years. The computer made it a lot easier to really work as a team and make mutual decisions on the set. The computer screen made it possible to see what was happening through the lens of the camera, and Photoshop made it possible to manipulate images outside of the darkroom, which used to be reserved only to the photographer. Differences between the photographer and the stylist faded. But nothing changed in our mutual desire to keep on experimenting and move on to other levels, and never become lazy or stay in safe areas where making a living out of our work would have been much easier. To recognize the same urge in the other, after so many years, is rather special and stimulating.
HL: One of the inspirations for your second solo show ‘Absorptions’ is the work of old masters like Rembrandt, in which some details of the body are completely drawn out, whereas other surfaces are left unfinished or vague. When you are drawing inspiration from someone whose work is so well-known and identifiable, how do you make sure your work stays unique to you both?
CF and EV: Our new work ‘Absorptions’ is about the body and it's make-ability. Just the body, apparently stripped from it's identity, stripped from all the layers we used to add in our work. Isolated from its surroundings, everything else brushed away, we ask the viewer to use their imagination. Rembrandt's unfinished paintings were only a starting point, a visual handle, and that is as far as the inspiration goes. I don't think anyone will notice any resemblances. Finding new inspirational sources and new techniques keeps us going.
HL: Your goal for ‘Absorptions’, you say, is to subtly make the weight of human existence palpable. Where did the title come from?
CF and EV: For this series we worked with rubber combined with photographic prints on silk. The rubber adds a weight to the depicted bodies printed on a lightweight satin. It absorbs the body, makes it heavier, and the stress of the position more intense. We deform and shape, visualizing the make-ability of the human body. In the black and white images the black parts painted with rubber literally absorb and soak up the image, showing a vanishing body, a body in decay; the make-ability and impermanence of the body. To call these subjects obsessions is perhaps a too-strong statement, but they do preoccupy or absorb our minds.
CL: Elle, as an artist who studied fashion design, what do you feel is the tie between fashion and photography? Does having great knowledge in one field automatically give you better instinct in the other?
EV: Photography is an indispensable tool for a designer to share and show his work to the audience, to give the design a context, and to depict the fantasy. For me creating fashion was to create new identities in a matching, made-up world, and making a picture where everything came together was the final product. It really depends on what kind of "fashion person" you are. For me it was never about designing the best dress. It was always about the total image, while other designers focused mainly on shapes and prints. I always was more of a stylist than a fashion designer.
CL: Your photos have been merged into 3D installations, you’ve projected video onto photographs and printed photographs onto draped silk. Do you feel that the same photograph can send off a different meaning when it is shared in a new medium?
CF and EV: By adding a new medium, the message or the meaning doesn't really change but becomes more clear or stronger. By adding an unusual medium, something that fools the eye and makes people wonder, you force the viewer to take a closer look. It makes the impact stronger.
HL: Your series of new work is said to further explore the boundaries of photography and the possibilities for the creation of visual illusions. What would you say you’ve found so far? What is the boundary of photography?
CF and EV: Pushing to and crossing over the boundaries of photography was our quest from the beginning of our careers. Taking a photograph was only a starting point for building an image, which was, preferably, not flat. This image could turn out to be just a collage with tangible layers of paper, but also a fountain with a life-sized photograph of a woman with water running over her body. We played around and mixed up all different media, but always started with a photograph that we shot ourselves. There are no limits, the possibilities to create new images combining different media and materials are endless, which is nowadays much more common and mainstream.