WHOLE: 25 years of Freudenthal/Verhagen

My fabulous friends, art director Karen Heuter and photographers Carmen Freudenthal & Elle Verhagen just released this awesome ride of a book, covering 25 years worth of memorable work by Freudenthal/Verhagen. I’ve had the honor to work with Carmen and Elle on several occasions. That’s how we became friends. That’s how I ended up making a Hitchcock style cameo appearance as a Viktor & Rolf model on the opening spread in this anniversary book. And that’s how I got to do quite some writing in and around this special publication. Read my personal introduction below, followed by my interview with their long time collaborator Bernhard Willhelm after the break.

Images courtesy of Karen Heuter and Freudenthal/Verhagen

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It was during the spring of ‘98 when I first had the pleasure of working with Carmen Freudenthal and Elle Verhagen, and it was due time too. BLVD Magazine, where I was a senior editor with ‘fashion’ as one of my main responsibilities, was preparing for its 5th anniversary issue, and Carmen and Elle just happened to have a proposal that fit the bill: we would celebrate the wave of Dutch conceptual fashion talent of that moment with an extra large fashion shoot using contemporary dancers and performers for models and national park De Hoge Veluwe as the décor. It was a celebration of the creative freedom that marked the decade, and that was so manifest in BLVD., which was all about thrusting ourselves into the future where the digital revolution was lurking and the new humanity makeable. The models-who-weren’t-fashion-models were not modeling the usual high profile clothes that were going to be for sale that summer but instead they were dancing like cavemen around their bonfires, caught up in some kind of ritualistic performance with the highly experimental young designer pieces – some of which were designed especially for the occasion – adorning their powerful naked bodies, revealing ‘private parts’ and all. It was in fact a photographic performance, minutely choreographed by Freudenthal/Verhagen, their camera and their computer. The ‘naked in heathland series’ as we called it, gained extra momentum for Carmen and Elle when, after it had made its impact in BLVD’s festive issue, it featured in i-D magazine as well. Somehow, suddenly, these two originals, who had already spent a decade putting out their highly autonomous ‘staged photography’, experimenting with room filling installations, on set trompe l’oeuil effects like projections as well as pre-Photoshop dark room montage techniques, they had become an establishment of sorts. Their signature was out.

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For Freudenthal/Verhagen it must have meant that their seemingly conflicting proposition, using art photography to take a critical stance towards the established fashion imagery, had finally entered this international dialogue, this visual language that is such a big part of the fashion discipline. And fashion design, in its creative core, is something they love. The ‘naked in heathland series’ had caught Bernhard Wilhelm’s eye and together they embarked on a perennial collaboration that would deeply engrave their wildly imaginative collage style in the international fashion world’s collective memory. Their lookbooks for Bernhard Wilhelm became collectibles, and then they made a book out of it. That same year I joined them in Rome for ‘Dutch Touch’ with the Dutch Fashion Foundation for which occasion they’d made another book called Wonder Holland.

However in demand, instead of seizing their moment as established high profile fashion photographers, knowing all to well the sacrifices they’d be forced to make, Freudenthal/Verhagen saw an opportunity to return to their earlier 3D installation work when Arnhem Mode Biennale offered them a main stage in Museum voor Moderne Kunsten Arnhem. Their photo’s seemed to come to live, leaving the frame as the silk they were printed on draped off the walls and onto the floor. As if having found the secret code to the magic mirror, Carmen and Elle have been comfortable crossing over between their chosen disciplines ever since, be it fashion imagery, photographic installations or anywhere the two can meet, like in advertising, and all the while they keep experimenting with their toolbox. From the very first moment I had the pleasure to sit with them and discuss their editorial ideas it has been clear to me that Carmen Freudenthal and Elle Verhagen are true artists. Their painstaking and time consuming work processes, the ever so earnest dedication to their artistic vision – which, being strangely entangled with a marvelous sense of humor, is simply inimitable -, their continuous drive to create against the grain, all this now accumulates as a Whole. A seriously hard earned delight.

 

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It is 2016, Friday the 24th of June, 21:00 GMT+1, around noon in Los Angeles when Mo Veld connects with Bernhard Willhelm on Skype. Cameras on. Big smiles, it has been a long time.

Mo Veld: “WHOLE is not going to press without some more of your considered thoughts about Carmen and Elle’s work, as your years of close collaboration have been quite distinctive.”

Bernhard Willhelm: “People don’t want to read in this book, I am sure, but there are a couple of things to say. We are more or less from the same generation, you see, we came out in the 90’s – 2000’s. Before there was the glamour photography from the ‘80’s: Guy Bourdin, Helmut Newton. Then there was this anti reaction against glamour photography and this aesthetic, let’s call it hard realism; Wolfgang Tilmans, Jurgen Teller. And there was a new Dutch generation, which had a lot to do with the computer. Inez van Lamsweerde was the first one who made Photoshop not look real, but artificial, kind of hyper reality. You have to place Carmen and Elle in this time and how things were happening.”

MV: When did you first encounter their work?

BW: “It was Maarten Spruyt who showed me a series by Carmen and Elle in i-D magazine. It was an anti reaction to the super Photoshopped glamour we saw in all the fashion magazines. They cut things out in Photoshop and put it roughly together, very sloppy. The collages and all its elements gained another meaning; about the way we look at fashion and create a story around it. Carmen and Elle created an anti-aesthetic. And as fashion didn’t really put rules anymore, it could all co-exist.”

MV: You write: ‘Carmen Freudenthal and Elle Verhagen are in conjunction’.

BW: “With Carmen and Elle I think what is still surprising is that these two people have found each other and they are going still further, it is a total journey. Look at the lookbooks they did for my collections. Each collection has different approaches, when we worked together it was very spontaneous and intuitive. We didn’t know what was coming out in the end and we didn’t really know what we were doing until we saw the final result. This ‘dare to improvise’ style you find with very few photographers, artists and fashion designers, so this is why it was a very good match.

What I realize now is that in the beginning, in what we have created together, there is this feeling of an overload of useless information that we get from everywhere, internet, newspapers, television, and I think in the end – or maybe it is just me – it has to become like ‘can we not be more simple and also have an empty space?’ Empty space in a designers or artist’s work can also mean ‘unfinished’. So I am still curious how they will continue.’”

MV: The lookbooks look like you had a lot of fun, but I know how hard it is to make it look like that. It’s dead serious. It is not easier than making slick, commercial, pretty images. And this is such a misconception. I have witnessed Carmen and Elle going to such lengths, to – in the end – make you feel uneasy, which is a good thing, it is a present. So it is this aspect of putting all that effort – really breaking their backs – into something that you know will not just please everybody….

BW: “Absolutely. It is surprising how conservative people are, that they still want polished glamour and that they spend more money on that than on the hard realism or the symbolic work. It is this question of how commercial you want to be. If I had wanted to become rich, famous and glamorous, which is the so-called obvious – but then you dive deeper into the subjects and then you start to see the abyss. It is part of our work, the horror of glamour, and the horror of everything you want. Jenny Holzer defined it very well: ‘Protect me from what I want’.

What is interesting, Carmen and Elle had also this time – that everybody has – when you are saying to yourself: ‘Why am I doing this?’ And then Carmen and Elle started doing stock photos for Getty. Right now I am totally into stock photos because they have a symbolic meaning. I find it so fascinating that once you are fed up with your own creativity and you do the complete opposite that this is something you can also like. There are no rules.”

MV: “What was the importance of the pictures Carmen and Elle did for your brand? Was it a marketing tool?”

BW: “I was very naïve in the beginning. I felt that we both could explore how the collection could look. It’s about visualizing what has been in your head. Now I know how important it is to do that, because it is the only thing that stays. We have our collections archive, sure, but what is still accessible for everyone out there are these pictures. What can I say? People are still looking at things we did ten years ago, and it still has a meaning, and that is the important thing. Maybe people didn’t like it at the time, but later they look at it again, and after all that time maybe it starts to make sense. And this, finally, hopefully, makes you a wise person.”

MV: Also the media landscape has changed a lot since then and images are more important than ever, and also moving images. I remember Carmen and Elle did some filming for you too, I remember the one with the guy keeping all the plates in the air on sticks? It was a new thing then but now everyone is doing moving images.

BW: “I never did many catwalks because they are very expensive to do and after 20 minutes they’re done and you have a bunch of photographs by a photographer you don’t know. It is more interesting to work on something that allows you more influence on how it looks. I’d rather spend my money on good images, good photography and eventually film if it comes around. There is such an overload of catwalk pictures during fashion week that there is almost a healing element. Maybe through the back door, but this is also being put out in the world, to a certain audience that is not so interested in the catwalk. This is maybe the reason why I am so appreciated in the art world and maybe less appreciated by a certain fashion crowd. It is always the question in what niche you fit. I’m not complaining. Students from all over the word come here working for us and they are great people, and right now we have a super team. I like it very much.

You now, that so-called happiness – ‘are you happy with what you are doing?’ – in which you can define things for yourself, also how you work, how the things look. Because not everything in life is happy and glamorous and it is not only about making money, it is also about making a statement, creating a story, and it is also a matter of character. Some people are very happy with what they have achieved and others, they always want to achieve something different. So thumbs up for Carmen and Elle!”

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