Flip through any top glossy these days and you’re bound to encounter the magic of the industry’s most prolific photographic duo, Inez Van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin. Since their slow-burn courtship at art school in Holland, they’ve made iconic fashion imagery their business, and it’s booming.
BY ALEXANDRA ILYASHOV
Remind us: How did you first cross paths?
Inez Van Lamsweerde: We met, sort of vaguely, in art school. Vinoodh was two years ahead of me.
Vinoodh Matadin: I studied design. I needed a photographer to shoot my collection, and somebody reminded me of Inez, so I called her.
Inez: First, we were friends; we were both in relationships.
Vinoodh: It took six years to synchronize.
What was your first big project together?
Inez: We were invited to come to New York as artists in residence at PS1 in 1992 and 1993. After a year, Vinoodh decided to stop designing and just do photography with me as a team. We called every agent and magazine; it was very difficult to get an appointment with anyone. No one would even look at your book, even if you were allowed to drop it off. An agent told us to go back to Holland, become stars in Europe, and then America would take us. So that’s what we did.
Were you relieved to go back to Holland?
Inez: New York was hard; we were sort of lonely.
Vinoodh: So we started working with BLVD, a new magazine in Amsterdam.
Inez: We did everything; we styled together. It was also the first time we used the computer to put stock slides from image banks as backgrounds behind models, which were shot in the studio. At that point, computers weren’t used at all in fashion; they were only used to straighten cigarette packets and make cars shinier. We saw the possibilities of controlling the whole image: making the background and the foreground equally sharp, with a hyper-real sensibility.
Vinoodh: It was in the midst of grunge; everything was black and white, and our work was very colorful. We did everything—the clothes, the styling, FedEx, the layouts—and when it was finally printed, they forgot the credits!
Inez: Then we sent it to The Face and Interview. Interview never responded, but The Face called us back immediately and said, “We normally don’t buy pictures that are already published somewhere else,” but they loved it so much that they published it in April 1994.
What happened next?
Inez: One month later we got a call from U.S. Vogue asking us to do a series. Anna Wintour was calling, so we thought maybe it was time to go back to New York. Meanwhile, a few pictures from a show we did were chosen for the Biennale in Venice and for the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York.
Vinoodh: Everything came at the same time—fashion photography and the art world—which is pretty much how it’s been all along. We were about staying independent.
Inez: But at some point, we realized we had to play the game, really subvert from within. Now, our work is subversive in a more subtle way. When you’re young, you want to hit everything with a big hammer. We’d have 400 ideas for a single photograph.
How did your Vogue debut go?
Inez: It was Niki Taylor in a Stephen Sprouse series, styled by Camilla Nickerson, shot in L.A. We brought along all the shoes by a Dutch designer for the shoot. We were so naive! We had no idea how everything worked.
Vinoodh: We worked really hard. We had two days to do it, and we shot it all in one day.
Had you ventured to L.A. before?
Inez: No! We couldn’t believe it. For lunch, there was all this pasta and salmon and salad, and we were like, “Look at that! This is the life!” We were used to peanut butter sandwiches for lunch. We were totally flabbergasted.
Vinoodh: I mean, I still can’t believe that ran in Vogue. The way we work, there’s just one finished image, with the background. That wasn’t really the way Vogue worked—they usually have a choice of images from the photographer.
What kinds of doors did that shoot open?
Inez: We got an agent because of Vogue, and we became friends with Stephen Gan. He basically took us in.
Vinoodh: Right before we made the decision to go back to New York, Stephen was in Amsterdam and wanted to meet us. He stayed a week in our house, and when he left he said, “If you ever decide move to New York, call me.” A month later, we called from the airport and he said, “Oh, great! Come over for dinner.” So we went to his house, had dinner—and stayed for a year, on and off.
How did Stephen usher you into the NYC fashion circuit?
Inez: He was very sweet. He introduced us to everybody, took us under his wing. He’s our biggest supporter, and still our sweetest friend. One year, Stephen bought tickets for a Met Ball after-party, and I remember seeing Iman and Jerry Hall; Cecilia [Dean] was wearing a dress she’d borrowed from Christian Lacroix. We were like, “You just borrowed a dress?!” We both went in jeans and T-shirts; we had no idea.
Besides Stephen, any other pivotal encounters from the early days?
Inez: A mutual friend introduced us at a party to M/M Paris’s two art directors, Mathias Augustyniak and Michael Amzalag. Shortly after, the same friend said, “Oh, you’ve got to check out this young kid who’s the new designer at Balenciaga.” So we went to see Nicolas Ghesquière. We immediately became friends and started working with Nicolas in Paris on Balenciaga campaigns. Yohji Yamamoto and Balenciaga were incredible relationships—so free and inspiring, almost like making movies. All the rules were different then!
Is it hard to be creative now that so much more is expected—and expected faster?
Inez: It depends on the job. If you have a real rapport with the designer, you construct the whole thing together, like we do with Stefano Pilati. But now, so many projects start with a video, from which the print campaign images are derived.
Vinoodh: It’s a lot more work, but thank God for our way of working! From the beginning, we’ve approached everything like a movie. It makes it so much easier.
How did shooting those early campaigns compare to editorial work?
Vinoodh: When we shot for Yohji, we thought of it as an art project. We wrote a whole synopsis of the campaign’s woman, looked for locations, did light testing, everything. In those days, we’d only do one or two campaigns a season.
How were you navigating the biz back then?
Vinoodh: Another very important thing in the ’90s was meeting our agent, Jae Choi.
Inez: We immediately connected with her. She paid her dues as an assistant, and when she started her own entity, we immediately went with her. We’ve had an incredible working relationship: She’s very straightforward, extremely organized, and good at seeing the big picture. That’s so key in our profession. Things can get ramped up because of emotions. There are a lot of politics. Jae keeps it all calm and straight. She’s the third brain that keeps things together.
Tell us about your other projects in the ’90s.
Vinoodh: The highest of the highest of the pyramid was doing Calvin Klein in 1999.
Inez: It was sort of the finishing school of fashion photography. Calvin was still at the brand; we learned so much from him. He was so driven, focused, and motivated—he completely understood what his brand needed. He’d call me at night and say, “Inez, you have to find me a new Brooke Shields.”
Vinoodh: Calvin was also very honest. He said the brand needed a real makeover, a boost, to revamp everything.
Inez: We were the people to make it cool again.
How did you do it?
Inez: We found Jessica Miller through a casting, and we knew we’d found the new Calvin girl. We were so inspired by the way Jessica moved. That was also the first time we worked with our choreographer, Stephen Galloway, who was a dancer at William Forsythe’s Ballet in Frankfurt. We thought the campaign needed a lot of body positioning; it felt different from a regular fashion shoot. Jessica and Stephen completely gelled—she was a very good dancer, and it just came together in such a wonderful way. That shoot informed the body language of our work from then on.
What was the next big campaign coup?
Inez: Gucci. We did one campaign with Tom Ford—he’s very opinionated and strong. It always works best for us when someone really knows what their brand needs to be, clicks with us, and you arrive at a really great image. We were working with Kate Moss. You put the clothes on her and she immediately knows how to move to make them look incredible. We also worked with Melanie Ward for styling, Lisa Butler for makeup, and Eugene Souleiman for hair.
What else happened in the early aughts?
Inez: A Louis Vuitton campaign with Christy Turlington, Kate Moss, and Stephanie Seymour. People still talk to us about that campaign—it was so new for the brand, so different. That’s when we met Stephanie and Christy. They are supermodels for a reason! We’ve shot Christy for so long.
Is she your go-to mod?
Inez: I mean, if someone told us, “You can only shoot Christy for the rest of your life,” we’d be like, “Fine!”
Vinoodh: She has no fear.
Inez: There’s complete confidence and trust. Apart from being an incredible model, she decided at some point, “Okay, people know me, I’m beautiful, and with that I want to help people.” She’s such a full realization of herself. Gisele [Bündchen] is the same way. I could spend days with her! She’s always funny and happy. Well, if I looked like Gisele, I would be, too. She’s got an incredible presence.
What’s Gisele like on a shoot?
Inez: Well, she talks a lot.
Vinoodh: It’s her way of losing weight. She always says, “I talk so much, I can eat anything!” It’s true. She arrives at a shoot talking, and she leaves talking.
Inez: Two years ago, we shot Gisele for French Vogue. We had to drive to the location, and she insisted on driving the car herself. She’s talking the whole ride over, with her head turned around. We were like, “Gisele, please, look at the road!” She was just loving life, interested in everything and everyone.
Enlighten us: Who does what on a shoot, exactly?
Inez: That’s always the question! We shoot at the same time; outdoors, we both use Canon cameras. Vinoodh moves around more and shoots from all different angles. I usually find my shot and stay there. It’s the same in the studio, but I’ll use a Hasselblad. I direct and engage the model, have her look at the camera, while Vinoodh walks around and gets different kinds of pictures. More voyeuristic, introverted images. Between the two of us, we always have the picture!
How did you whip up this technique?
Inez: I used to take pictures, while Vinoodh would function as art director. In 2000, we were shooting Charlotte Gainsbourg for Harper’s Bazaar with Melanie Ward, and our lighting director had ordered me a new camera. I didn’t really want to try the camera, but Vinoodh wanted to play with it. His pictures were amazing, and that was it!
Vinoodh: Then, we photographed Tom Cruise for the first time, for Talk; the same photos later ran in W. Tom was unaware I was shooting, and in the end we chose all my pictures. It was a softer, more intimate vision. The photos were pretty sexy.
Who else makes up your team?
Vinoodh: We’ve worked with our whole team of people for years. Our lighting director, Jodokus Driessen, has been with us for 22 years! He lives in Holland and flies all over the world—wherever we are, he comes to do the lights on our shoot.
What has been the most joyous part of working in tandem?
Inez: Life is too short not to experience everything together. We feel very blessed. People ask, “How do you do it?” Well, “How do you not do it?!”
Vinoodh: If you find someone you really, really like, don’t you want to spend time together?
Have you ever considered doing solo projects?
Inez and Vinoodh: No.
Inez: We don’t really see the need to.
Walk us through your more recent work.
Inez: We decided four years ago to focus on video, relatively early on. We built a team, because we thought that’s what [the industry] would really want. And that’s what happened. Until the RED camera came along—which is so easy to shoot, so lightweight—the process of shooting with a big movie camera was very tedious and took a long time. There’s an element of spontaneity in fashion photography; reacting to a moment is essential to our work.
Vinoodh: Another big moment was our opening at Gagosian Gallery in L.A. last summer.
Inez: Looking at our work in a gallery and getting someone else’s opinion on it has helped us look at it in a different way. It’s been thrilling.
Lately you’ve had some intriguing side projects, like your fragrance debut last year.
Vinoodh: The idea has been around since the ’90s! Then we met Ben [Gorham] from Byredo, and he asked us to do a fragrance for him. We showed him the image, and thought the smell should be of dark amber and berries.
Inez: There’s a double layer to the image: She has this sweetness, but also this darker side. The red lips, her eyes rolled back… That’s what our work is about: dualistic forces. The scent first started as a Christmas gift for friends only.
Vinoodh: Everybody was like, “Wow, it smells so good, I need more!” We did it again the next Christmas in travel size, and people really loved the smell.
How did your jewelry collection come about?
Inez: Vinoodh wanted to make me a present when our son turned 10. We’d worked with Ten Thousand Things on a charity project for the past two years, so Vinoodh asked them to make a necklace based on our wedding rings, with a star, because our son’s name is Charles Star, and 10 stones, for his age. When I was wearing it, people were always asking me where I got it. So we made it into a collection.
How about your jeans collab with Frame Denim?
Vinoodh: For many years, I was looking for perfectly fitting black jeans. Erik Torstensson from Frame was like, “Why don’t you make a pair?” and I said, “Yes, why not?”