van Lamsweerde

The world’s best fashion photographer

Issue n° 2, Autumn & Winter 2010

As a disco-dancing, punk-loving teenager in Amsterdam, Inez van Lamsweerde launched herself into a career in fashion with some zeal. Now 46 and the industry’s most powerful image-maker, she is responsible for defining what fashion looks like, season after season. Her vast back catalogue reflects not just one style but a total fashion photography universe, so seamlessly can she slip between the high-production commercial shoots, intimate portraits and informal street snaps that describe each style epoch.

Working together from New York City, van Lamsweerde and her husband, Vinoodh Matadin, not only share the longest photographers’ credit in the business but also its most prestigious advertising clients and magazine assignments. Inez is a passionate leader of a small army of loyal collaborators and has the mesmeric ability to extract the extraordinary and unique from everybody around her. And while her images are wildly diverse in discipline and form, they always have a sense of disturbance that places them well beyond the merely beautiful and glamorous.

Inez van Lamsweerde is sitting in a chair on the southwest corner of the Place de la Concorde in Paris, improvising some moves with the Brazilian model Isabeli Fontana. Removing her aviator sunglasses to make eye contact with her young charge, then fixing her gaze on the end of her own camera lens, Inez splays her fingers, grasps the arms of the chair and gets up, shaking her extremely long hair dramatically from side to side. Legs wide apart in slim blue jeans, she juts her prominent hip bones, twists her torso and raises her elbows whilst slowly scraping her hands over face and head. She turns back to Isabeli for evidence of recognition and says to her, “You know? Fashion.

The sequence is to be part of a short film for Paris Vogue’s new iPad application, shot in tandem with the cover story for the magazine’s 90th anniversary issue. It is the dream editorial assignment for any fashion photographer, even one of the most sought-after, critically fêted and highest paid image-makers in the field. And at the epicentre stands Inez. The 40-strong team is pulling out all stops to recreate all the bonkers clichés of a classic high-production location shoot on an overcast June morning. The assistants are firing up an outdoor smoke machine in front of the yellow trailer that doubles a portable digital studio and photographic backdrop, whilst talking through the logistics of the burning car wreck scheduled for tomorrow’s finale. Forewarned that crewmembers would be included in the photographs, veteran hair stylist Christiaan Houtenbos has arrived in a fluorescent orange Calvin Klein suit to perform his duties; in one shot he is accompanied by a brace of fashion assistants wearing specially printed Vogue T-shirts. Meanwhile Isabeli, along with two more of Inez’s favourite subjects, Natasha Poly and Anja Rubik, is continuing to hold her pose from the last Chanel-themed photograph ahead of her movie close-up. A crowd of whispering Japanese tourists gathers, to the delight of Paris Vogue stylist Emmanuelle Alt; she squeals and holds her thumbs up to Inez, who dashes over to her portable iPod player.

With ‘Controversy’ by Prince now blaring over the Paris traffic, she ducks back under the spider dolly holding her camera, which has just been switched from a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III stills outfit to a Red MX movie camera. She takes a sideways glance at her husband, Vinoodh Matadin, who is standing behind his own camera, angled to shoot around the side of Inez’s lens. Then in perfect synchronicity, Inez and Vinoodh both rock forward onto the balls of their feet and hunch down into their respective viewfinders. “OK, Beli,” says Inez to the model in a voice that is almost imperceptible over the music. Still peering down the lens, she raises her forefinger into the air slowly, in an almost shamanic gesture. “Focus. This time with the Steadicam.”

A portfolio of self-portraits by Inez van Lamsweerde, photographed both in the studio and on the streets of New York City with her photographic team. Inez is wearing a capsule wardrobe created for her by Hannah MacGibbon at Chloé.

I’ve been listening to Inez’s voice for years – a sighing hybrid of her native Dutch and assumed New Yorker that purrs through the sinuses, never roaring from the diaphragm. I have witnessed its power to mesmerise and control several times. In her impromptu short film of Kate Moss hosted by in 2002, the cadence and musicality of Inez’s voice persuade her slightly tipsy subject to reinterpret the dance sequence to ‘Billie Jean’. Beyond its initial charm, it also serves as an example of how a great photographer can elicit a performance simply through altering the inflection of her voice. And I have hours of Inez’s recorded speech on file from the various phone interviews we’ve done together. Fascinating gems like why she prefers not to cast anyone under the age of eighteen who hasn’t had sex yet for a fashion photograph, and highly quotable musings on whether the armpit is more beautiful to photograph than the nostril.

But Inez and I had never actually met. When we finally do, as a prelude to our scheduled conversation in Amsterdam later in the month, she is staring desperately into the fridge in the trailer on the Place de la Concorde, wondering aloud if there’s anything she can eat for lunch. I watched her stalk the tables of delicious salads, meats and fruit tarts without partaking of any of it. “I’m in the miserable phase of an exclusion diet,” she explains, “and with all this going on, I don’t manage to eat until I’m hypoglycaemic.” At last the producer brings her a plastic tub of rocket leaves and she wolfs them down whilst standing. Inez is quite tall, 176cm out of her dove-grey New Balance trainers, but then, I’d been expecting a giantess as magnificent and unworldly as the creatures in her pictures. Certainly she has an imposing presence and, at 46, a striking, adult beauty. Those large, feline eyes that never seem to blink are so memorable that, in 1993, Inez and Vinoodh made them the subject of the artwork ‘Jessica with My Eyes’, removing the eyes from a portrait of Inez and sticking them over those in a print of her best friend. Even without the title caption, there’s no question whose intense gaze you’re locked into.

Yet Inez is also delicate, feminine and very slender. She says she has been feeling tired lately and she’s looking into possible dietary causes. Not to mention the 150 shoot days per year she works on up to 110 projects for advertising clients including Yves Saint Laurent, Chloé, Isabel Marant, Balmain and Dior Jewelry as well as editorial assignments for magazines such as US Vogue, Paris Vogue and W. Plus all the necessary long-haul flights, prep, meetings and admin. Then there is the small matter of the mammoth book she and Vinoodh have been labouring over for the past seven years. And next, Pretty Much Everything Photographs 1985–2010, the associated major retrospective this summer at the Foam photography museum in their hometown of Amsterdam. It’s a lot to carry on those shoulders. But you get the sense that Inez likes to work.

Inez with her agent Jae Choi on Fifth Avenue. Just visible between them are Inez’s driver, Gregory, and studio manager, Marc Kroop.

Inez was born in 1963 and grew up with her mother, the fashion journalist and illustrator Clementine van Lamsweerde. They lived in a house in Amsterdam that Inez now owns and recently renovated but never stays in. Her father, a famous Dutch TV personality, departed before Inez arrived, so mother and daughter have enjoyed a close relationship. The bohemian Clementine gave young Inez a great deal of freedom on the proviso that she took complete responsibility for her own decisions. Faced with a choice of guilt-free hedonism versus academia, the disco-loving, punk-clad teenage Inez took the harder path. She applied herself to get into the vogue academy of fashion in Amsterdam, where she studied fashion design (1983–85), and then at the prestigious Gerrit Rietveld Academie (1985–90), where she studied photography. Captivated by the style press explosion occurring in London at that time, Inez was confident she would spend her future life in the UK. With the help of a press card from an obscure Dutch magazine, she made regular trips to London Fashion Week. She got dressed up to tough it out next to the professional photographers and stand at the sides of catwalks with her flashless Pentax, shooting snapshots of her favourite outfits. Returning to Amsterdam, she gave slideshows of fashions by Bodymap and Westwood to her classmates, and even of Galliano’s legendary first show. Inez dreamed of assisting Nick Knight and saw him once when he had the appointment after her to see Isabella Blow at Tatler, but she was too afraid to approach him.

Concluding she probably wasn’t the assisting type in any case, Inez accepted her own commissions, photographing the Lawina clothing line by designer and fellow student at the fashion academy Vinoodh Matadin in 1986. Vinoodh started working as Inez’s part-time stylist soon after and, once free from previous relationships, the pair became lovers in 1991. A year-long residency awarded to Inez by the Brooklyn site of the Museum of Modern Art, P.S.1, took them both to New York in 1992. There, a tough, lonely and impoverished year of unreturned calls forced them to hatch a new game plan. With Vinoodh now finished with designing and on the advice of Patrick Demarchelier’s agent, Bryan Bantry, they returned to Amsterdam to build up a sufficient profile for New York agents to take them seriously.

Back in the Netherlands, Inez and Vinoodh set out to introduce elements of the provocative art projects they had made in New York to the fashion arena whose affirmation they so craved. They used the innovative Paintbox digital software they had employed in Brooklyn to remove the nipples and orifices of nudes in their 1993 Thank You Thighmaster series and started crafting fantastical tableaux that flew in the face of fashion photography during the so-called grunge era. A landmark series published as For Your Pleasure in the April 1994 issue of The Face provoked a slew of commissions for the duo’s signature blend of kitsch backgrounds, shiny surfaces, full-face maquillage and erotic glamour. Then the US Vogue commissions arrived. Their triumphant return to New York was by then assured, and Inez and Vinoodh haven’t really looked back until now, in preparation for their retrospective.

The Foam galleries are located in a 17th-century townhouse on Keizersgracht, one of Amsterdam’s main canals. Arriving for a sneak preview of the show before the interview, I meet Mathias Augustyniak, one half of the M/M (Paris) design partnership, with whom Inez and Vinoodh have collaborated since the mid-’90s. Starting out with creative advertising campaigns for Yohji Yamamoto, the group went on to develop audacious visual languages for Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga and for Paris Vogue, where the conventional sanctity of the photographic print was sacrificed in ambitious collages and photo alphabets that carved up faces into symbols and typography. Mathias is just putting the finishing touches to an installation of new posters for which Inez and Vinoodh’s celebrity portraits have been turned into punctuation marks. He proudly relates his concept for the exhibition’s hang while attaching the giant full stop that is Mickey Rourke’s face to the wall.

The 300 framed works, among which are ten silkscreens created specially by Warhol’s printer Eugene Licht, four short films, seven original Polaroids and twelve “sculptographs” made in collaboration with Inez’s sculptor uncle Eugene van Lamsweerde, are not grouped according to any chronological or thematic scheme. As in the forthcoming book, the pictures are imagined as an endlessly looping sequence of pairs that are related by formal similarities and subtle visual tricks. An arm might leave the edge of one image, for instance, and then a different hand enter the border of the next.

The exhibit is impressive – not just in the vast range of work but also in how eloquently it reflects the dual aspects of Inez’s universe. On one hand, it tells a love story. The opening image is Me Kissing Vinoodh, Passionately (1999), in which Vinoodh has been digitally erased from the picture to leave Inez’s profile etched away in the places where they had once overlapped. This image of vulnerability is corrected by the one that closes the show, Me Kissing Vinoodh, Eternally (2010), where Inez’s body is covered in red paint, as if flayed. Vinoodh is literally under her skin forever. From a curatorial perspective, though, the exhibition is also a valuable summation of the tale of fashion photography over the past three decades – its infatuation with digital manipulation during the ’90s and then its return to classical portraiture at the end of that decade; its fleeting resemblance to constructed art photography in the early ’00s and the growing focus on celebrity as a subject;and then most recently, the burgeoning obsession with fashion film. Inez and Vinoodh anticipated, interrogated and defined every one of these aesthetic developments. What’s more, they’ve somehow managed to run a highly successful parallel career as artists, represented by Matthew Marks Gallery in New York, never constrained by the traditional boundaries between the two.

Inez and her photographic team in front of 65 Jane Street, where she and Vinoodh lived from 1992–93, when they first arrived in New York. From left to right, digital technician Brian Anderson, lighting technician Jodokus Driessen and camera assistants Joe Hume and Shoji Van Kuzumi.

Inez comes striding into the gallery in Cartier sunglasses, jeans and a little red-and-blue bouclé jacket by Isabel Marant. She puts her hands on my shoulders softly, the way I’d seen her pat Isabeli, Anja and Natasha on the set of the Vogue shoot.
“So...have you spoken to your husband yet?”
I struggle to catch on.
“About having a child?”
Ah, yes. No.
Backtrack to Paris and the epic fashion spectacular I had witnessed nine days prior. On the evening of the shoot, Inez and Vinoodh had taken us all to dinner at Le Georges, the restaurant at the top of the Centre Pompidou, as a thank-you to the Red camera crew. Inez is a generous hostess and very concerned that everyone enjoy themselves. In advance of the camera operators arriving, she fretted that she had offered them a similar menu the previous night at Café Costes. Intuitively observing that my French didn’t extend to most of the dishes described, she was keen that I try the steak she was having. Then she was visibly happy that I joined her in a post-prandial green tea rather than the universal cafés noisette. So when we got to chatting about her son Charles Star Matadin and the joys of motherhood, Inez’s attention immediately switched to panicking that I might be leaving it a bit late myself.
“You have to have a child! What age are you?”
“Oh my God, you’ve got to have one now.”
Ever vigilant, Vinoodh intervened. “You were older than that.”
“I was 38, 39 – Charles was born one month before I turned 40.”
Rather than raise the possibility that I might not want what she describes as her greatest achievement, I bluffed. I’m not sure I could afford it, I responded.
“Doesn’t matter. You have to. You’re a woman, Penny. You’ll find a way.”

Back in Amsterdam, it’s hardly surprising we spend most of the afternoon talking about strong women and their bodies. Inez has brought an iPad loaded with the self-portraits she has made for us and talks me through them whilst sitting in the walled garden to the rear of the gallery. She has been photographed by several of the pre-eminent portraitists of the 20th century, Philip Mechanicus and Helmut Newton among them, so she didn’t feel that merely revealing what she looks like was much of a stretch. Hence the beard, I guess. “The portraits with the beard are, for me, about my whole obsession with dualism: the beautiful and the grotesque, being repulsed and attracted, androgyny.” The images are an homage to Helmut Newton’s famous portrait of Paloma Picasso, but whereas Paloma wore a monocle, Inez prefers the “gender-eradicating” power of facial hair. “Then there’s that very feminine gesture with the hands, referencing Dutch painting. There’s almost no portrait where I don’t ask the sitter at some point if I can see this.” Inez holds up the palm of her hand and curls her thumb toward her baby finger so that the pads of flesh between them form soft pink ravines. “It’s a very open gesture, like giving up protection. I love seeing those lines.”

I ask Inez if she thinks her female subjects give up the same things to her that they would to a male photographer. “There’s definitely not the same ‘seductional aspect’,” she says. “When Vinoodh points his camera at a girl it gets a different reaction, that’s for sure.”
Isn’t that odd, when she’s standing right next to him?
“No, I understand it. It’s the same with me. If I have a male model in front of me, I react differently. The attraction thing is always there. My taste in women is much broader because they’re there from a visual point of view.” Though her images are often erotic, they are never straightforwardly sexy. “My pictures are ambivalent because I wish there was a way to counter how girls are pushed into pleasing the male gaze. They think they’re empowered by dressing provocatively, that they’re in control, but actually, I’m not so sure.”

The idea of women lowering themselves is repugnant to Inez in general. So much so that she admits sotto voce that she actually prefers the company of men.
Isn’t that the ultimate betrayal, a women-hating woman?
“It isn’t that at all,” she says. “I like women who have opinions, who aren’t” – she bows her head and mimics someone holding out a trembling plate, like a nervous servant – “‘Would you like more of this, Inez, is this OK for you?’ I’m allergic. It’s mortifying. No woman should be like that.

And men should?
“Guys handle it better, with humour, men are usually less...”
“Exactly. I’m never like that to anyone. Not even Sophia Loren.”

Inez with Vinoodh, about whom she says: “He gives me something that no one else can: he is never boring.”

Like many women who are admired for being serious and powerful, the surprising thing about Inez is that she loves to be teased. Today is a good day; she’s heard from her New York doctor that she can at last reintroduce tomatoes to her diet, and Mathias and her studio manager, Marc Kroop, make her laugh like a drain over lunch by gently ribbing her about the regime. It’s difficult to know where the line is, though, I suggest. Surely she can see why one might think she’d be offended by over-familiarity? “Yeah, but I don’t mind that.” Inez tells me the moment she realised she loved living in New York was when she was pregnant and passers-by on the street would shout at her (she puts on her most nasal American accent) “‘Bless your belly, honey!’”

Inez spends a good hour lovingly detailing what makes each member of her team featured in the pictures so invaluable to her – from Jodokus Driessen, the brilliant lighting expert who flies from Amsterdam to every one of their shoots and Jae Choi, the fantastically loyal and inventive agent, to the beloved driver Gregory, who ferries them around at all hours and is even trusted with Charles. Inez asks a great deal of people, but unlike many in her position, she clearly feels the burden of that responsibility. I ask her how long her assistants stay with her – is it the usual two- or three-year stretch? She looks at me blankly. “I can’t imagine anyone ever leaving us. I’m careful when I hire someone, because for me, it’s for life. We treat everyone like us, you know, we’re all in the same hotel.” The entire entourage is currently checked into the deluxe five-star Amstel. “I mean, I’d be devastated.” She likens it to her relationships with brands. “It’s always a shock when people say, ‘Oh, we’ve decided to book another photographer.’ We’re like, ‘Why? We were all into it.’” She was thrilled, therefore, to order a Chloé tuxedo to wear in the shoot in celebration of their return to shooting the company’s campaigns after a two-year hiatus.

She won’t name one particular Gollum who stalks her career, picking up the jobs she couldn’t fit in or the clients that couldn’t afford her, but Inez concedes that she is competitive. “I remember in the early days in New York, we would see Craig McDean’s work for Jil Sander and the amazing things David Sims was doing and we would say, ‘Wow, we want that too. We want a Yohji.’ You want to keep doing better work than everyone else. You want to keep making amazing photographs.” Inez gets excited when she can prove that a product is selling well because of an image she and Vinoodh made. “Oh, yeah, it’s wonderful, it’s amazing. I love it. That is why we’re there.” Presumably their own financial gain is also an incentive. It is rumoured that Inez and Vinoodh command an astronomical daily fee – the highest in the industry – for advertising work. “I have only ever wanted enough money to feel free, to say, ‘OK, tomorrow I want to go to India and sit on a mountain and do yoga for a year,’” she says. “And I think Vinoodh feels the same. As long as we are free to be in this hotel or go on that holiday. We have an amazing apartment in New York, a house in Paris and one in the Hamptons, but they’re not essential to me.” That said, with a work ethic like hers, Inez never would go and do yoga on a mountain for a year.
“We work a lot, yeah.”
You don’t have to, though, do you?
“I don’t know if I don’t have to, you know, that’s it. I kind of don’t know. I think I do. To keep the people I’m responsible for. There’s a big pool of people now that depend on us for their salaries and I need to be able to get my son to a good school. I think I do have to.”

Inez and Vinoodh have spared no expense on the grand opening of their exhibition. With colleagues, friends and family flying in from around the world, the pair have chartered two barges to carry them along the canal from the exhibition, out across a river to a vast restaurant* where a lavish feast has been laid on long tables. All the editors, art directors, stylists and models who have worked with Inez and Vinoodh are in attendance; the hall acts as a mini-map of the industry. France is in one section, America in another; the Brits are in the corner and the Dutch at the bar. It’s not until dancing breaks out that the cultures mix, like a big fashion wedding. And in a way, this is Inez and Vinoodh’s wedding reception. They married spontaneously, one morning at City Hall in New York before going on holiday to Bali in 1999 – yet never before have they experienced the coming together of everyone they know in celebration of their amazing partnership.

Emmanuelle Alt and Raquel Zimmerman lose themselves in ‘We Are Family’ as Jae Choi and syndication mogul Matt Moneypenny enter the floor for ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’’. Creative directors Stephen Gan and Thomas Lenthal watch approvingly as Lee Swillingham from Love takes Yves Saint Laurent’s Anoushka Borghesi for a turn. I look for Inez and see her dancing with little Charles in the wings, looking on to see everyone having fun, and I wonder which of us is going to pluck up the courage to ask her to dance. It is M/M (Paris)’s Mathias Augustyniak who finally cuts through the crowd and reaches out a hand to drag her into the throng. She doesn’t need asking twice. With Charles swiftly secured on Vinoodh’s shoulders, Inez is in like a shot. To the opening notes of ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’, she squares shoulders with choreographer Steven Galloway, like a couple bowing before a waltz. Then both disappear in a whirl of hair, arching hands, extravagant gestures and, you know, fashion.

Hair: Christiaan. Make-up: Tom Pecheux. Manicure: Deborah Lippman. Lighting direction: Jodokus Driessen. Digital operation: Brian Anderson. Photographic assistance: Shoji Van Kuzumi, Joe Hume. Make-up assistance: Junko Kioka. Production: Gabriel Hill at GE Projects. Production assistance: Roger Dong, Anton Sevensson. Thanks to Jae Choi and Brenda Brown at theCollectiveShift, Marc Kroop at VLM Studio.

This profile was originally published in The Gentlewoman n° 2, Autumn & Winter 2010.