Influenced by fine art and the unexpected outcomes of her photography, Eva Vermandel talks us through her compelling journey as an established photographer. Photographing icons such as Amy Winehouse and Matt Damon, she has divided her work between editorial work and fine art. Vermandel discusses her love for photography, triggering different responses, and how landscape painters inspire her. With an upcoming exhibition at Watou Arts Festival, running July 3rd- September 5th, we come to understand Vermandel’s artistry on a deeper level.
Your practice is described as exploring how we perceive the world, drawing on phenomenology and its notion of epoché: the suspension of normality. Is this something you have always wanted your photography to embody?
Hahaha, no. I just set out taking pictures, and over the many years of taking pictures (25 professionally, 40-ish if you start counting from when I first picked up a camera) the mystery of why certain images work and others don’t only deepens. It’s in trying to untangle that mystery, or rather, not untangle it, but trying to get a grip on what they could potentially mean and why, that I fell into the dark rabbit-hole of philosophy, and more precisely phenomenology.
It fascinates me why a photograph of a chair shot by Peter Hujar can trigger a completely different response in the viewer from a chair shot for an Ikea catalogue. Why is it that certain images are ‘charged’ emotionally, especially when you use a tool as ‘direct’ as a camera? In painting the wide and varied techniques that come with the medium enable this freedom to create an emotional charge in the work. But a photograph is meant to be a direct representation of what the photographer sees and it is therefore often seen as ‘the truth’ though this is clearly not the case.
Once you start exploring this it’s easy to start digging deeper and look into how we experience the world. Concepts like “is a chair still a chair if we can’t experience it with our senses?” suddenly become intriguing. Is there such a thing as the noumenon, a concept that is just a concept in itself, that doesn’t need to be experienced with our senses to exist?
I hint at these things through creating confusion within the work: it often has contradictory elements within it, generating tensions that require time and focus to make sense of. The subject matter of my work is both banal and otherworldly. I hope it makes people stop in their tracks and look in wonder at the mundane things in life that would otherwise pass them by. And most of all: I hope it creates an emotional response in them. 
You moved from Belgium to London in 1996, what prompted you to start your career in London?
From when I was a small child I was an Anglophile and wanted to live in Britain. I’ve always said I am a ‘transcountrial’: born in the wrong country. My love of The Smiths played a big part in this, as did British culture in general and its humour. Since Brexit this love got quite a dent though, as an EU citizen living in the UK, it’s been tough having had rights taken away from me in the wake of it. And not being in the customs union anymore creates huge problems for the creative industries. Thankfully London is still a brilliantly multicultural city and a good counterweight to all this.
Works Eva Vermandel Alice Vicky.jpg
Your first monograph, Splinter, in 2013 with Hatje Cantz is atmospheric, concise recordings of rooms that are formed by the persons who inhabit them – living, sleeping, working. What inspired you to create a series of contemporary distilled images?
Interesting, I’ve never seen it as a collection of rooms. Maybe you’re hinting at the inner space within someone’s head? Many shots were taken outdoors.
Like all of my work, I didn’t have much of a say in how it came about. The work came to me, I didn’t force it in any way, I just let it happen. Buying a 150mm lens for my Mamiya 7 set it all in motion. This lens, which is quite a tricky one to use because the focus is slightly off, flattened everything nicely, making my images look like cardboard cutouts all stacked up against one another. This is something I love in the early Renaissance paintings of the Flemish Primitives and the Italians too.
The works mostly stumbled into my life, I would go out looking for them but then once they were there it was as if they invited me over to capture them. I don’t even know what inspired me to shoot them the way I did: the Flemish Primitives definitely, also Bronzino and Dutch landscape painters like Jacob Van Ruisdael, whose tranquility I love. There’s a piece in the Scottish National Gallery by a Dutch painter, Hendrick Ten Oever, called Canal Landscape with Figures Bathing which I go to see every time I head to Edinburgh. It’s a bit clumsy in its execution, the figures aren’t exactly right, but the atmosphere of it draws you in completely. It’s also very odd to see naked figures in a non-religious painting of that era. In my work I want to create a world people are absorbed into when viewing it, not necessarily in the most comfortable way.
Your last monograph was curated over several years, do you have any plans for a future monograph?
No. I’m actually not a buyer of photography books, if I buy an art book it tends to be a catalogue of an exhibition I visited that left a mark on me. I think the photobook has become a trope that is something that ‘you need to do’ as a photographer, alongside doing ‘projects’, another thing I’m not a big fan of, not as a general rule anyway. I think work needs to develop as it comes, and for some people it’ll then turn into a book or it will be shaped within the framework of a project, for others it’ll take on a different form.
I see my ‘works’ as I prefer to call my photographs as solo objects that can be shown in different combinations, not a rigidly fixed order. The reason why I prefer the term ‘works’ over ‘photographs’ is because I do so much work in post-production that the prints are often more akin to painting than photography. I also like the fact that ‘work’ is a verb, it’s something that keeps evolving. Like Pierre Bonnard, who was known for showing up at his own exhibitions paintbrush-in-hand to add more touches to his paintings, I’m someone who reviews and reworks prints, subtly, over time. The way I present work is also dependent on the space it’ll be shown in, so one work can be shown in different ways of framing/non-framing depending on where it is presented.
The main platform I use to show my work on is my website. I had the great luck of meeting Giorgio Del Buono of Systems Studio at a PV of a Guido Guidi exhibition at Large Glass Gallery in London a couple of years ago and he ended up designing my website. We both came up with the randomised way of presenting the Selected sections for Works and Portraits, which ensures the photographs are always shown in a different order whenever the page is reloaded. That way you can see certain links, overlaps and echoes between different photographs crop up by sheer fluke. It gives the work space to breathe and develop further, and it helps you see things you would not have seen otherwise. It fits my work perfectly.
At the time I made Splinter I was still thinking in a much more linear way. These days my approach comes from a constellation perspective, with different elements throwing often contradictory ways of thinking together and no fixed time-frame underpinning it. We don’t live our lives in a linear way, even though we think we do. Our personality is in big part constructed by memories: life is built on our experiences which we try to make sense of in hindsight. Like Kierkegaard said: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” When we look back, life is not remembered as linear, it’s all bits and fragments that come at us randomly and shape us that way.
As much as I loved working on Splinter, and I was very happy to publish it with Hatje Cantz when Markus Hartmann was still at the helm, a man I have a lot of admiration for, I just can’t see the point of doing a book now. About 4 to 5 years ago when I was considering doing another book, I had a very enlightening conversation with Grégoire Pujade-Lauraine and that was the point that I realised I didn’t want to do another photobook, unless it was a catalogue that came with a substantial exhibition. When I met Giorgio Del Buono a bit later on, things all crystalised into his brilliant design for my website.
Another reason for me not to do books unless it’s really necessary is that I prefer trees as they are, in the woods. The photobook is made from precious material and that is something that often gets forgotten. The more we ensure we only create a book if the work is calling out for it, the more it will be treated with the love and care it deserves.
Your photography embraces references to paintings, much like flemish painting technique, what about fine art inspires your photography?
Given the choice between an exhibition of paintings or photographs I’ll always go for the former. Painters like Paul Nash or Alice Neel and especially Edvard Munch have fed into my work substantially. They manage to represent the human condition to such a point that identifying in it as a viewer feels akin to diving into it, like a swimmer. This is what I want to achieve in my work too.
Works Eva Vermandel Harvest.jpg
Your photography also reminds me of Francesca Woodman, is your work inspired by any photographers?
Yes it is: I do love Francesca Woodman, and I also love Roy DeCarava, Peter Hujar, William Eggleston, Imogen Cunningham, Julia Margaret Cameron, Dave Heath, Thomas Ruff, Guido Guidi, Luigi Ghirri, Joanna Piotrowska and Wolfgang Tillmans. I am not sure how much they inspire me, [but some] bits definitely do. Inspiration comes from many different sources: art, politics, philosophy, daily life... that all gets mashed up and spat out again anew.
Do you research and plan shoots or do you prefer to be more spontaneous, as you like to capture intimate moments?
I don’t research or plan in advance. I work with things as they present themselves and the research comes afterwards. All of my research is me trying to make sense of my own work. I often don’t understand it myself, and I don’t want to understand it fully, I don’t want to smother it by over-explaining it. But it’s gratifying to find common threads between different works, and to hear people respond to my work in ways that I recognise and know that I’ve communicated something through the work that is normally uncommunicable. That deep human connection you can achieve through art is golden.
It's been stated you use Portra 800 film, rather than digital, why do you prefer using film?
Up untill now it’s been the only way I can achieve the colour palette I like to work with, maybe it’ll change in the future, I do worry about the environmental impact of photographic chemicals. I also work with Ilford HP5 and a lot of my more recent work is shot in black and white. The creation of the work is only part-analogue: I shoot on negatives, the rest of the process is all digital. I scan my negatives and then work on them in Photoshop. Some works take years, literally, to finalise. It’s a long slow process of working on a scan, letting it rest, reviewing it again, doing a test print, reviewing it, doing more work in Photoshop, on and on.
For instance the print for Alice and Vicky, Stroud Green took me 4 years and two different scans, first a drum scan then an Imacon scan (the method I prefer) to finalise. It’s all about subtle small changes in tone and density and the odd bit of cloning away of details I don’t want to have in the work. I have no problems with that whatsoever, I’m not one of those photographer purists who think that only a direct print of an uncropped image is ‘real’. I very much doubt the ‘realness’ of photography anyway: as soon as you take a camera out you change the dynamics of a situation and start manipulating it.
Watou Eva Vermandel Swimmer 247.jpg
You have shot with a variety of sitters, is there one you have enjoyed the most?
So many. The more recent ones I enjoyed a lot were Charles Dance for the FT Magazine who was a hoot and showed up in shorts with his shirt unbuttoned, no pretense whatsoever, and Joanna Newsom and James Thierrée for Sydney Festival 40 Portraits. All those shoots were in the sitters’ homes which is my favourite place to do portraits. With James Thierrée we ended up doing some sort of Mexican standoff with cameras: along the way he had picked up a camera and pretended to be shooting me. He also climbed onto his washing machine and I threw a pair of socks at him at the end. Wonderful. At the end of my shoot with Joanna Newsom she effortlessly climbed up a tree and seemed to be floating in it like a fairy – it all just happened. Creating a setting where people feel comfortable enough to do things like this is what I love doing most. There are no rules or tricks for it, it all comes to pass on instinct and by fluke.
Are there sitters you would like to photograph in the future?
Viggo Mortensen has long been on my list of favourite people to photograph. Not just because he has such an interesting head to photograph but also because he’s someone who takes risks and follows what he wants to do, not what’s expected from him, and I like meeting people like that. Charlotte Rampling and Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku would also be great. I wish I’d had the chance to photograph Jeff Buckley, Scott Walker, David Bowie and Nina Simone but they died before I had the opportunity.
As an editorial portrait photographer, having collaborated on long-term international projects, do you have any plans for future projects?
I don’t tend to think in terms of projects, I just take pictures and see what happens along the way. I find the project-way of thinking in photography too restrictive. Work needs space to breathe and develop by itself, if you let it.
Portraits Eva Vermandel James Thierree Mirror.jpg
Portraits Eva Vermandel Charles Dance.jpg
Works Eva Vermandel Flowers Living Room.jpg
Portraits Eva Vermandel Joanna Newsom.jpg
Works Eva Vermandel Cloud and Leaf.jpg
Works Eva Vermandel Chair Borgerhout.jpg
Works Eva Vermandel Meat Paris.jpg
Works Eva Vermandel Tree Stroud Green.jpg
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Works Eva Vermandel Swimmer.jpg