Carmen Freudenthal and Elle Verhagen met each other right after graduating art school, Elle as a fashion designer and Carmen as a photographer. When Carmen came to borrow some outfits at the fashion label that employed Elle, the two discovered they had more in common than their alma mater. Their mutual taste about image making and their desire to create a whole image around a garment has resulted in many years of successful collaboration and countless innovative images that break the boundaries between photography and installation.
You have been working together for almost thirty years now, how has your collaboration evolved over this time?
The boundaries between our different disciplines faded very soon after we started working together, and decisions on all aspects of the creative process were taken collectively. This became even more natural when the computer made its entrance. Everything seen through the lens of the camera could be watched on the computer instantly instead of two days later in the lab, and Photoshop made it possible to manipulate images not only in the darkroom, a place reserved only to the photographer.
You are both Dutch and working in the Netherlands. Do you think your nationality has influenced your style of photography?
Dutch people are rather down to earth and there is no real urge to make big fashion statements. We have this saying: “act normal, then you are crazy enough”. If there is a Dutch style, it’s usually clean, graphical, conceptual and realistic; whereas ours was scenic, surreal, multi-layered and often lavish. What certainly had a big impact on our art were the government grant applications; that was the huge advantage of being Dutch and leaving art school in the eighties. These subsidies made it possible to experiment, develop our own style without the need to earn money. We could buy equipment and some of it we are still using. This was invaluable and created the freedom we needed.
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How would you describe a good photograph?
 “A good photograph catches the eye by its light or shape before you wonder about the story and the meaning of it”. We don’t remember who said this, but we totally agree.
Can you tell us a little bit about your image-making process and your collaboration within that?
We collect pictures from books, newspapers, and the Internet and pin all the interesting ones on the wall. These collection changes become smaller until a deadline is in sight and there is no escape and we have to make decisions. During the same time, we think about what kind of technique we want to use and make countless tests. Then, the ingredients have to be put together in the best possible combination.
Your work transcends the boundaries of photography – and statue or installation, for that matter. Was this your aim from the start of your career, or did this develop over time?
Pushing to and crossing the boundaries of photography was our quest from the beginning. Taking a photograph was only a starting point for building an image, which was, preferably, not flat. This image could turn out just to be a collage with tangible layers of paper, but also a fountain with a life-size picture of a woman with water running over her body. We liked the unexpected and the surreal playing around and mixing up all different media, but always started with a picture we took ourselves. The urge of creating something new and unconventional with a photograph never diminished.
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The tactile and 3D aspect of your work continues to tell the story of the photograph, how do you decide on a certain material and application?
Sometimes, we are curious to see the effect of a new material we come across. Then, we think of an image that will work with this technique. Sometimes, there is this picture asking for a certain layer to enhance its appearance or meaning. The most important thing is that it has to excite us because it’s new or different.
How does the way you present the photo in 3D complement the printed image? What new layers of meaning does it add that you’d like to highlight?
By adding a new or unusual medium to the printed image, something that fools the eye and makes people wonder, you force the viewer to take a closer look. It makes the impact of the image stronger and highlights the beauty of the unconventional and unexpected and the importance of thinking outside of the box.
Your latest series, Absorptions, showcases the human body. What inspired this series?
The make-ability and impermanence of the body: to call these subjects obsessions is perhaps a too strong statement, but they do preoccupy our minds. On a certain moment, we were pouring rubber on fabric. It resulted in something that felt and looked just like soft wet flesh. We printed bodies on silk and covered parts with rubber, shaped them, hung or deformed them, visualizing stress and discomfort and decay when the fluid was absorbing parts of the depicted bodies.
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Absorptions questions the idea of ‘the ideal body’. Why do you think this is a relevant topic at the moment?
Almost anything is possible right now. If you watch Ru Paul’s Drag Race, you see guys with Kardashian asses – quite incredible. On the one hand, it is a good thing because an ‘imperfect’ body can cause self-consciousness and loneliness. On the other hand, what is imperfect? People are pack animals, everybody would look the same if the opportunities to change to an ideal image were easy to get. Having wrinkles or sacking skin is the equivalent of being scruffy in certain parts of society, where botox and fillers are as normal as brushing your teeth. With these endless possibilities, even choosing the sex of your baby, for example, it becomes very difficult to feel satisfied.
You also published a book titled Whole. Can you tell us a little more about this? How did you select the images for it?
To celebrate the fact that we were working together for twenty-five years (almost thirty right now), we wanted to publish a book to have nearly everything we did and still liked in one place. We did this together with Karen Heuter, an art director we knew from our work with Kessels Kramer. Editing all these images was the biggest challenge. Since the work is rather diverse and colourful, the risk of becoming too loud and all over the place was very present. Karen came up with the idea to edit to colour, starting with black and ending with white pictures. With this arrangement, series had to be taken apart, therefore creating more emphasis on each picture and generating a nice flow.
You have created a lot of commissioned photography, how does this differ from your personal work?
Our visual style is very outspoken, with a lot going on. Styling and art direction play a very important role, and that’s what clients who approach us ask for. We need and get a lot of freedom to create our own style, so there is not a big difference, really.
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What was one of the most exciting commissioned works you did?
In 2009, Piet Paris, a Dutch illustrator and art director, invited us to create something for the Fashion Biennale in Arnhem (Netherlands). He gave us money, half of the Modern Museum Arnhem, and total freedom. It had to be about fashion and shape, those were the only starting points. This was the chance to finally execute a lot of wild ideas we had been walking around with and show them on a great platform. That was definitely a dream come true.
We built a whole house inside the museum with stairs, different levels and windows, creating the perfect surroundings for all the new works we made. Pictures were singing or breathing, there were strippers and moving furniture. The walk through this ‘holy house’ was an experience, a total concept; the opposite of a white cube. Next to that, our collaboration with Bernhard Willhelm cannot stay unmentioned. Creating the lookbooks for almost ten years never became dull. Together with Bernhard, we did a shoot with Björk, which was commissioned by Dazed & Confused. We shot her in Iceland wearing clothes designed by Bernhard especially for her tour. This all so was a one of a kind experience.
Do you have any new, exciting series or collaborations planned?
We just finalized our latest exhibition, which kept us busy for almost a year. During this process, many ideas, new materials and techniques came up. We had to downscale drastically; now they are there to be explored for our next story.
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