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The Big Box Office Draw

by Jo-Ann Furniss .

With a neat hat tilt, leg waggle and crotch thrust, the static choreography of a van Lamsweerde and Matadin photo shoot has sprung to kinetic life.

'Kate is just incredible at projecting an image. We made the video when we were done shooting for Harper's Bazaar in LA. We were having a few drinks, dancing, it was a just-after-the-shoot thing. Then somebody put Billie Jean on. As soon as it started we kept saying it would be amazing to do a story based on that video. Michael looked so great and the movements were so fantastic, the whole set up. Then Kate started rehearsing for it. That's what is so remarkable about her, she completely channels a character - as you can see, she can even do Michael Jackson. She just goes for it, trying the gestures and moves a couple of times - the hand on the hat, the footwork - and she's just got it. We were all cheering her on. We didn't plan to make a film; it was just fooling around really. But there is one part of the video that you don't see where Kate walks up to the camera and says; 'You're not filming are you?’ Then very reassured adds, ‘Oh, you are. Good.’ It just says something about her, how she is always ready to be on; she is always a star, always posed, it seems almost natural to her. For me she is a Marilyn Monroe for today.' Inez van Lamsweerde

Away from the polish and mannered perfection of many of Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin's images comes Billie Jean. It's a ‘You've Been Framed’ fashion moment, which says as much about the pair's working practice, as it does about how to dance like Jacko while a bit drunk. It is also a touching tribute to an icon, not the veranda-baby-dangler himself, but the greatest living actress in still images of our time: Kate Moss.

Unusually for us, on this occasion Moss is not so still. With a neat hat tilt, leg waggle and crotch thrust, the static choreography of a van Lamsweerde and Matadin photo shoot has sprung to kinetic life. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Billie Jean is how much fun making photographs with the pair looks. Granted, this is the post-shoot party, but it seems a million miles away from the presentation of eerily genetically modified uber-madchens that made van Lamsweerde and Matadin's names as fashion image makers in the mid-nineties. It is that certain cool, detached perfectionism, that ruthless point of view, which still persists in much of their work today, giving it a large part of its mesmeric quality.

In contrast, Billie Jean is an affecting mess of process, which, despite initial appearances, is the point for Inez van Lamsweerde. ‘For me the process is much more important than the actual pictures that appear in the magazine,’ she says matter-of-factly. You will not catch many image makers saying this and meaning it and Inez van Lamsweerde means it. She continues: ‘Sometimes I feel as if the photographs don't have to appear. The decisive moment has already been captured in some other way during the day, in the time spent with everyone during the shoot.’  This statement is made not just as a matter of politeness, but betrays the paradox which is at the heart of van Lamsweerde's images, including her solo ‘art work’ (although the photographer herself is not keen to make such distinctions). Despite much of the cool, surface detachment of the photographs, extremes of emotion and empathy are always underneath, ready to be revealed by that same cutting, scalpel-edged style. Perhaps the images that make this point most clearly are Me Kissing Vinoodh (Lovingly) - in which the pair are pictured together, softly lit, in a kiss - and Me Kissing Vinoodh (Passionately) - in which Vinoodh has suddenly been cut out of the picture, mid-embrace, his outline remaining to deform Inez's profile. Of course, the computer generated cut-away is done with the characteristic crystalline control, with its combination of technically-enhanced beauty and horror. As van Lamsweerde says herself of the work: ‘It was about time I took the personal route. To take something extremely personal, the absolute fear of losing someone, and blow it up to billboard sized proportions.'

Yet in much of van Lamsweerde's fashion images the personal can be detected through the empathy expressed by the photographer for the model during the photo shoot. As she clarifies: 'When we are shooting there is an energy that radiates towards the model, everything goes to making an image through them. It is a question of putting the elements together in the right place, then forgetting yourself and letting it all flow. There is an intimacy and power in that process but, for me, it is ultimately a question of trust. For a model, there is a certain vulnerability and a pressure to perform. What I like about the video is that it shows a side of the fashion shoot where there are a lot of compliments going on. There is a pouring out of a maximum amount of affection for the model, which is needed to bring something out of someone. To show the internal story, to show the inside is a big, violent thing to do.'

At the same time, there is no disguising a certain appetite for destruction in Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin's images. We might see the touching raw material in the Billie Jean film, but in the finished product the empathetic portrait is often undercut by a more calculated cross purpose, working to distance the viewer from human contact. It used to be through, as the photographer says, ‘loving the perfection: possibilities of the computer. Then we decided to go against that and destroy it in a way, like the recent shoot for French Vogue made of cut-ups from Polaroids, or where that style began with the Balenciaga ads.’

It is a ruthlessness of viewpoint which is shared by the Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoven, a director van Lamsweerde greatly admires: ‘He takes all the elements of a blatantly commercial film, yet adds an undertone of searing criticism. He absolutely blurs the boundaries.’  And it is these same qualities that have set apart the pair's photography: half love, half hate; half seduction, half repulsion; half perfection, half destruction. They have successfully managed to blur these boundaries in the business of fashion and are perhaps the only image makers to have truly blurred the boundaries between that of fashion and art. In the world of Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, Cindy Sherman starring in the Untitled Film Stills is merely the am-dram player in the village hall. Meanwhile, in one of their own minor pieces, Kate Moss is the big box office draw.