In contrast with the turbulence of the Parisian escapades with her younger lover an hour earlier, Tilda Swinton now sits perfectly still in a darkened cinema. She looks ahead motionless while Niels Schumm of the photography duo Blommers & Schumm traces bands of light across her face with a torch.
The click of the camera shutter is heard twenty times less frequently than in a conventional photo shoot. Enter slow photography.
The photographs reveal Swinton’s face only where the torchlight has been, resulting in a serene yet somewhat voyeuristic image for the French fashion magazine Obsession. Swinton found it a refreshing experience, pleased not to have to stare into the lens while holding a difficult, contrived pose. ‘Sometimes portraits turn out unexpectedly not only because of the technique you employ, but also because of the unconventional nature of what you do’, explains the other half of the duo, Anuschka Blommers. ‘People are more open.’
Clients find their work innovative. Het Nieuwe Instituut included them in the Temporary Fashion Museum because they ‘question the conventions of fashion photography and the representation of the body’. Fashion blogs celebrate their sexy approach. But Blommers & Schumm find ‘innovation’ a suspect aim. There are no conventions in the field of fashion photography that ever held their attention and they prefer to maintain a certain distance from sex. When the erotic cult publication Baron Magazine asked Blommers & Schumm to make naked studies of each other they delivered suggestive images of a hallway, an IKEA lamp and an open book.
The successful fashion photography duo does not even have a special interest in fashion. Schumm: ‘When someone asks me what I do, I say photography. Oh weddings? No, not quite.’ Blommers: ‘Fashion is simply something that we use. It is not something we want to communicate.’ With both of them dressed in grey cotton V-neck tops and dark blue jogging pants, this statement is less surprising that you might expect.
Innovation and questioning: these are simply by-products of Blommers & Schumm’s true ambition: to keep photography interesting. For themselves. They don’t simply replicate what they’ve seen elsewhere or endlessly repeat their own projects. And they interpret commissions as broadly as possible. ‘There is no plan. There isn’t even a method’, says Schumm cheerfully. And since they began working together in 1996 this has proved a successful approach. In the meantime Blommers & Schumm have evolved. They do nothing themselves. That’s no longer necessary. Blommers: ‘I recently had to do portraits at my son’s school and I really thought: how does this camera work again?’ ‘She doesn’t need to know’, Schumm agrees, ‘Anuschka presses the button.
Blommers & Schumm once lit a theatre company in Frankfurt with torches, but the discovery originated with a commission for the children’s fashion magazine Kid’s Wear. The idea: to capture eleven-month-old babies in the hippest babywear while sleeping: they move around too much when they’re awake. Schumm: ‘But a single flash and they’re awake again’. Schumm solved the problem by using the light of an iPhone. It produced exciting images, described by some as morbid, by others as terrifyingly beautiful. A stroke of luck.
Or perhaps not? Schumm has found other solutions for capturing bouncy toddlers, which have found their way into their photographs of adults. Photographing children in the woods is easier if they’re asleep. This was followed later by a series of adults sleeping in the woods. You can also simply restrain hyperactive kids. Literally. That’s what Schumm did, holding them in the photos wearing a black full body suit. This discovery also proved to work just as well with adult models.
These are the internal mechanisms of Blommers & Schumm. Schumm has a limitless nerdy enthusiasm for camera settings and other technical matters. His voice raises an octave when he talks about the subtle optical illusion of an impossible cube or staging complex structures made from studio equipment. ‘I go just so far that people see that it’s not photoshopped!’ Schumm enjoys the challenge of capturing a minute droplet or seamlessly joining women’s upper bodies to men’s lower bodies – see the series ‘The Best of Both’ also for Baron Magazine.
Blommers forte is contact with people: looking behind the façade, the story behind the phenomenon, emotions such as desire, the decisive moment. In the beginning of their partnership this led to powerful fashion images of people that were not models at all, such as Schumm’s brother and Blommers’ father. Blommers: ‘In 1998 that was actually unthinkable for a high-end fashion magazine such as SelfService.’ Later the duo camped for days on La Palma, a haven for models, to see what that would yield. Blommers: ‘We try to find a different entry to the models.’ And they visited a modelling school, where they documented all the girls who were training to be models. Blommers: ‘It was a totally bizarre experience. You can see that these girls were totally incapable of becoming models.’ The school was in Greece, where Blommers holidayed each summer with her parents.
Blommers & Schumm like to work with things they know, on familiar terrain. ‘And outside that is the other world. Our work consists of the coincidental combinations that occur between the two.’
In Athens there are apparently whole blocks of flats full of aspiring models. Possibly in Bulgaria and Russia too. Blommers: ‘I’m really fascinated by these phenomena on the periphery of the fashion world.’ Their photographic series can fulfil a documentary function. And within the fashion world itself many people are unaware of the existence of these other ‘fashion worlds’. ‘It’s an incredible fact that for each ‘real’ model we’ve photographed there were hundreds if not thousands of girls who wanted the job but didn’t make it. Where are they? Who are they?’
Interview: Tamar Stelling