004 / 09 July 2014 / FEATURES
Photography by Therese + Joel
In Conversation with Henriette Noermark
A conversation between New-York based photography duo Therese + Joel and Copenhagen-based writer and curator Henriette Noermark. Henriette, a contributor at OAK – The Nordic Journal, and curator of “Eccentric Exercise – International Contemporary Drawing”, asks the team about their artistry, working as a pair, and their Scandinavian identity.
Henriette Noermark: How did your collaboration begin?
Therese + Joel: We met in 2006 in Parsons Paris, where we started our photography studies. Two years later, we both transferred to Parsons New York. Being rookies in New York made us quite ambitious. Moving to the city made us aware of how tough it is to make it and we started assisting and helping each other out at pretty much every single shoot we did. Not to mention that we were best friends and drew our inspirations from similar sources: European cinema, our shared taste in music (the Knife, power ballads, Italo disco), as well as 90s masterpieces like Twin Peaks and Tim Burton’s Catwoman – tragic pop-culture icons.
The senior year portfolio reviews made us realize that perhaps we should team up professionally – photo editors, art buyers and other creative professionals were basically confused whose work was whose: were we best friends or rivals? and why weren't we already working together. Since we were such great friends, it made sense to make it a full-time professional collaboration. Shorty after our graduation in the summer 2010, we had the talk—and Therese + Joel was founded.
HN: Do you remember your first job together?
TJ: On our first professional job together we were assigned to fly to Geneva, Switzerland, to photograph the last king of Egypt, King Fouad II, for The Wall Street Journal.
It is great to divide the professional responsibilities – not only in terms or who's shooting and who's lighting the subject, but also when it comes to dealing with personalities. Some clients prefer Therese, some Joel – and as there are no egos involved from our part, it doesn't matter to us who it is.
HN: Being a Scandinavian and very much in love with New York myself, I’m curious about your relationship with the city. How does it differ from the European creative scene?
TJ: We ended up in New York because of our studies. We both always wanted to live here, and perhaps it’s a cliché, but it’s hard to envision ourselves living anywhere else. Creatively, and networking-wise, it’s an amazing place to be.
Scandinavia can feel hierarchical compared to New York: in terms of commercial work we feel that the city is a lot more approachable when it comes to showing your work at magazines and agencies. There is also a lot more risk-taking by commissioning young photographers, which is great. That being said, there is so much amazing work coming out from the European creative scene. It would be wonderful to be able to split our time between New York and Europe – that would be our goal.
HN: Is there a photograph that you think truly encapsulates your aesthetics?
TJ: That would definitely be a photo of a boy and a girl from the “My Tourniquet” series. We like the fact that it’s cinematic, and works on different levels: it’s both fashion and art. There is a stark play on shadow and light, with a Scandinavian sensibility. There is also a narrative, although it doesn’t really disclose any specifics on time, or an actual space.
HN: The theme of identity seems rather persistent in your work and it seems to be a reference point to which you return. Can you elaborate on that?
TJ: We have always been interested in dealing with awkwardness and uncomfortable attraction. In terms of subjects, people who differ from the conventions of beauty inspire us most. Though our work is often polished and flashy, there are subtle references to queer culture. We like to play with the concepts of identity and artificiality, and we tend to like some things to be a bit “off.” We love to photograph subjects that intimidate us, in one way or another – people like Willem Dafoe, beautiful yet threatening. When shooting fashion, and photographing models, we tend to try and aim for a certain kind of fucked-up-ness, where “good looks” of course play a factor, however doesn’t necessarily take center stage.
Also, due to our similar backgrounds and Nordic identities, where there is a strong sense of awkwardness, quietness, melancholia and homogeneity – for better or for worse – these are definitely influential factors too.
Additionally, there is a performance aspect; as in making strangers act for us. But then again, isn't photography always more about the photographers than their subjects? We make up the identities of the subjects, not necessarily sharing those thoughts or ideas with them, and this way, most of the times enhancing the aspects of awkwardness. In the end of the day, taking photographs of someone is highly subjective: it has more to do with our own projections onto the sitters than their own identities.
HN: How do you interact with the people you photograph?
TJ: A lot of times we prefer to meet our subjects for the first when we photograph them, so naturally certain awkwardness will surface, which we like to emphasize. In a way, it’s bizarre to meet a complete stranger and have them do all of these things for you. You share something intimate, and it has a lot to do with trust from the subjects point of view – you have to make that person trust you, and very quickly. And again, some people prefer to interact and engage with Joel, and some with Therese, so that helps.
We do think this makes better pictures – it keeps both parties on their toes. Of course the experiences (in most cases) are really pleasant, but it is interesting afterwards to see the conformability curve rise throughout the day.
HN: You reveal a dichotomy between the real, personal self and a somewhat staged character – do you prefer one to the other?
TJ: Our process is very much about performance in staged settings. People play characters for us. It is our preference, as it gives us a carte blanche to do anything. It’s interesting to play with the idea of authenticity – if you have someone perform for you, playing a character, at the end of the day, is it still a portrait?
HN: Fashion is often associated with volatility of some sort. To me, it seems as though time stands still in your photographs, there is proximity and something timeless about them. What is appealing about working with fashion?
TJ: Fashion is definitely a big part of our process, as our practice is very stylized and deals with our projections and fantasies. However, perhaps for us, it is more about using the tools of fashion to make our work – rather than making fashion work per se.
But what is interesting about fashion is how you can use the medium to make surreal, otherworldly images. We can use it to channel the themes we are interested in, but still focus on making something beautiful. In addition, for us the exploration of the supposedly conflicting themes of horror and beauty is really interesting – therefore, a well-thought and well-executed image can exist in both art and fashion.
HN: Do you have a person in mind that you would love to shoot?
TJ: Photographing Willem Dafoe nude in Moscow in front of Stalin's Seven Sisters. Jessica Lange, Christopher Walken, Tilda Swinton, Michael Fassbender, Lindsey Wixson and Devendra Banhart (also as a nude at the Grand Canyon). Not to mention, to be in charge of The Knife's visuals. Also, we would love to photograph someone like Britney Spears, who is such a mainstream pop icon, and have the opportunity to make our own “interpretation” of her image.
Unconventional beauty is, as said, the most interesting to us because there’s a story to tell. And of course, shooting actors is always very rewarding as we like our photo shoots to be more of collaboration between the subjects and us. Actors and performers tend to let themselves go and are usually not afraid of making mistakes. There is often a strong sense of trust right from the start.
HN: The black and white images have a clear European cinematic feel to them. What fascinates you about the art of cinema?
TJ: We have always been more inspired by cinema rather than photography. Both with Scandinavian art-house cinema, particularly Ingmar Bergman's noir psychology, and American pop culture queer classics, as well as the melodrama of film noir.
The most fascinating thing about cinema must be its way to make you feel removed from reality. Therefore, it is interesting to work with narratives, even if cinema as a medium varies radically from stills – the structure of storytelling is different – it is still possible to evoke related kinds of emotions. And like the directors we are obsessed with, we are also captivated by work that questions rather than gives you answers.
HN: You draw on inspiration from Bergman. I’ve always felt enchanted by the intensity of his characters, his way of portraying social realism through themes of loneliness, belief and social bonds. Why does his cinematography inspire you?
TJ: Ingmar Bergman, together with the cinematography of Sven Nykvist, cannot be described as anything else but magic. Bergman had a way of simplifying a frame; yet fill it with such profound beauty together with dark psychological agony. Light and shadow, together with stirring imagery seemed to always be the most important component, at times more so than dialogue and context. His way of storytelling, which did not necessarily rely on linear narrative, but rather on the elicitation of strong emotion through visual experience have influenced us greatly.
HN: What is up next for you?
We are going to keep shooting editorial assignments (both portraiture and fashion), as well as a couple of personal projects that we have planned; a series in Northern Finland, we are doing a road trip from Los Angeles to New York. We are also working on an exhibition that we are going to be a part of in Finland this summer.