Ines van Lamsweerde has worked since the 1980s in the more experimental areas of imaging between fine art and fashion, and is noted for pushing boundaries in the photographic depiction of human bodies. In the early 1990s it was clear that digital imaging (especially Photoshop) had introduced new possibilities in the control and manipulation of photography. Both fashion and fine art were exploring how photographic realism establishes expectations in viewers that can be subverted or challenged. The artist Jeff Wall had made complex digital composite works such as “A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai)” (1991), and “Dead Troops Talk” (1993). Van Lamsweerde had staged an exhibition of her eponymous series “Vital Statistics,” commissioned by the city of Groningen, in 1991, with images of female models posed in urban landscapes with exaggerated colours. The models and backgrounds had been photographed separately and then digitally combined.
At that time, digital work in fashion was largely confined to retouching in the traditional sense: smoothing away imperfections, emphasizing and delineating features, and eliminating dust. But it was perfectly apparent that the digital was going to have much more profound implications for the understanding of photography, and, by extension, for the understanding of the subject matter that is being photographed.
Part of the realist effect of photography is its capacity to propose itself as a stand-in for an encounter with what or who was in front of the camera. Such realism has its conventions—think of the studio portrait with a plain background shot in even light. The visual rhetoric here is of simplicity and straightforwardness. This is the setting van Lamsweerde used for “The Forest” (1995), a suite of four images each with a figure reclining. The framing is on the face, arms, and upper body, and all four figures wear the same yellow short-sleeved shirt, an item of clothing conventionally worn by both men and women. However, the photographs subtly mix up the standard media codes of “masculinity” and “femininity.” The question soon arises as to whether van Lamsweerde is photographing subjects that identify in a non-binary way, or whether the people have been styled to transgress binary norms, or whether the images have been digitally composed, perhaps combining features and body parts from different people. The emphasis falls slightly differently in each image, but all evoke a feeling of fascinated uncertainty or unease.
Today, such imagery is much more commonplace, in art and fashion, but also in everyday life. Social norms and gender identities have become more open and fluid. Part of what has enabled this fluidity is the Internet, with its capacity to allow images of self-presentation to be uploaded and shared rapidly. Mainstream media outlets no longer have such a tight grip on representational norms. Looking back on these images by van Lamsweerde, with 25 years of hindsight, what is notable is that they were made in that very small window of time between the advent of digital post-production and the advent of the Internet.