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Creative Reveries

Luxure Magazine 2012

Interview: Katie Baron

"We like to break the cord of context to be able to dream without any restrictions, fuelled by those with whom we collaborate"

Warren Du Preez

While the upper echelons of fashion are flush with creatives boasting mould-breaker status within their own patch of the industry, there are few as fully genre busting as the untameable photo-innovators Warren du Preez and Nick Thornton-Jones. In a tech-fuelled climate of blurring professional perimeters, their work provides a compelling blueprint for future creative communications.

Since meeting in the late 1990s, the British Thornton-Jones, formerly an art director, and the South-African Du Preez, a photographer, have now risen to become a formidable, if somewhat shadowy, powerhouse of experimental image-making. Renowned for images that feast on an intensely sensual but hard to place mash-up of classical references and pseudo-surrealism, plus a professional manifesto they describe as ‘anti-elitist art, bridging the gap between art and commerce’, they’re a pleasingly tricky act to compartmentalise. They regularly work across fashion, art, advertising, film, music, and most recently dance, preferring to straddle several scenes than shackle themselves to one, as a way to keep their practice lithe. But circumventing industry convention always poses risk, including feeling the chill of being an outsider.

‘We definitely feel like outsiders but that suits who we are as people,’ says Du Preez. ‘To really push the process of original creation you have to think beyond existing structures, and that automatically puts you into an outside bracket.’ This may explain why, despite working with all the leading international creative fashion magazines, and on photographic advertising campaigns for Shiseido, Issey Miyake, Cartier, Nike, Hermès, Levi’s, and TV commercials for BMW, Pepé Jeans, Perrier Jouët and Lancôme, their names don’t (yet) carry the same household familiarity as Testino or Meisel. It has, however allowed them other liberties, including experimenting with collaborators as diverse as the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen, the avant-garde Icelandic pop star Björk and the British lighting artist, Chris Levine.

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‘We’ve never been bothered about the fact we’re perhaps less well- known than some of our contemporaries because there’s often a trade-off with that kind of fame,’ says Du Preez. ‘There’s a level of compromise concerning your vision that comes with an over- willingness to play the game.’

I meet them in their East London studio – an unassuming space which, while it nestles covertly in the heart of one of London’s most vibrant creative districts, is a definite working hub; there are no vestiges of the PR-driven show-spaces that define some other photographic studios. While they do sumptuous, decorative visuals with the best of them (forget any notion of ascetic) the space is symbolic of creativity anchored in friends, cohorts and mutual obsessions, far beyond fashion’s distracting, surface-level circus. ‘So many people in this business have an agenda, but for us it’s really all about helping people we believe in and have an affinity with,’ says Thornton-Jones.

It’s a mind-set that’s made them a magnet for other unorthodox creatives, including McQueen. The duo’s Light Installation for McQueen’s SS08 ‘La Dame Bleue’ catwalk show – a homage to the late fashion iconoclast Isabella Blow – saw sabres of neon light rise and fall at the end of the runway, pulsing in time to a pounding sonic backdrop of galloping horses and ethereal wing-beats. ‘That was very much us,’ says Thornton-Jones. ‘A fusion of ideas and cutting- edge techniques.’

La Dame Bleue’s frisson between reality and fantasy is a constant theme, even in their technical processes. While at first glance their work appears to be digitally caressed it’s often borne from a more traditional place. ‘A lot of our magic is crafted in camera,’ reveals Du Preez. ‘We use electronic and custom light combined with specialised shutter techniques – as if painting in camera. This final result’s perceived to be done on a computer, but often isn’t at all.’

Reality versus reverie is also responsible for the tribe of super- women that populate their worlds: a distinct and bewitching breed of Amazonian-style goddesses, full of eroticism (two randomly chosen shoot titles from the last 24 months include Nymphe/Narcisse and Dreamland/Corps). Captivating in print, they’re equally alluring on film – reference their music videos for acclaimed musician, DJ and producer James Lavelle’s collective UNKLE, including Follow Me Down and Where Did the Night Fall. The films also illustrate their rare capacity to translate static brilliance into masterful moving imagery. It’s a space into which many fashion photographers have valiantly tried to follow them, and mostly failed.

‘A lot of image-makers are just looking for the next trick, the next look, and at one point that produced a lot of copy-cats,’ says Du Preez. ‘Seeing other people plagiarising our work really upset us at first, we felt it cheapened our role, but it’s essentially indicative of the fact we now live in an era of appropriation and listing. We’re about innovation and creation, not just appropriation. That’s why for us, boundaries are an inexplicable force. We like to break the cord of context to be able to dream without any restrictions, fuelled by those with whom we collaborate.’

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The partnership with Lavelle is indeed a long-term, reciprocal exchange of artistic treats. Lavelle tells me he remains drawn to the pair for their ‘unusual depth, spirituality, and sense of history,’ but also because their vision has influenced his own creative process:

‘My work becomes visual, and theirs becomes sonic.’ Following in the footsteps of artists including David Bowie and Patti Smith, Lavelle will curate in London the 2014 Meltdown, an annual festival merging art, music, performance and film. It’s a venture perfectly suited to Du Preez & Thornton-Jones’s taste for unpredictable, multi-sensorial stimulation. We should, Du Preez teases, ‘expect a visual collage with a narrative much longer and more substantial than a shoot – a concept album of sorts’.

However, of all their collaborations to date it’s perhaps Erebus, 2013, orchestrated with British choreographer Russell Maliphant, that best highlights their methodology. A filmic response to Maliphant’s staging of The Rodin Project – a major dance piece based on the controversial life and work of 19th-century French sculptor August Rodin – Erebus is as dark, foreboding and entrancing as you’d expect from a project whose title references a primordial deity, the personification of darkness and chaos in Greek mythology.

Maliphant describes it as ‘an interpretation of the classical with a fresh futuristic style, acknowledging an inherent grasp of sculptural qualities of the dancers bodies’. Initially a film previewed at the British Film Institute, under the guidance of London-based curator Siobhan Andrew, it was also exhibited as a film, series of static artworks and an exterior installation as part of Frieze Art Fair. Later this year it will travel to Los Angeles and Hong Kong.

With so many strings to their bow, what do they envisage as their legacy? ‘If you could fast-forward 50 years I certainly hope we’d have helped to influence a revisionist understanding of creating with technology – the alchemy of painting with a camera.’