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Fashion Photographer Willy Vanderperre Clicks to the Core
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© Willy Vanderperre
© Willy Vanderperre © Willy Vanderperre
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Fashion Photographer Willy Vanderperre Clicks to the Core

There’s a good chance you’ve seen a photo by Belgian fashion photographer Willy Vanderperre at some point. He has shot campaigns for fashion houses like Dior and Prada, and his editorials have appeared in magazines such as Dust, i-D and Vogue. It’s no surprise that he has the honour of being the first photographer to hold an exhibition at the MoMu Fashion Museum in Antwerp. Expect three decades of rebellion, impressive teamwork and an eternal fascination with youth.

“Making someone’s portrait requires patience. Every person of flesh and blood must first settle and ground themselves in a studio, maturing there for a while before they are willing to show themselves to me, naked and fragile. I have all the time in the world. I wait. I wait until suddenly a breath lifts the veil, and for a brief moment, I see the soul light up. For a nanosecond, I can be part of an exciting secret. My heart leaps.”

These words are heard in the continuous film shown at the exhibition dedicated to fashion photographer Willy Vanderperre (b. 1971) at Antwerp’s MoMu. Vanderperre doesn’t just capture images; he conceives a composition, adjusts his equipment and then leaves space. Space to capture emotions: a sudden movement, a facial expression you wouldn’t have thought possible. The result is an oeuvre with photos that come from a core and thus do not leave viewers unmoved. That is also the goal, both in editorials and in commercial assignments: not the clothes, but the individual, takes centre stage.

Starting point

The exhibition at MoMu can hardly be called a retrospective. While Vanderperre has brought together some key points from his thirty-year career, there is no question of him stopping. Instead, this is a forward-looking perspective, offering a promising glimpse into the future, given that he has already amassed an impressive list of achievements. His photos have appeared in influential magazines like i-D, Vogue, AnOther Magazine, Arena Homme + and Dazed & Confused. Celebrities such as Tilda Swinton, Cate Blanchett and Michelle Williams have stood before his lens. And good friend and fashion designer Raf Simons regularly asks Vanderperre to shoot campaigns for the labels he works with, including Jil Sander, Dior, Calvin Klein and currently Prada.

At the same time, this exhibition does indeed return to the beginning, as the Antwerp Fashion Academy is where it all started for Vanderperre. Growing up in a butcher’s family in Menen, West Flanders, he first attended the art secondary school in Kortrijk, followed by the renowned fashion programme at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp in 1989. Fascinated by Jean-Paul Gaultier and the ‘Antwerp Six' – real rock stars at the time – he was convinced that a path as a fashion designer was destined for him. However, it was mainly the preparatory mood boards and photos that he revelled in, more than the designing itself. He therefore switched to photography but stopped again after two years to further develop his own vision.

Teamwork

Vanderperre has always been and will always be a rebel. However, those years at the art academy in Antwerp were particularly formative because he met his partners there: fashion designer Raf Simons and stylist Olivier Rizzo (who became his colleague and life partner). Rizzo and Vanderperre met on the first day of fashion school and have been inseparable since. Rizzo, in turn, knew Raf Simons through a summer internship with Walter Van Beirendonck, laying the foundation for a collaboration that remains active to this day. Together, they narrate fashion as a story: in Vanderperre’s photos, styled by Rizzo, often with Raf Simons’ designs, the models become characters in a universe.

Consider the photo that started it all: the portrait of Robbie Snelders with Mickey Mouse painted on his face. Vanderperre shot the campaign photo for Raf Simons in 1999, with Rizzo as stylist and Peter Philips (now artistic director of Christian Dior Makeup) as makeup artist. The photo landed on the cover of the first issue of V Magazine and circulated around the world, but its creation was quite casual. Vanderperre had to work to pay his tuition, but he kept Sundays free for taking pictures, together with Rizzo. They gathered in his flat with friends such as Philips and Snelders (a model for Raf Simons at the time), ate strawberry cake and wanted to do something with a Mickey Mouse T-shirt from Rizzo’s collection. Since the images weren’t working as expected, Philips came up with the idea to draw Mickey Mouse on Snelders’ face. That’s how the puzzle pieces fell into place.

Rebellious youth

Youths have always remained a significant source of inspiration. The exhibition is full of rebellious, searching, vibrant adolescents, such as a group of models in the park for Vogue Italia, two teenagers fighting on a bed, or the opening image of the exhibition: a boy wearing a T-shirt from Rizzo’s second-year collection. He stands facing the wall of the drawing class at the academy, the only room where Rizzo and Vanderperre had classes together.

At first, those models were Vanderperre’s peers, but even as he grew older, he continued to focus his lens on the pivotal moment of adolescence. It’s “the moment in life when everything capsizes,” the photographer explains in the exhibition film. “You become aware of other people’s perspectives and see yourself through their eyes. Your innocence must be cast aside. Your eyes see only two colours now: black and white. You are all body, a bundle of hormones, a volcano full of uncontrollable impulses. You search, rebel and experiment. You believe you know who you are, or at least who you want to be, but you still lack the language to describe yourself. You are grotesque. You are pure.”

It’s those years full of uncertainty, enthusiasm and ideals that fascinate Vanderperre the most. He is still able to penetrate to the core of the models and capture them in all their genuineness. The subcultures in which young people find their refuge also inspire him immensely. Thus, the new wave, punk and grunge from his own youth form just as much visual input as Mickey Mouse and Caravaggio.

Profession

Vanderperre nods to the great masters of painting by playing with contrasts, such as a portrait against a pitch-black background. Photography is a profession which he has now intuitively mastered. This also comes with a signature: the photos speak of razor-sharp camerawork, a play with contrasts and volumes and, above all, the absence of noise. “How can an image be deconstructed? Perhaps by stripping it to the bones, the essence,” writes critic Alexander Fury in the accompanying book to the exhibition. “Vanderperre often says a lot with very little: a characteristic Vanderperre picture is literally bare, engaging the viewer directly with the model without distraction or bombast.” The photos are reduced to their essence: a model without bombast or distraction, pure in its ‘being’.

Despite being acclaimed and collaborating with big names, Vanderperre remains thoroughly grounded. This, too, reflects the professional in him. Above all, he remains a photographer, regardless of whom he works with. This sense of reality was instilled in him by his parents. It helps that he has always stayed in Antwerp – the place he comes home to after a big assignment, where he is surrounded by friends.

The photoshoots still have a homely atmosphere. Vanderperre is present from preparation to cleanup – there is no hierarchy in his team. This is accompanied by a ritual of coffee, a conversation or a joke, and always music by Depeche Mode. A relaxed atmosphere is crucial, as are order and serenity, because it’s still work. Everything is prepared so that the models are at ease and Vanderperre can capture the images he has in mind. Because somewhere, they already exist; he just needs to bring them into focus. This is why he finds “the days of a photoshoot to be among the most exciting. As soon as I open my eyes in the morning, I feel it,” he says in the film. “Everything is glowing. I am glowing. The air is charged with nervousness and anticipation. This is what I live for.” This exhibition is just the beginning of a lifetime of photos.

Willy Vanderperre, ‘Prints, films, a rave and more ...’ Until 4 August, MoMu Fashion Museum, Antwerp. The book accompanying the exhibition is published by Lannoo.

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