Paul Kooiker, Fashion

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Art Paper Editions (here). Softbound with end flaps, 18.4 × 24.2 cm, 288 pages, with 240 photographs. Design by Jurgen Maelfeyt. In an edition of 2000 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Advertisements for high fashion clothing generally provoke the same response from me: Who in the world wears this stuff? Haute couture typically skews toward the sensational, radical, and uncomfortable, closer to art installation than apparel. I admit I’m biased. I’m a T-shirt and jeans guy, or whatever else is handy. So I’m not the target market for such apparel, at least as a consumer. But my vantage has an upside. From my safe remove—with scant possibility of participating or purchasing—I can appreciate fashion photography as pure spectacle. 

Of course philistine reactions like mine are exactly the point. Hip stylings are designed to create an aura of exclusivity. The goal of designers is not necessarily to be worn but to provoke, to push the envelope. And inexorably, over time, that’s more or less what happens. Salacious garments like bikinis and miniskirts are adopted into mainstream use. Blue jeans move up the social ladder, businessmen walk about hatless, women expose their midriffs, and so on. Fashion’s cogs keep advancing, while its bubble of exclusivity tries to stay one step ahead.

These shifting mores have proven to be a treasure trove for the Dutch photographer Paul Kooiker. In recent years he’s worked fashion shoots for a range of high end clients including Dust, Vivetta, Luncheon, and Vogue. More often than not he strikes pay dirt, and oddities as well. He typically uses an iPhone to expose in vertical format. He prefers monochrome, and especially sepia tones. On the rare occasions he outputs final images in color, the hues are desaturated. Prop-wise, he is fond of antiquated sets and gestures, with tightly cropped frames lit by direct strobes and clinical shadows. All of these factors combine to lend his contemporary work a throwback flavor—APE calls its book “timeless”—in the avant-garde ballpark of prewar practitioners like Paul Outerbridge, Hans Bellmer, and Man Ray. 

A large sampling can be seen in Kooiker’s latest monograph Fashion. Following the design of previous books Eggs And Rarities (reviewed here) and Nude Animal Cigar, the tome is basic and prolific. Inside the nondescript grey cover there are 240 photographs arrayed in orderly double spreads, all the same dimension and aspect. With no explanatory text, the burden of the book falls on the images exclusively, and they are up to the job. They come in a rapid-fire sequence, one per page, pausing briefly every two dozen images for a caption index (all are “Untitled” and listed by original commission and date) and plain black separator. Repeated ten times, that’s the book in a nutshell. 

Fashion’s uniformity of design stands (or poses?) in sharp contrast to its contents. Kooiker’s photographs are wild and freewheeling, pulsing with ideas and experimentation. It seems each Kooiker is kookier than the last. Some fit easily into familiar fashion tropes. A picture of two women in chapless undies and stilettos, for example, puts their wares on prominent display. The same is true for winsome shots of an elegant model in trim black bustier and matching gloves in a Victorian room, or the figure in white bouffant dress on the facing spread. These pictures may leave Avedon and Penn in the dust, but they still nod to tradition. High heels remain a stalwart accessory among the chic crowd—like photobooks, one can never acquire too many—and Kooiker has set his sights on countless examples. You might suppose it’s difficult to stay inventive with such an old saw. But Kooiker is a fountain of ideas. He shoehorns high heels this way and that, plugging them into a variety of wacky backdrops and human forms. A wooden deheeled trophy, anyone? How about nested heels in the throes of passion? “I think,” says Kookier, “my images are closer to the essence of fashion than a portrait of a beautiful woman – but maybe I’m alone in thinking that.”

These are among the photos which can fall easily under a “fashion” label. But they are a minority. A much larger portion of the book ventures afield, far from the petty concerns of ad campaigns, logic, or appearance. They are unconcerned with products, garments, styles, or appearance. Even placed in a magazine, it would be hard to know what exactly is for sale. Instead, they seem motivated by sheer visual pleasure. Kookier has an active imagination, and he treats fashion shoots as something of a visual laboratory. “I never tell a full story,” he noted recently on Instagram. “I love to confuse people, make them lose their standards, and figure out what they’re really looking at.”

Mission accomplished. Fashion consistently befuddles. One photo shows a man’s torso covered in wavy body hair. “I have always seen the body as a sculpture,” explains Kookier. “I play with arms, legs and hair.” Swiss cheese is in the toolkit too, as in an odd photo of four hole-filled blocks in formation. Elsewhere, apples march into a mirror, a woman falls into Brillo brush seating, and fingernails take on a sticky tiling. There’s a fly on the sole of a tennis shoe, a balloon shedding foam on an antique chair, combs lining a woman’s hips. These are just some in the revolving sequence of human forms, limbs, furniture, household props, amputations, textures, and haircuts, mixed and matched with wit and creativity. Whatever territory the photos describe, it’s quite distant from the Paris runway. Kooiker has taken my original fashion question “Who in the world would wear that?”, and upped the ante to “What in the world is happening here?” 

For most of these photos, I can only speculate. Obviously they are “fashion” photos in some sense, since all were originally commissioned for that purpose. But Kookier seems determined to make the viewer wonder. What exactly was being advertised? What was the assignment? What parts were composed by designers and what parts invented by Kookier? From a pure fashion perspective, most of these photos are outliers. They’re closer to Kookier’s previous monographs than to Gucci. Robin Titchener describes Fashion as “a book of fashion photography for people who normally hate fashion photography” and that seems close to the mark. 

There may be a method to the madness. By pushing the envelope of what fashion photography can be, Kooiker takes a page from the industry itself. Clothing designers attempt to one-up each other, creating a bubble of exclusivity while probing the limit of what’s acceptable or “normal”. Kooiker’s book does the same thing with its imagery. If his photos look nothing like traditional fashion pictures, he’s merely pushing photographic convention. Titling his book Fashion is merely one more provocation. All to good effect, as it turns out. As I admitted earlier, I’m a fashion philistine. I pay little to styles or clothing. So it’s with some surprise that I found myself enjoying this book so much. The creativity, variety, and sheer weirdness are irresistible. I suspect it will appeal to most other photographers as well. Who knows, perhaps it will find a receptive audience among the fashion set too. 

Collector’s POV: Paul Kooiker is represented by Tegenboschvanvreden in Amsterdam (here), Keteleer Gallwery in Antwerp (here), and Galerie Zink in Germany (here). Kooiker’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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