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Kicked out of School For Loving the Ladies

Cult photographer Bart Julius Peters uses the same cheek and audacity that got him kicked out of school to sneak his way into environments.  Once in, he captures images that reveal much about the zeitgeist. His new exhibition has opened at the Van Loon Museum.

By Gabrielle Kennedy /asdf 29-01-2009

As part of Amsterdam International Fashion Week, Foam and the Van Loon Museum have invited Bart Julius Peters to exhibit his work in a canal town house with an interior that has been preserved in all its eighteenth century glory – aristocratic pieces of furniture, wall coverings and lighting intact.

Peters’ atmospheric fashion, landscape and people photography at once reveals and disguises something of its time and mood.  There is a respectful restraint that plays games with the imagination capturing and catapulting our sense of longing for all things beautiful.

“I long for superficial things,” Peters says.  “For beauty, wealth and power, but then there are also the intellectual, sportive and artistic pursuits, which are of course equally worth longing for.”

That tension is something Peters creates via subject matter, but also the appearance of his images, which contradict how one might suppose success and beauty to look. The prints are always black and white, grainy and very romantic, which when combined with the visages of top class models, for example, end up feeling very contemporary. The work capture the spirit of an era when to be decadent is complex and threaded with uncertainty.

“I record things I run into,” Peters says of his technique. “But I manipulate them with my personality.”  By that he also means his physical appearance.  “Everyone has to make use of his talents.  For me it is my height.  I have a different overview of things from up here, and because I have to kneel down to shoot, I am offering a special gesture.”

Peters was born in Kuwait, raised in a Dutch suburb, and came to Amsterdam at age 20 to study art.  “Amsterdam is the art capital and I wanted to go to the Rietveld,” he says.  But things didn't go quite as planned.  Despite a number of attempts, his applications were rejected. “There was always something,” he says.  “I was too late, or I complained too much that last year they were too late.”

Eventually he got in, but the strict academic context was never going to work out.  Peters early and ongoing obsession is with the bourgeois ladies who frequent art and antique fairs.  Hats, gloves, lipstick and deeply lined faces that reveal a world of gossip, tea drinking and pleasure.  

“I just kept presenting my ladies,” he says of the work he did at Rietveld.  “I think the teachers got annoyed because they’d set a new assignment and I’d turn up with more images of my ladies.  They told me to stop, but I couldn’t.”

For his last assignment, Peters was asked to hang work in a room of a former lunatic asylum.  He designed the room to look like a birthday party with decorations hanging above the bed.  “It looked extremely sad,” he says.  Next to the bed was a closet and when the examiners came to see his work, he opened the closet door to reveal pictures of his antique-loving ladies.  

“They were my birthday party guests,” he says.  “But the teachers didn’t like it, and kicked me out.”  

For his current exhibition Peters selected, amongst others, huge images of a model backstage at a Viktor & Rolf fashion show, an anonymous hockey player and the profiles of women in motion.

“I didn't even have tickets to that Viktor and Rolf show,” he says in an anecdote that reveals a lot about his method.  “I managed in the end to get into the show, but I really wanted to get backstage.  I saw Suzy Menkes and stood right behind her.  Because I am tall, well-dressed and have a lot of serious looking cameras, I think security just assumed I was with her and so let me walk right through.  It was the show where the models were all painted black and I knew I had to work quickly before they cleaned their faces. I just went right up to the most famous model I could see and started to shoot her.”

And although he is not strictly speaking a fashion photographer, Peters says his theme lends itself to the world of image and appearance.  “I am fascinated by the appearance and physical beauty of models,” he says.  “It’s the sort of beauty we long for and that embodies all our desires.”

Which brings us back to a discussion of decadence.  “You know an Italian once told me that decadence is something much more specific than just a dedication to beauty,” he says.  “He told me that if something is extremely beautiful, then it has reached a certain height.  Everything above and beyond that point is decadence.”




Bart Julius Peter’s first book is designed by Linda van Deursen and will be out later this year.

Foam at Van Loom runs until 15 March 09

Images: Foam in Van Loon - Bart Julius Peters, 2008 © Bart Julius Peters, Peters with his curator in Paris, 1995 © Bart Julius Peters, above the master bed in Museum Van Loon


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