“This one has really come to life; it almost looks like a Hermès campaign!” Chatting to Glamcult about her big new exhibition at the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam, Ellie Uyttenbroek’s enthusiasm is unambiguous. Selecting 100 ethnographic images from the museum’s “world collection”, the Dutch stylist (and one half of the duo behind Exactitudes) digitally edited and styled the photos to form a rejuvenated body of work. Adding directional bursts of colour to the sepia-toned archive, ETNOMANIE shows its historical and cultural subject matter in a fashion frame—reminding us that today’s street style maybe isn’t so original after all.
How do you come by a project such as this one?
One of the Fotomuseum’s conservators told me back in 2012 that the museum would acquire the entire photographic collection of Rotterdam’s (ethnographic) Wereldmuseum. Because I have a high appreciation for fashion and its history, I really enjoy the clothes and other style items depicted in the photographs—and I think a lot of designers would agree with me, as they tend to look to history for inspiration. I’ve always felt inspired by fashion from past decades. So I heard about this and immediately felt the need to do something with it. In the back of my head, however, I always knew that taking on such a project would involve some difficulty… how do you give a bit of sex appeal to these dated, sepia-toned images?
Last year I began making my selection and—as I did with Exactitudes—I paid attention to style and whether or not the personalities in the images spoke to me. The initial selection was pulled together by the museum conservators, and included a lot of anthropological photographs of people working in the fields, hunters, et cetera. Based on their selection I then made my own, aiming to achieve two things. First of all, I wanted the image to uphold a certain level of direct contact with the viewer. And also, I hoped that with a stylistic eye I’d be able to choose images in which style came first, or from which stylists and designers could draw inspiration.
One hundred images… that’s a big exhibition!
Yes, and all of the works are blown up into big pieces. I think it’s important to highlight the beauty of the images through colour, because you have to imagine the scenes were originally (at least) this vibrant. What I’ve tried to do is call them back into existence. Enlarging the images allows them to speak to the imagination. But I also wanted to do something else; I decided to mix the photos so that they would no longer be clustered into specific cultures or particular continental sub-groups. Blasting the images full scale puts the subjects on a well-deserved pedestal. With the use of natural material and an extensive amount of love and respect, I hoped to breathe new life into the collection. Finally, printing the photographs on fabric allows them to move—like you and I do—and take on a living form.
Would you say the museum was at first a bit hesitant about the project? You do add new layers to existing works.
Definitely! Most of the people operative behind the scenes and in charge of the collections, who take pride in what they do and cherish such work, considered my edit to be a bit of a disgrace to the photographic medium and everything they stand for. I not only stylized the images but also added extra text and titles. Most publications so far have presented the original texts alongside the images. That’s good, because you want to know where and when the photos come from, so to speak. My own texts, however, are often written from a lighter, humorous angle. Although my work tends to be somewhat reserved, I hope the texts add a little wit.
I’ve noticed that the experts at the museum take a liking in images that are more conservative or traditional. And they really seemed to stay away from certain queer portrayals or descriptions. When I describe a woman as queer, they’ll say: “But that woman wasn’t actually queer!” I’m well aware of that, I’m not saying that she was. It’s just my personal interpretation of the image. I mean: these Japanese women used to tattoo moustaches onto their faces. Why can’t I describe that as queer? I’ve had to battle some peculiar battles, but in the end we’ve made it work together!
Was it difficult to decide on what images to showcase?
Some images spoke to me automatically. I believe style is a collection of things; how you wear your hair or pick out and arrange your accessories, for example, defines your personality.
So you approached the images from a stylistic standpoint?
From my own stylistic standpoint, that is. I totally understand that the museum’s conservators and experts look very differently at the images than I do. Unfortunately, they sometimes overlook the images that portrait beautiful fashions. I don’t have an anthropological background so I refrained from taking that approach. I just aim to shine a new light on the various subjects we see in the images. A lot of the photos were taken during the colonial era and, of course, I’m completely aware of that. Some images were made by missionaries. Others used to belong to the tradesmen that trotted the globe and captured their journey along the way. But the pictured style remains very inspiring, that’s my primary focus.
We’re offered an entirely different perspective on the collection.
I tried to connect the images to the present because I’ve found that the “ethno” concept has become something of the past. It refers to cultures and people—and yet it’s not used much in popular culture. “Ethnomania” stands for an expressive devotion to one’s own people and an appreciation for ethnic autonomy—something that’s visible through fashion. Everything balances between the style and beauty of the past and what we currently define as such. I wanted to create a celebratory ode to style and diversity, placing images besides each other at random, mixing and matching as I go. By putting the pictures in a new context they obtain a new existence but still bare the weight of their cultural baggage. That inspires me. The collection is presented in a different way and that’s also how I hope people start looking at it.
How does this work relate to your acclaimed Exactitudes, which also touch on notions of diversity?
As I did with Exactitudes, I looked at the archive from a style point-of-view. I’m always trying to elevate the everyday, mundane into something more. I try to make the ordinary more extraordinary or shine a light on the beauty residing in the seemingly banal. I find that these aspects of life too often go unnoticed. I’m constantly looking at style and how clothing can come to define a different identity every day. Unfortunately we don’t have enough appreciation for each other’s style—I hope to change that for the better.