Catalogues

Ruud van Empel (2015)

Written by Francis Hodgson

Ruud van Empel (b. 1958) is one of the most innovative and influential contemporary photographers working today. Van Empel’s pioneering techniques have completely changed the face of digital photography. Using a vast library of digital body parts, fabrics and foliage, van Empel creates dream-like photographic utopias, where nothing is exactly as it seems. Ruud van Empel’s distinctive style has evolved through an on going exploration of the tension between straight photography and digital technology. His images are digitally constructed from a synthesis of hundreds of diverse fragments taken from his own photographs.

He digitally dissects and reconstructs images to create his works, as eyes, noses and lips are collaged together to create brand new faces. Ruud van Empel skilfully blends the techniques of collage, painting and photography, forcing the viewer to question their own conceptions of the constructed, and the ‘real’.

Throughout his career, Ruud van Empel has made photographs that connect with art history, interweaving references including Dutch Old Masters, German Renaissance painters and early photomontage artists into his work. His digitally rendered photo- graphs of children explore notions of youth and innocence. Van Empel gathers his imagery from a wide range of sources including his own personal childhood memories. The artist meticulously choses clothing that echo the formal Sunday dress that he and his siblings would wear to church as a child. This is intended as a comment on the mixed feelings of both oppression and pride that such clothes instilled. So integral is the accuracy of such clothing to his work that van Empel often digitally constructs garments from memory by photographing specific materials and patterns and then “stitching” them together.

The works on display, from the series Mood, continue this exploration of lost childhood innocence set against a backdrop of cultural conservatism. The images refer to stiflingly upright and formal early photographic portraits, but are given the close-up i ntimacy of the portrait miniature. Works from the Mood series are master works of pattern, texture and light effects. The dark, earthy tones and strong chiaroscuro give this series, more than any other of van Empels, an atmospheric and dramatic tone. The images from Mood are to be set in the context of earlier works from his series Sunday, Identity, and critically acclaimed Moon and World.

Ruud van Empel was born in 1958 in Breda, the Netherlands and studied graphic design there at the Academie St. Joost. Van Empel worked initially as a theatre set designer. It was in 1995 that van Empel made the transition from stage to staged- photography, and began to experiment with digital collage. His work has since been exhibited worldwide by museums including the Museum of Photographic Art, Califor- nia, and George Eastman House, New York, Fotografiska, Sweden and the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands

Early Years
Ruud van Empel was born in Breda, the Netherlands, in 1958. After graduating in graphic design from the Academie St. Joost, van Empel worked briefly as a designer and later as a creative designer specialising in theatre décor. In 1995 van Empel made the transition from stage to staged-photography when he presented his first photographic project entitled The Office, a series of portraits showing various individuals in workplaces that Empel had constructed. This initiated the digital collage’ work for which he would later become known.

Digital Collage
Van Empel’s pioneering techniques have completely changed the face of digital photo- graphy. Using a vast library of digital body parts, fabrics and foliage, van Empel creates dream-like photographic utopias, where nothing is exactly as it seems.
Each figure is a hybrid; resulting from his painstaking synthesis of hundreds of diverse fragments taken from his own photographs. Eyes, noses and lips are collaged together to create the highly polished new human forms that inhabit his images. The process is painstaking: a single work can take up to three months to complete. The colours and textures are individually altered, and each setting digitally staged. Van Empel uses photoshop to utterly transform reality, and turn it into something at once alluring and unsettling.

His first project The Office was largely black and white due to the limitations of techno- logy at the time, namely a computer which “crashed every five minutes”, that preven- ted van Empel from producing full-scale colour montages until the new millennium. “When I made them I did not actually plan to start a career in art, I was just enjoying myself making things on my new computer.”

Venus, Moon, World
In 2005 van Empel presented three bodies of work as part of the touring Picturing Eden exhibition curated by Deborah Klochko of George Eastman House. These were Venus, Moon and the critically acclaimed World. These three series of digitally constructed portraits of children have become van Empel’s most exhibited and recog- nisable works. One element which has drawn particular attention to van Empel’s portraits is the consistent appearance of black children in his work. Although it is not intended as any particular statement, van Empel has commented on the portrayal of black children in Dutch media as often “poor” or “suffering”. “I received some positive responses from black audiences, who said they liked the way my work portrays black children in a respectful and beautiful way rather than as a victim.”

A recurring theme in van Empel’s work is the innocence of children. The artist meticu- lously choses clothing that echoes the formal Sunday dress that he and his siblings would wear to church as a child. This is intended as a comment on the mixed feelings of both oppression and pride, which such clothes instilled. So integral is the accuracy of such clothing to his work that van Empel often digitally constructs garments from memory by photographing specific materials and patterns and then “stitching” them together.

“Ruud van Empel’s hard drives are filled like the old mahogany cabinets of a collector of natural history: hundred of ears here, hundreds of shoes there. Ties, glasses, belts, coarse cloth, good cloth, loud cloth, tasteful cloth… Then the natural stuff itself: leaves, skies, tree trunks. Huge folders of bits. None of them mean a thing until he does his stuff with them. These collections are his material, as Picasso’s might have been bits of Greek myth or fragments of bullfighting. Vik Muniz makes pictures from chocolate or felt or salvaged trash which are eventually frozen as photographs. So van Empel builds new imagery from fractions of imagery… Out of this stuff, this mulch of visual detritus, van Empel makes pictures which have distinct qualities. They are almost always still. They are centrally and flatly composed. And they allow themselves to play with scale in a particular way.”

— Francis Hodgson, Professor in the Culture of Photography, University of Brighton.