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SPOTLIGHT ON… Walter & ZonIel

They’re the London-based duo making modern art with vintage techniques. The Style Report meets them ahead of their collaborative installation with MATCHESFASHION.COM, showing at Phillips as part of the gallery’s upcoming Photographs auction.

Words by Lauren Cochrane.
Photographs by Walter & Zoniel.

Art and design love a duo – think of Charles and Ray Eames, Gilbert & George or Preen’s Justin Thornton and Thea Bregazzi. Or, indeed, Walter & Zoniel. Together they use early forms of photography for portraits and paint guns to light shows as part of installations. Their latest project comes to Phillips auction house in London this month, as part of its Photographs auction. Called Iconostatus, the work takes an 8m x 8m camera into the gallery space, with visitors encouraged to watch while the duo take a series of portraits. It’s this kind of interactive, inclusive idea that is becoming the London-based duo’s trademark. Well, that and a penchant for dressing in similar clothes – matching Paul Smith prints, Adidas sliders and vintage socks on the day The Style Report meets them. Here’s a sample of their world.

What is the thinking behind the Phillips project?
Zoniel: ‘It’s actually something we did quite a while ago. Those kind of portraits are usually a postcard size. They are called wet plate collodion works or ambrotypes, from around 1850. Walter saw one in Spitalfields market.’
Walter: ‘I was obsessed with making [the photographs] life-size. It’s old chemistry but I just upscaled it. We have done them 8ft x 4ft. I wanted to make a one-off image that will last forever.’

That’s in contrast to our digital culture of course…
W: ‘Yes, for our project Reflecting the Bright Lights, I wanted to do a set of images that would be around 500 years from now. How much digital information have you got from five years ago? Probably not much. You could have someone as famous as David Beckham, and 50 years from now our image will be the only one to survive.’

You have photographed celebrities from Tinie Tempah to Eddie Redmayne and Alice Dellal. What are your impressions?
Z: ‘The camera we use takes 39 seconds for the exposure, which means sitting still for a long time. Some people were very good at that. Eddie was very poised and seemed like someone out of another era. Alice Dellal wanted to have all her tattoos on show so she had her arms up and it's very difficult to maintain that pose. An ingénue who I expected to be very still, who I won't name, blinked every single second. You get a kind of softness, and that's not a bad thing for us. It says something about the person.

Is that the ultimate aim?
W: ‘The whole methodology behind it takes people out of their environment. It’s not Instagram, it’s not instant. It takes an inner portrait. There was also a desire to capture a certain group of people, a moment in time with young actors, young musicians, like Warhol had done with the screenprints.’

Are there any other artists that you have found inspiring?
W: ‘A Hockney joiner [the photo collages that Hockney began in the 1980s] made me realise I wanted to do art. I always thought I would like to make something that good that would some day influence someone else.’

How do you influence each other? W: ‘We bounce off each other.’
Z: ‘There’s someone who is completely on your wavelength and can understand an idea but can also come up with a new idea.’
W: ‘We live in our own world. I don’t really know what day it is, I try to keep track with deadlines and things but the work is everything. If Zoniel wakes up and has an idea, it can be all consuming.’

How did the two of you meet?
W: ‘At a cage fight. I did boxing when I was a kid and some of my friends still do that.’
Z: ‘I had never been to a fight and I have never been to one again but I remember the exact moment we met.’
W: ‘I remember it as well. She had this sparkly gold beret on.’

We have always dressed similarly but now we make a conscious effort…
It’s kind of like a harmonious uniform.

Where did the dressing in similar clothes idea come from?
W: ‘It’s kind of like a harmonious uniform. It means at openings and other places it gives you a degree of separation [from the crowd]. We have always dressed similarly but now we make a conscious effort. We love Gucci, Paul Smith. A lot of brands do more similar clothes for him and her now.’

Do you enjoy working with fashion?
W: ‘We have done a couple of fashion collaborations. For our MATCHESFASHION.COM shoot, we’re using this technique we call Light of Our Lives where we go out with matching cameras. Zoniel will find something interesting, take an image of it and I’ll take an image of her taking the image, and she’d do the same with me. You get this kind of diptych. It’s something we’ll do for the rest of our lives. I love the idea of having a retrospective 40 years from now.’

And else do you have coming up?
Z: ‘Kate Tempest has directed the Brighton Festival and she really likes our work. The project we’re doing turns the beach into different colours. We will ask people a question along the lines of, “Is art for everyone?” and with the answer of “yes” or “no” we’ll give them a pebble of a particular colour. The end of it is like an abstract picture of the debate. It’s people who never thought they would do that, getting into the ins and outs. That’s exciting.’

You are invited to join us at Phillips for a cocktail reception to celebrate Ultimate Campaign, a curated selection of exclusive photographs, including a collaborative installation by MATCHESFASHION.COM and Walter & Zoniel. Tuesday 16 May, 6.30pm-8.30pm. Phillips, 30 Berkeley Square, London W1J. RSVP here.


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