Interview by Filep Motwary
Katerina Jebb’s way of documenting fashion, the body, garments and objects is a form of immortalizing diverse (or not) aesthetics and contexts as it goes beyond photography, releasing imagery from any notion of perspective. This painstaking digital scanning process re-contextualizes the gaze (our gaze) onto the historic or contemporary artefacts she encounters in such a precise manner that it feels almost like the work of an archivist.It has already been a year since her major retrospective, Deus ex Machina at the Réattu Museum in the French city of Arles, which featured 111 works—the biggest monographic exhibition of her work in 20 years.
Jebb is now busy preparing some projects along with her participation at the MET’s Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination exhibition—for which she has created some outstanding visuals—that opens in May and is curated by Andrew Bolton, adding one more remarkable project to her long list of collaborations with academics and museums.At first, we thought this interview would never happen, as Katerina had to decline our request due to a heavy schedule and her daily,long-distance phone calls with her retouchers and team in Paris.Two weeks after our first Facetime conversation in Paris, she calls me from Harlem, NYC.
FILEP MOTWARY: Katerina, we have already seen some of the scans you have created for the Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination exhibition at the Met Fifth Avenue. What was your brief and can you talk us through the process of this collaboration?
KATERINA JEBB: I was commissioned by the Met to make two books to illustrate the exhibition. The first book focuses on the collection of the Vatican and the second documents about 150 works from the history of costume and fashion. I employ a scanner to reproduce a precise facsimile of the object or costume and then I montage the files together to create a life-size document. This process has taken five months and the work of eight highly skilled retouchers to achieve the given results for the museum’s exhibition catalogue.
FM: This is not the first time you have collaborated with a museum and its curators. What is it about your work that academia finds so fascinating?
KJ: They may appreciate that it’s a brutal and precise document of an object. It’s a very exacting medium, which exposes the subject nakedly and throws the background into abstraction. The final document can be a compilation of up to 50 files montaged together, which is quite laborious and so the viewer can perhaps feel the time that was invested into each image. I call them hand-carved coffins.
FM: What does it mean to be free in photography?
KJ: To be free in photography or image making means making images only for oneself or only for those who entrust their vision to you.
FM: Is it frustrating to have a hierarchy forced on you while working?
KJ: I am never aware that there is a hierarchy. Of course, the objective is to render an object material in a digital landscape, which will eventually be published or exhibited without entering into a realm of hierarchy. My practice is very straightforward and recognizable as being mine so I am in a relationship of trust from the beginning.
FM: Why do you think we exhibit fashion in museums?
KJ: Fashion is one of the most persuasive languages in existence. It can be as powerful as art, theatre or music and it’s so easy to consume and dispose of. Exhibiting fashion in museums is a vital force, which speaks to all walks of society. It’s also a cultural necessity as fashion has amassed so much wealth and is able to provide funding for the structural preservation of museums the world over.
Almost everyone relates to clothing and can employ fashion as a daily practice to express himself or herself. The resting place of clothing and fashion is often within the confines of a museum where these relics live on as a testament to their time.
FM: We’ve been working on reconstructing the body and proportion through clothing for centuries…
KJ: Curiosity is an inherent personality trait of all human beings and is directly linked to progress. Humans are informavores: information and discoveries stimulate the brain in the same way that food and sex do and so by constructing new forms and functional attire, men and women can express a myriad of feelings.
FM: What about emotion in general? Can we manoeuvre emotion through fashion?
KJ: Certainly we can! Clothing is inextricably linked to emotion. Almost every woman remembers what she wore on the day that she met her husband, for her wedding day or to carry her baby home from the hospital. I don’t know how men remember clothing compared to how women do but I know that my emotional attachment to clothing is very present.
FM: In what way can you maintain a dialogue with your audience?
KJ: I am rather absent. My fluency of language and imagery in the domain of social networks isn’t very evolved. I don’t define myself by my presence on social media. I’m not against it for others butit’s not really my thing.
FM: It is important for your work to raise questions?
KJ: Yes, maybe. I may make a work because I want to understand what the subject is about.I act first and then I might question my action later, but often not. I’m quite accepting of the things I do. Honestly, I prefer others to ask the questions. Making things is so fulfilling that the question has already been answered in the making of the work.
FM: What would you say are the subjects that interest you the most and are the most consistent in your work?
KJ: Modern literature, strange objects, functional or dysfunctional, historical phenomena belonging to dead people. I am interested in marginal and obscure characters; people who escape the mainstream, who are off the radar and more specifically those who are free and live out of the system. I collect rare books and make scanned documents. I do this for myself and will eventually show the works somewhere. I like the conflicting aspects of “poetic brutality” and it’s a recurring theme in my imagery.
FM: I have always wondered why you photograph objects in the way you do.
KJ: No idea. It just comes out of me naturally. Actually,they aren’t photographs; they are scanned documents. There is a difference, primarily being the factor of time. Sometimes a work can take weeks. It’s not the same medium as a photograph, which can be taken at an exposure time of 1/25 of a second. The Tomb of Balthus took one day to scan in a Swiss village, one week to construct the montage and then one week to calibrate the colour balance and to make a 2.5-metre print.
FM: How much time did it take you to scan that bottle of Chanel No. 5 with the pieces of meat inside, for instance?
KJ: Not very long. I think it took longer to buy the meat and gently coax it into the bottle.
FM: How many years have you been serving the art of photography through HD scanning?
KJ: 23 years or so.
FM: And how this has helped you evolve?
KJ: It’s like occupational therapy. I am delighted to have a vocation.
FM: Does being misconstrued concern you?
KJ: No. The people who need and want to understand my work or me will understand. Life is too short to have to explain things.
FM: What would be your definition of freedom?
KJ: Freedom is the ultimate luxury and the ultimate goal in any given scenario. I am so lucky to have a lot of freedom.
Katerina Jebb is an artist working in several mediums.She lives and works in Paris.Dividing her time between art and commerce, her work can be seen in museums, galleries, magazines and advertising campaigns.Her output consists of various disciplines ; video, installation,human photocopy and photomontage .Jebb has devised a system whereby she employs domestic scanning machines to document objects, painstakingly rendering multiple digital files to create a faithful rendition of the original .