Photography and acting are kindred spirits in the ongoing series by E2 - Kleinveld & Julien, entitled In Empathy We Trust. The project presents viewers with re-imagined iconic images from the history of art. The collaborators re-envision the work of old master painters beginning with the Flemish Primitives and spanning nearly 600 years.
With subjects enacting roles with varied representations of race, age, and sexual orientation, E2’s revisionist Art History works by artists such as van Eyck, Botticelli, Raphael, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Fragonard, Manet and Whistler. Inspired by the original paintings, E2 hopes to “jar viewers” into questioning their own perceptions. They invite viewers to see these images, and indeed the world anew, using humor, wit and playfulness. In addition, they hope that the viewers will see how stereotypes can lead to prejudice and discrimination.
The collaboration began in 2010, after completing work on the traveling exhibition and book project, Before (During) After: Louisiana Photographers Respond to Hurricane Katrina. This natural and man-made disaster brought social inequities in Louisiana into vivid focus. Conversations between Kleinveld and Julien revealed their mutual interest in issues of social justice.
E2 has been exhibited internationally in institutions such as: Royal Academy of Art (London), Photoville (New York), Gemeentemuseum (The Hague), Palazzo Fortuny (Venice), Museum Castelvecchio (Verona), Galerie SIRIUS (Tokyo), New Orleans Museum of Art and Ogden Museum of Southern Art (New Orleans). The duo is represented by JONATHAN FERRARA GALLERY, New Orleans and their work appears in numerous public and private collections, including: Benetton Collection (Treviso, Italy), Museum of Fine Arts (Houston), Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (Trento, Italy), Hilliard University Art Museum (Lafayette, LA) and The Marks Collection (Houston).
Elizabeth Kleinveld is an artist and photographer from New Orleans, now based in Amsterdam, who takes her inspiration from Paul Outerbridge: “Art is life seen through man’s craving for perfection and beauty.” For her, art is about creative self-expression and storytelling, allowing her to respond to what she observes in the world. While some of her work is about striving to express the beauty she sees, other work focuses on themes she finds politically important. Often, she uses art to transform her reality as she did in 2007, while working to come to terms with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Epaul Julien is an artist from New Orleans who began his career as a fine art photographer in 1995 when a near death experience changed his life. Creating art for him is a necessity, vitally linked to his existence. His method has also been shaped by the extremity of his circumstances. When the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina forced him to abandon his darkroom and bulky photographic equipment, he emerged with a new approach; six months of exile pushed him to use the images he had salvaged and to create a new form of mixed media.
As the photographic duo E2, New Orleans natives Elizabeth Kleinveld and Epaul Julien seek to remake images from art history to reflect their own experience of the contemporary world. Tackling icons from the great masters like Botticelli, Manet, Rembrandt, and Van Eyck, they recast instantly familiar images in a distinctly modern manner, breaking them free from centuries of historical context and placing them firmly in the present.
Kleinveld and Julien were introduced when each showed photographs in the traveling exhibition, Before (During) After: Louisiana Photographers Respond to Hurricane Katrina, for the storm’s five-year anniversary in 2010. They quickly realized a shared interest in matters of social justice and racial and socioeconomic inequality, which this natural and man-made disaster had brought into focus. Soon after, they began working together on In Empathy We Trust, an evolving photographic project seeking to examine contemporary social issues through the lens of art history.
The journey from the original germination of an idea to a completed E2 photograph is long and complex, often taking six months to a year. Both pre-production and the shoots themselves take place on two continents, as Julien lives in New Orleans while Kleinveld resides in Amsterdam. As such, the planning and execution of their shoots involve months of collaboration, with countless emails and phone calls exchanged. Kleinveld and Julien begin their process with online research and by visiting museums throughout the United States and Europe, searching for compelling images that resonate with our contemporary experience. They then seek to change the context of these images, replacing the original figures with contemporary stand-ins from all races and backgrounds, to more accurately reflect the diversity of the world around them.
Once an image is selected to be “remade with a twist,” they begin to find sitters (preferring artists, actors, and friends rather than models) representing a wide range of marginalized groups – African-American, Asian-American, LGBT – who have not seen themselves equally represented in media and art. After sitters have been selected, E2 begins the work of sourcing costumes. Their European shoots have involved costumes from the Dutch National Theatre in Amsterdam, Dutch costume maker, Bert Nuhaan and Studio Pietro Longhi in Venice, while their hometown shoots in New Orleans are a bit less glamorous, seeing them employ sources varying from thrift stores to friends’ closets.
The photographs themselves are the product of careful planning and production rather than chance – more Gregory Crewdson than Diane Arbus. Each shoot is a carefully orchestrated production, featuring up to a dozen sitters, as well as lighting, costume, staging and more. Kleinveld and Julien’s work as E2 sees them each taking on a myriad of roles, from auteur to producer to subject. The finished product is a result of intense collaboration and teamwork, with both Julien and Kleinveld taking turns behind the camera. After the shoots are completed, the work of post-production begins, where extensive digital collaging of subjects and background is often required. They often employ artists such as Italian painter Marco Ventura to hand-paint the backgrounds of their images, further blurring the lines between both photography and painting, and present and past.
In a world that is becoming increasingly stratified along religious, cultural, economic, and ethnic lines, E2’s photographs apply a new interpretation of icons from the past, making them more inclusive for the multi-cultural world we live in. E2 does not seek to make demands, but to pose questions: why shouldn’t Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring be Asian? Why can’t the iconic image of Washington Crossing the Delaware be adapted to show the first President as an African-American woman? For it is in these answers that we find the lingering doubts and biases that we often do not dare to acknowledge.