The photographer’s surreal images are on view at Amsterdam’s Foam Museum, showcasing a compelling universe where fantasy and history mingle
It’s the oldest story in the book: A woman gets punished for desiring something she’s not supposed to have. With Eve, it was the apple that got her pushed out of paradise; with Sleeping Beauty, it was the spindle that cost her a hundred years of consciousness. With the countless women in between and afterwards, it’s always the same results: shame, banishment, and suffering.
The Dutch photographer Carlijn Jacobs named her upcoming show at the Foam Museum Sleeping Beauty as a nod to these characters. With her work, she seeks to reframe the mythology of women who lust for more than what reality offers them—to show the dark places it brings them as the most fascinating places to be. “I think it’s quite interesting that women are always punished for their curiosity,” Jacobs says. “So I wanted this show to celebrate the curiosity of women, the beauty of women, the transformation of women, instead of going against it.”
Curiosity has always been the driving force behind Jacobs’s own work. She thinks “reality is boring,” and so she works to create a more compelling universe—one that is glamorous, glossy, phantasmagoric, and occasionally creepy. Her images are like fever dreams that follow a taste of forbidden fruit: An eye looks out from a pair of perfectly glossed lips; a row of naked mannequins stare vacantly into the distance; a woman in a white jumpsuit straddles an oversized Venus de Milo; a slime-green nail swirls like a corkscrew.
This capacity for world-building has made Jacobs into one of the most recognizable and prolific fashion photographers of our time. She has created editorials for countless magazines, campaigns for brands like Acne Studios, Loewe, Chanel, Louis Vuttion, Versace, and the cover of Beyoncé’s Renaissance album.
Yet while her images have had a big impact across popular culture, her interest in the medium started small. Jacobs grew up in a village in the Netherlands with a population of about 300 people. When she first picked up a camera, it was out of boredom.
“I was photographing flowers and things like that,” she says. “Then I had a friend who was making dresses, so we started doing photo shoots together.” Eventually, Jacobs’s sister’s boyfriend introduced her to Photoshop and After Effects, and she fully clicked with photography: “It was really inspiring, because he was like, ‘Look, you can make fire—but not in real life, with the computer.’”
That attraction to the idea of blending the natural world with computer-manufactured effects has become a defining characteristic of Jacobs’s work. It’s no surprise, then, that she’s been experimenting with AI, most recently in a series of images for Vogue featuring Bella Hadid, and a collection of works that will make their debut at Foam. “I think my interest in AI goes hand in hand with my interest in transformation and non-realistic art,” she says. “This is another way of killing my boredom and trying to explore a different way of working. I was playing with DALL-E, and I realized after a while that there are so many more programs. I got really intrigued, and now I’ve found a way of mixing my own photos with [this technology].”
When it comes to inspiration for images—AI or otherwise—Jacobs’s sources are varied and endless. “It’s cinema, it’s animals, it’s objects, it’s glass arts,” she says. “For example, I was walking down the street and there was this big building. I think it was Galeries Lafayette; it had this huge, metallic, yellow wall that the sun bounced off of, and it had an amazing light play on the floor. [My inspiration] could be something like that. Or it could be lip gloss. Or it could be Kabuki theater. I collect all these concepts, so even if I don’t explore them immediately, I have them archived somewhere. Then, when I do a project, everything comes together.”
The show at Foam is Jacobs’s first solo exhibition, offering a comprehensive look at her oeuvre over the years, including some new works. While she might find kinship with those curious and fallen women of mythology, in this instance, she is most like Orpheus, leading us through her particular fashion (under)world, a surreal terrain where lost souls wear lipstick. “I think it’s like taking a little look inside of my brain,” the photographer says. “I don’t really want to spell out what people [should] feel about my images—maybe they don’t like my brain, you know? But it would be nice if people left feeling a bit undefined, a bit strange.”
Sleeping Beauty is on view at Foam Amsterdam through January 21.