Representing the creative future

Ronald Stoops: documenting Antwerp’s greatest

Ronald Stoops sits in the sunny backyard of his Antwerp house, talking in short, to-the-point phrases about his long career in photography, in which he has shot the work of all Antwerp Six designers, except Ann Demeulemeester. In tune with the sound of our conversation is a stream of water and fishes swimming in a pond next to us. Every once in a while, one of Ronald’s many cats appears, like a shadow on the plastic roof above us, and Inge Grognard — his partner in both work and life — pops in every once in a while, tending the garden or answering emails indoors. A bottle of sparkling water stands between us and is left empty after one-and-a-half hour of conversation, which is much needed due to its quick-fire nature. It’s not necessarily an intentionally chosen mode of interviewing, but Ronald doesn’t seem particularly keen on exhaustively dwelling on fashion or photography-related topics. So, when mentioning the brevity of his answers and asking if there are other topics that he prefers talking about, he mentions that he is much more interested in talking about ‘real feelings’: how you feel, what you feel, how you walk in the street, what your hopes are, what you want to do in life — and a cheeky one: do you have a lover, somebody who you love?

While we end up talking, confidentially — not to be elaborately disclosed, about famous Belgian designers owning castles in the countyside (and spending Christmases there), holidaying in Bali, Iceland and Japan, buying Nick Cave records and Tinder love stories, our conversation initially started with that aforementioned quick-fire interview, and a first glass of water.

I’m interested in how your career started.

I started as a model for Walter [van Beirendonck]. After that, several fashion designers in Antwerp were starting out with their businesses and they needed photographers.

Was it easier in that time to start with photography, as there was little competition?

No, it was not that easy. It was in the time of film, so you needed to have more knowledge about techniques. Now everybody can make pictures very easily.

Do you shoot digitally now?

Of course.

How was it at the time, shooting analogue?

You had to go to school first and get a diploma. It was a ‘protected’ profession. You had to get your VAT registered to work as a photographer, and stuff like that.

At the time that you started, was the ‘Antwerp Six’ already formed?

No, Walter was still at school, Martin [Margiela] was still at school… Then Inge Grognard came to Antwerp and started working together with Martin…

And then, of course, there came the time that they all took a van and travelled around Europe.

I was there with them. We went to London and Paris, that’s how it started. They didn’t have shows at first, but selling points with press and clients coming, so they started with showrooms. Actually, for me, everything really started with Martin and his first show, which I photographed.

Did you take his portraits as well?

No. For me it wasn’t so interesting. He was just a normal guy, just a friend. You didn’t realise at the time how important he was going to be in twenty years time.

How long were you shooting for him?

I think it was the first 10 years, then he got so popular that I stepped back and focused on other things.

How do you feel about taking pictures now — has your approach changed in any way?

I’m still the same. I still work with A.F. Vandervorst and Veronique Branquinho, who I have been working with since they started their labels.

Ah, the ‘second generation’ of Antwerp designers. Do you notice any differences between the first and second wave?

No, it’s the same spirit.

What are your inspirations? Do you make mood boards?

Yes, sometimes I make them, but I forget about them quite quickly. I like to show ideas to people so that everybody understands what we’re going to do on a shoot.

Would you say that you have a signature style?

Yes, but I can’t explain it. It’s simple and always about using layers.

Do you dress in layers, as well?

No. I like a simple style. I don’t like to think about clothing and getting dressed too much.

Did you have somebody you were looking up to when you first started out?

Nick Knight. I saw the first pictures that he did for Comme des Garcons and they were really interesting. I liked many people. But now I look more at art, instead of photography. It’s more interesting, especially these days. When you see all the magazines, they’re almost the same. They’re too digital, and too ‘real’. Too clean.

In terms of references, what is important for you nowadays?

They have to be original.

How can you find something that is original?

You can feel it straight away. It’s something that’s very personal.

Are there any publications that you like these days?

At the moment, no.

You sound quite pessimistic, in a way.

Not at all, but there has to be a change. Magazines don’t look for ‘personalities’ anymore, they look for a ‘style’ and you have to fit in with the ‘style’.

Do you have any ethics when you’re working, are there any things that you won’t do?

I don’t shoot fur. I don’t want to get involved with animal stuff. It’s too commercial. You don’t need it anymore.

It’s an old perception of luxury, perhaps. What is luxury for you?

Free thinking.

What is beauty?

The same.

Do you have an assistant at the moment?

Yes, I have two.

Do you mentor them?

Yes, I try to. They like other kind of styles, but I try to make them see what work will be relevant forever. Many styles will change, like fashion. But you have to learn how to work with daylight, you have to learn how to work with people. You can’t use too many tricks. Tricks to me are kitsch, and they are empty. If you only see the trick, you don’t see the meaning.

What is the definition of good in photography for you, then?

When it touches you, and when you can recognise yourself in it. It’s like a good book: you can immerse yourself into it, you can understand it, and you can try to imagine yourself in the situation.

Talking about books, do you buy and read real books or do you have a Kindle?

No. I like real books. I like to look at the cover and feel the paper. I also don’t read books on the internet.

What do you read?

I like reading stories about psychology and art…

Do you have any favourite writers?

Not really.

Do you try to tell stories in your pictures?

Yes, but it’s not so important. I prefer feelings.

What are challenges for you nowadays?

Just to have a good life.

You don’t want to be concerned to produce a lot of new work now?

I don’t have to prove myself.

What would you say is your best work?

I don’t have to think about that, I like everything. Not when I’m shooting it, but after a month or two I think, ‘Oh it’s not bad!’.

Do you want to make better work every single time?

You’re only as good as your last work, so you have to. You have to have that ambition.

Here, the conversation turns to the castles, the holidays, to Instagram and freezing deceased pets. He shows me his upstairs-studio that looks out over a large art photograph he took, installed on a wall outside. The house is remarkably beautiful, old, light, with many wooden details. As we walk down the stairs and say good-bye, he mentions that fashion designer Jan-Jan van Essche actually lives and has his studio two doors down — right in time for me to go over and shoot his portrait to be featured alongside our interview with him. Antwerp: it’s a small world, after all.