Ten to One, by Sylvie Zijlmans & Hewald Jongenelis

It’s not so inconceivable that a painting or sculpture would take years to complete, accumulating layers of meaning as the artist played with contour or color. But a photograph? Dutch husband-and-wife duo Sylvie Zijlmans and Hewald Jongenelis spent nearly four years on Ten to One, a large-scale photograph on view now at Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Shooting 4×5 negatives, the couple took a photograph each afternoon for ten days of a meticulously art-directed celebration held in a field in the Dutch countryside just outside Amsterdam. They combined the ten photographs to create a final image that gives the illusion of a sprawling afternoon affair — what the exhibition catalog writer Dirk van Weelden calls “a marvelous multiplication of festivities.”

Zijlmans and Jongenelis used only ten models for the shoot, with each model appearing ten times in ten different outfits. The models were friends of theirs — fashion designers, artists, filmmakers, an art historian, a teacher from their children’s school — most of whom had worked with the couple before. “Sylvie and I have been working together on commissions since 1993, and we always try to involve as many people as possible, to the point where producing the sculpture or whatever was an excuse for a gathering,” says Jongenelis.

But Ten to One soon became about much more. To make each outfit, the artists called on the services of 100 different Chinese tailors, traveling back and forth to Beijing over the course of a year, sourcing the fabrics, visiting and revisiting the tailors, dealing with import restrictions from the EU. “Working on Ten to One became like working on a painting,” says Jongenelis. “Everything was given the same amount of attention regardless of whether it would be visible in the final photo. Someone half-hiding behind a tree in the back got as much attention as someone in the foreground. When we were in China, it was like we were buying final parts of the image, not clothes.”

A magazine accompanying the exhibition, which is available here, catalogs the entire process. Of the couple’s strict documentary procedures, Van Weelden writes: “The facade of each tailor’s shop was photographed, followed by his or her workshop, what was made, and a large portrait of him or her. Then the labels that were sewn into all the garments and the receipts when the business was concluded. All the fuss and bother, the misunderstandings, the embarrassing situations and the unfinished jackets — all that was left out of the picture. They are a series of uniform images. Without explanation, interpretation, or drama.”