Olga Bubich talked to Hellen van Meene about the difficultues of shooting subjects from various cultural backgrounds, common features of portraiture in art and photography and the future that lies ahead of this genre.
When seeing Hellen van Meene’s tender intriguing portraits of adolescent girls, one can hardly confuse her works with anyone else’s. Well, maybe with Johannes Vermeer’s paintings due to the elegant composition with a lot of wise attention paid to the details and intricate work of the light on the girls’ faces which does create the atmosphere that brings the image out of the particular time and space.
Today the Dutch master from Alkmaar is quoted as one of the leading photographers of her generation. Her work was first exhibited in 1996 and has been shown around the world since then. Solo exhibitions have been held by Sadie Coles HQ in London (2000, 2008), Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago (2002), Folkwang Museum in Essen (2007), and Fotomuseum Winterthur (2008). Her work has also been included in major group exhibitions like the Biennale for Architecture in Venice (2000), Fotografen in Nederland een Anthologie at Gemeente Museum Den Haag (2002), In Sight: Contemporary Dutch Photography from the Collection of the Stedelijk Museum at The Art Institute of Chicago (2005), Family Pictures at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York (2007), Paris Photo in Carrousel du Louvre in Paris (2008), Faces in the Nederlands Fotomusem in Rotterdam (2015). Her photos are in the collection of many renewed museums, among which Guggenheim NYC & MoMA. In 2005, the American magazine Village Voice included her Portraits in its Top 25 best photography books of the year, and she was also rated the fourth most successful artist in the Netherlands in 2007.
In 2015 the amateurs of Hellen van Meene’s photography were happy to get closer to her works – the extensive collection of the portraits made in Russia, Japan, Latvia, Great Britain, the USA and Kazakhstan was brought to the light in the format of the book “The Years Shall Run Like Rabbits”. The photoalbum that borrows its title from W.H.Auden’s poem “As I walked out one evening” brings together over 250 images and presents the most complete survey of Hellen van Meene’s photography. It articulates the artist’s admiration of beauty, youth, innocence and undoubtedly proclaims them as eternal human values.
The critic Olga Bubich had a pleasure to interview Hellen van Meene asking the photographer about the difficulties of photographing her subjects in such culturally varied countries, about the links between the portraiture in classical painting and photography as well as about future that the genre of portrait photography has.
Bleek Magazine: My first question will regard your formal education. As far as I know you studied art in Art Academy in Amsterdam, did not you? And thus, not by chance that many critics compare your portraits with the painting of the 17th century. I wonder in which way really classical painting did influence your love and your choice of portrait as the central direction in photography.
Hellen van Meene: Yes, I studied art in Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam and I followed three years of photography. And, to be really strict, I am the photographer. I do not feel like a painter or something else, but I do have something in common with painting. This is light. Just like the painters of the old days I work only with daylight placing my model in front of a window or where the light is coming in. So, it is the source of light and the daylight that make my works have this “painting” feeling. And in the Netherlands we are known for a lot of famous painters who were keen on that. I never work in studio with a flash light or other artificial light and it brings me to use the same kind of “ingredients” as a painter. I look at the daylight and see what light does to the model, instead of creating the same atmosphere in the studio.
As a child I developed this feeling of light, visiting a lot of museums (and I still visit those museums), seeing Dutch, Italian and other painters… but I should say that it has never been my intention to copy what the painter was doing. It is more that you have all this knowledge around you or hidden in your head. It is like with other memories that you have – you just make connection with it!
I never made photos that would be completely based on an existing painting. I have always liked to make my own decisions and I do not like to follow the decisions made by others. Of course, it is a little bit tricky to say because everything has already been done – in photography, sculpture, painting… children, building, you name it, all has been done. But I always make sure that it is my own decisions. If some decisions turn out to have some resemblance to paintings, that is fine. As long as my basic instinct comes from what I myself decided to do.
My work also has so much resemblance to paintings because of the natural feeling the way I work with the model creates. Before I finally take a photo, it sometimes takes ten or twenty minutes. First I give my model all the attention she needs, I really look very closely and concentrated at her before I photograph her. This approach is far from just taking out your camera and snaping, snaping, snaping away. What I do is really like a painter working on a painting – looking, making decisions..
The only difference is that I love photography more because the quality is a bit quicker in a way. I mean a painting can last maybe for a few hours, but with photography in 45 minutes I can get the result that I need. What I can really wholly embrace and totally understand about the resemblance between my photography and painting is that we come from the same background.
Before I finally take a photo, it sometimes takes ten or twenty minutes. First I give my model all the attention she needs, I really look very closely and concentrated at her before I photograph her. This approach is far from just taking out your camera and snaping, snaping, snaping away. What I do is really like a painter working on a painting – looking, making decisions.
Bleek Magazine: Do you remember your first steps in portrait photography? What drove you to choose photography as your profession?
Hellen van Meene: I always like to make decisions really quick and the fastness of photography was something that really appealed to me. Photography is a medium which came to my life when I was 16. At that time I started to make photos of friends and neighbours. A funny thing actually is that when I was at Rietveld Academy I had a teacher who taught us painting… Well, I should explain first that in Rietveld students start with a basic year where they have to do painting, sculpture and drawing as disciplines fixed in the program. That year you get a choice every tenth week – you may choose other subjects like photography, interior decoration or other things, and you can only follow this course for ten weeks then changing it into something else. But drawing, painting and sculpture are through the whole year as basic elements.
And I remember being so happy about the Photography Department! My Photography teacher said that he really wanted me to that department and certainly I agreed to be there. But I knew that I needed to first finished my 1st year before I enter the Photography Department and it was really hard… My teachers were not so great as I was hoping they would be, they were very opinionated… They did not always give everybody the chance and they thought with me that I definitely did not have so much talent at all, but I was really on my place in the photography field. I remember that there was a teacher of painting with whom we did not really hang out so well because she was a difficult character and I was a stubborn character too and not an ideal student for her. And once I met her in the corridors and she came up to me and said: “Oh, it is so funny that you do so well! But I still see that you are doing girls and friends…” And I thought: “What? How did you say that?” Probably, it was for such a long time on my mind that I was not really aware that it was so natural for me to do so – making photos of friends or girls around in my neighborhood. I was surprised that she actually made me aware that I was already doing it, because I was not even conscious about that! It sounds a little bit silly to say but it was so natural for me to do it that! I have never thought that I was already doing it in the first year!
So, looking back at those twenty years I see that it has always been a red line – finding girls in the street, finding my old friends, or children of friends, in my neighbourhood or when I am travelling in another place. In 2010 or 2011 it was a shock that I could not do it anymore, and I discovered another subject. Actually, I think it has always been a very good study material, because if you focus on a certain subject, you can really understand your own photography well – it is like elaborating your handwriting. By doing portraits inside, outside, in another country, with language barriers, I focused so well on my subjects that it seems to me I can make a photo almost blind now – so great is my skill due to experimenting, and lots of constant learning.
Later on I realized that even finding a new subject was not so difficult as I thought because the skills you have developed will be the same when you do a different subject – like dogs, or dogs and girls, or even sometimes a still life of a dress. Because my handwriting is so clear now that I can do anything I would like to do.
Maybe twenty years ago I would not say I cannot do that. But now, almost being a grownup, I am really able to say so. Because now I know really well what I want from my subject: either it is a dog, or a penguin or whatever. I know what light is doing to a face, I know if you do this – then this is going to be the outcome, and of course I am still learning a lot of new things. But the basic elements of making an interesting photo are already so natural to me and I am happy to do the things I want. If it would be girls for 50 years, that is fine. Or if it would be dogs, or still life, or flowers – I do not care. It makes me happy to use things that bring me inspiration, and during these twenty years I learnt that almost everything can bring me that. And it would be sad if I realized I cannot learn anymore, because it means that I can just go and die.
Bleek Magazine: I have always wondered about you travelling all over the world and shooting in Latvia, in Japan, in Britain, in Kazakhstan… how did you really succeed in establishing a contact with the girls whom you had never known before? In one of the interviews you said that you always “guide the subjects” you photograph. So how did you establish this “guiding contact” with them not speaking their language?
Hellen van Meene: It was not a problem at all! Of course, in Russia not everyone speaks English so you need to have a translator. But if I see someone in the street and he or she does not speak my language, you need to have someone to at least clarify what I need from this person. But the funny thing is that after making my first contact and agreeing on the appointment with the girl and the translator asking her if she can come this or that time and bring this kind of clothing and bla-bla-bla when I actually start shooting they always understand what I want! Always. From Japan to other countries, it is always the same. You can connect with someone just by following your instincts, and it is a funny dance sometimes.
When I was 16 or 17, I had dance lessons. My Dance teacher was about my height – I am not really that big and the teacher was not that big either. So when he needed one person from the group to show new steps, he always asked me. And it was funny because when he called me to show these new steps, my brain already knew what to do! And even when I did not know these new steps he was like guiding me by knowing what I should do. I have never said that before but I think it is the same with photography or any other thing you do. If you know really well what you want and if you know really well what you would like to achieve, then you are able to do it! In spite of some little errors it always goes fluently – and I still see myself dancing there without really being so great but following my teacher easily and my feet knowing beforehand what to do.
So it is the same with making decisions in other fields. If you know and really want to do something, you can use different things than just words – you communicate in a different field. It sounds a bit spooky, I know. But I think that this is what is happening. I do not know if it is “chemistry”, or your character or your charm, or the combination of all these ingredients that makes you able to communicate with everyone else. So, for the first moment you need a translator to say: “Hey! We need this and that!” But after it, you do not need a translator anymore!
Bleek Magazine: And do you remember what country culturally was the most challenging one?
Hellen van Meene: Russia! Oh no, no, no. That is no fair, in Russia the only new thing that I found out was that it was better sometimes not to make appointments because they did not just turn up! Not always the case, of course. The most difficult country was America! I have got most collectors living in America buying my work but it is really the hardest country to work in.
Bleek Magazine: What was so difficult about it?
Hellen van Meene: It was difficult because people do not trust you! Especially, if you go to the south of America or even in New York – people are so suspicious. I mean we always make fun: “Ha-ha-ha, you did something to me, so now I can sue you!” It is like an American tradition: if something goes wrong, they sue people. I see it as completely disturbed, of course.
I cannot say that people who live in America are more suspicious than we are in Europe. That is ridiculous, of course, but when I asked someone in America in the street, especially in the south, people are more suspicious. It happened twice when they thought that I was a lunatic, they wondered: “Why would I ask this girl?” In other countries they say: “Oh, well! How nice!” In America they say…. it is like they do not believe you! They think you are lying, they want to see contracts, – they seem not to trust you so easily.
I remember that once when I was at my show in New York, I was watching TV in my hotel room.
And I discovered that the Americans have problems that do not exist in my country! For example, on TV they said there was a risk of your house being poisoned because of the tap water that gets into your house. Actually, there are lots of programs warning you about numerous things, as well as programs that wanted to sell you medicine. In my country that does not happen. Of course we do have warnings that say that you need to lock up your house because of burglars. But in America they have a channel with 24-hours talk shows about “oh, I am so sick because I did not the right quality of my tap water in my house!”
So, what I would like to say with this is that they warn about so many things! When my child goes to school unguarded, people in America would say that it is not possible. Even if your school is around the corner, you will be guided till the door. In our country we do not do that, we let children do the things by themselves. And by being overprotective, you make people more aware of all the dangers in the world. So when I tell them: “You child looks very nice! Can I make a photo of her?” instead of being flattered by the attention, they react differently starting to weigh the dangers. That is why I found it was hard in America, people did not trust me, they were suspicious in a very unnatural way and I felt like: “What’s happening?”.
Bleek Magazine: So, you would never go to America to shoot?
Hellen van Meene: I found out that the only way I could do it was to make out who I am, make an advertisement and then so many people would like to be my models and it would be much easier to shoot. So I should have a business card and an assistant and state from the very beginning what I am looking for. Then people are aware of what they are in to.
I remember that once I even had a police officer coming to me asking what the hell I was doing! He said I was not allowed to ask this woman and although the girl was totally fine and she even called her mother, the mother said she was fine too, the police officer still told me to get out of the park! Otherwise he said he could be sued if there would be something wrong! But nothing was wrong! He was so worried for his job that I could not speak to this girl in the park! And I could not make her photos! I should say that it had never happened to me before, never! So, if people invite me to America, I will make sure to have a really good plan otherwise it is too hard… they are too protective!
Bleek Magazine: And do you usually receive the feedback from the girls you photograph? Do you show them the photos? Do they recognize themselves? Have they ever reacted saying that they did not recognize themselves?
Hellen van Meene: The thing is that I am not the kind of photographer who is keen on making a photo where you look like you. Because it is not my intention. It is more like I see things in you, something that I would like to take out. And maybe I am taking out something you have not seen or known that you had. And then it is a surprise.
But most often people are very enthusiastic. And when I am completely happy with what I have done, you have to have a really strong mind to say: “Hey, your photo is a crap!” That is hardly possible to happen.
I can say that it is always a nice adventure together and the girls’ energy is always so great, people always like being around, because they like getting a lot of attention. Who would resist that? Mothers told me that I made their children more self-assured because of all this attention they got. If you are not a standard beauty that would be in the cover magazine then you would not be asked by the photographer. So they used somehow all their charm and I could see that they got wings on your shoulders and really felt like a beauty! And you are a beauty because that is the reason I ask you, isn’t it? You are beauty for different things: you have freckles, you are fat, you are thin, you have fair hair, you have long hair. It does not matter to me, as long as there is chemistry, I can do something with you!
Most of the time people feel really beautiful, they feel really great after all the attention and the result and everything, and this is a good thing. It is as if I give something back to the people.
The thing is that I am not the kind of photographer who is keen on making a photo where you look like you. Because it is not my intention. It is more like I see things in you, something that I would like to take out. And maybe I am taking out something you have not seen or known that you had. And then it is a surprise.
Bleek Magazine: What about you being photographed as a little girl? Did you have something like a family tradition of having group photos, family albums?
Hellen van Meene: When I was young we hardly had a camera, it was not so common then. Now you can do anything to let the world know what you are doing! I remember that I always loved looking in my photobooks as a child. But I hardly have memories of myself enjoying being photographed. It was not something that you could be aware of.
I think now moms can say it easier that their child does not like being photographed or it likes being photographed. Because either the parents make too many pictures with cell phones, tablets, digital cameras that sometimes children can get really against it. Or you get girls who like attention so much that they would always like to be in the photographs because they already get too much attention from their parents, being photographed all the time.
Bleek Magazine: My last question would be actually following logically what you have touched upon. At present everybody is speaking about the boom of photography, the world has never been photographed so much as it is nowadays. Where do you think this availability of photographic devices would bring us to? What kind of pictures, in your opinion, shall we see in galleries in 50 years’ time?
Hellen van Meene: Of course, with new techniques you can experiment more and you can find different solutions the digital and Photoshop can do for us. In the old days we had only the dark room for us to experiment.
Basically I can say that in future we might see some new things, but I do not think that really new things exist. Everything has already been done, and the only difference that makes worthwhile seeing what is happening in the galleries it that is has been done by some specific person. That is also what I say to myself. I do not care that everything has been done, I do not care that someone has already made photos of dogs – what matters is that I have never done that! Everything has already been done – but not by me. It makes me go out of my bed and do my thing, otherwise what’s the point? And that will be in 5o years time as well. We will probably see the same things but maybe with a different outcome. The subjects will always be the same.
And of course portraits will always exist, too. Because people like seeing themselves too much! Portraits will never go away. Maybe we will do them on a different material, I do not know, but for sure they will always stay.
© Bleek Magazine. All images: Hellen van Meene. Interviewer: Olga Bubich.