Artist Spotlight: Hellen van Meene Makes You Wonder

Hellen van Meene, Untitled (33), 1998; Chromogenic print; 11 3/4 x 11 3/4 in.; Gift of the Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.

“I am mainly concerned with things such as the lightfall on a white skin, bruises on an arm, hands which disfigure in water, and starting goose-pimples in frosty weather. Only then you see the texture of the skin so beautifully…. Besides this I pay a lot of attention to the right position, to the mise-en-scene, to matching clothes as well as their colour, to the gaze and posture of the model. I arrange everything, to the smallest detail, such as the nail polish on their fingers.”—Hellen van Meene

Eight of van Meene’s ethereal portraits are currently on view at NMWA in the exhibitions P(art)ners: Gifts from the Heather and Tony Podesta Collection (on view through March 6) and Eye Wonder: Photography from the Bank of America Collection (on view through May 22).

Hellen van Meene, Untitled (30), 1998; Chromogenic print; 11 3/4 x 11 3/4 in.; Gift of the Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.

Hellen van Meene, born in Alkmaar, the Netherlands, in 1972, creates carefully posed and styled images of young women and girls that still manage to convey a certain naturalism. She does not use professional models and often photographs girls from her hometown. When van Meene has been commissioned to work in other countries, most notably for her work in Japan, van Meene asks girls she meets there to pose for her.

Curator of Photographs Charlotte Cotton of the Victoria and Albert Museum explains: “It’s unclear whether we are looking at carefully staged or awkwardly struck spontaneous poses, whether these are girls dressed up for the occasion or caught in unself-conscious play. It’s tantilisingly ambiguous whether these are intimate moments that would be happening with or without the present of van Meene, her camera and our appreciation or if they are fully directed scenes that simply have the look of something intimate and fleeting.”

Hellen van Meene, Untitled, 1999; Color coupler print; 15 3/8 x 15 1/8 in.; Bank of America Collection

She works predominantly with younger models because of what she sees as their inspirational qualities. Van Meene finds in them an openness and freshness that is difficult to find in adults. “If you’re taking portraits of someone in their forties, you find they really know what they want, so it’s more difficult to pry them open, to get into their soul, to really get a feel of the person. It’s more difficult because they already know what they want from life; they already have experienced things, either positive or negative; and that results in a different outcome.”

The intimacy of theses works is further emphasized by their small scale. Van Meene’s tight framing, small size, simple props and settings, and use of natural light invites a personal experience between viewer and subject. The figures, though unnamed, are genuine and approachable.

Hellen van Meene’s photography is held in the collections of the Franz Hals Museum, Netherlands, Victoria and Albert in the United Kingdom and in the United States at the Guggenheim Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, and Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, among others. She lives in Heiloo, The Netherlands.

Works Cited

-Quoted in Hellen van Meene: Japan Series, 2002, by Karel Schampers

-Charlotte Cotton, “Between Friends,” Pop Magazine, Spring/Summer 2004, No.8

-Quoted in “A Conversation with Hellen van Meene,” 2008, by Joerg Colberg, jmcolberg.com