The last few years, I visited expositions of some Dutch (female) photographers that have in common the theme of the portraiture of girls. For the most part, they are in a kind of quiet, intimate, minimal, unstarched style, in natural light, intended to portray the girl herself. There was no idea of deep meaning beyond the fact of the model—however valid a deeper expression may be. So we are speaking of a simple portraiture of the girls—within the bounds of the photographer’s creativity. There is none of the emphasis on light and darkness, symbolism, mythology, etc. This is quite different from the work of say, Jan Saudek or Irina Ionesco: no touch of heaven or purgatory. Consequently, it does not really matter whether the photos were taken “en plein air” or in a studio.
One of them, Vivian Keulards, has been censored for two bare portraits (or was it the red hair?). This case seems to be a matter of the eye of the beholder. Judge for yourself, along with a few other examples of her work and the work of three others. Originally, I had only wanted to write about Keulards because I read in a newspaper that two of her portraits—including one of her daughter—has been removed from an expo in the Art Gallery in the WTC, The Hague. A similarity with some other photographers came to mind. This was a good occasion to show something that was going on that had nothing to do with whether there was some kind of typically Dutch style of photography. This question might be better discussed in another post.
Photographers like Ata Kandó, who died only last September, whose work—at least her books with her children Dream in the Forest and Kalypso & Nausikaä—might be called fictional, fairy tale-like, mythological—apart from it being a kind of fashion photography with her children. That is to say, there are moments of reality that appear unexpectedly. In that ‘light’, what happened to Keulards is a repetition of ‘darkening’ history. In an interview Kandó tells (translated from Dutch):
There was actually no money for it, but I felt that my children were entitled to go on vacation, and that’s why we went hitchhiking. I like to photograph children, because they are photogenic and sweet. In prudish Paris they didn’t want to publish Dream in the Forest. The girls had no breasts yet, but stood on the picture with bare upper-body and the French media found that it had to do with sex. I was very angry about that, for me that work was totally poetic and innocent, like in a fairy tale.
Here two pictures from Dream in the Forest. I tried my best to find a ‘decent’ and an ‘indecent’ one.
Here the two images of Keulards, who would not have been censored without bare upper torso, with other work by her, who could have been censored as well, if these had also showed bare torsos.
For years now I’ve been fascinated by red-headed children. In 2007, I made the first portraits in the series ‘Flaming Grace’. Until today I’ve photographed many red-headed children, not only in The Netherlands, but also in the US and Ireland. Why? Simply because I think they’re breathtakingly beautiful! I find these children mystical and magical and they push my creativity to the max. They’re visual poetry to me! Along the way I learned a lot about the red hair MCR1-gene and heard many stories and myths. Some people say redheads will likely be extinct in the next 100 years. This is because the gene is not dominant enough to survive. I don’t know if it’s true, but if so, I might even have written history.
The other artists did not focus on red-headed children, but I found a few examples and added them at the end—excepting Kandó whose work is mainly in black and white.
This is a film still from a video installation I saw in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, in a ‘black box’ rather than a ‘white cube’.
Pip Starr commented on this last image by Dijkstra:
This is a strange image. The little girl is topless, which is odd considering the time and place the photo was taken: Coney Island, New York in the early ’90s. Unlike in Europe or other parts of the world, little girls going topless at an American beach is highly unusual, to say the least. Moreover, bucking the usual trend for these kinds of photos, this girl does not appear to be very happy. She’s frowning, and her arms are crossed defensively. Award-winning photographer Rineke Dijkstra is Dutch, but perhaps her subject here was not, and while Dijkstra clearly saw nothing out of the ordinary in having this girl pose topless, the girl herself seems less than thrilled at the prospect. Then again, the little redhead could be upset about something entirely unrelated. Who knows? This subject is now an adult, and I’d be curious to learn what was actually going on in her head at the time this was taken
Most of Rineke Dijkstra’s portraits are poses like this. Seriously, whether topless or not (with or without red hair), Dijkstra created a whole series of child and adolescent portraits, in bathing suits at the beach. Some seem to be topless and would have been more usual on a Dutch beach. About her models she said:
With young people everything is much more on the surface—all the emotions. When you get older you know how to hide things.
Hellen van Meene has worked with many models, but I choose to present here two of the same model, with dogs and one earlier work with a red-haired girl. Maybe she is the least unstarched, compared with Keulards, Dijkstra and Bouma—though also with natural light. In comparison, van Meene is more dreamy, like Kandó, but more awake. Maybe even a kind of sweet, dry humour, with her series on ‘Dogs and Girls’ in mind. There was some biographical basis for this: as a child, she had been bitten by a dog. The decision to embark on this series featuring dogs came as a surprise even to her.
Here is some more about her work and one of her books, The Years Shall Run Like Rabbits. Here van Meene mentions that she does not find it important to identify her models, therefore her work is mostly untitled. Her careful staged images seem to want to capture moments in time, but with a sense of timelessness. Indeed, these girls (and dogs) are without a clear sense of time or place. The girls, though, can be different on another day, especially when they are in-between and growing up. I experience these portraits as portraits of the girls themselves—modelled, yes, but after themselves.
Aline Bouma, 25, had an exposition titled Twelve in the Utrecht City Theatre. It was her exam project as a documentary photographer.
Here is a comment about it that, unfortunately, can no longer be found online:
12 / 24 – What goes on in the world of twelve-year-old girls? Are they already having their first crush? Or are they climbing to the top of the tallest trees? When Aline Bouma reached this fascinating age, her mother passed away, causing all these fleeting memories of being twelve to become a giant blur. Her father had stopped taking photographs, and so there is no visual account of this period of her life. The only things that remain of these memories are small diary fragments that she kept as a girl. What she must have looked like back then is a mystery, with just her imagination and memories that have been warped throughout the years as all she has left to go on. With this project, Aline brings you into the, for her, unknown world of twelve-year-old girls. By photographing them, she creates an indirect self-portrait in which she tries to rediscover the year that had been lost to her.
Why have the two portraits of Vivian Keulards been taken away? Was it because the boy holding a balloon in front of his head was topless with a bare torso—or perhaps it was the red hair? The hair of the girl, holding deer antlers on her head, also topless, was red as well—or rather dark blonde. Someone or ones unknown working at this WTC took offense of it. Whoever it was, I assume what plays a role is, that this is a gallery within the context of this WTC. In the Netherlands there are a few such WTCs, roughly modelled after those in New York.
Now that these actions have taken place, one’s gaze can now be thought of as “spoiled” when it would not otherwise have been. Why should one’s gaze be tainted by looking at a serious but playful picture of this girl holding her deer antlers—bare and topless notwithstanding? Come on! Maybe one thought it would be a distraction. Can we no longer allow these portraits to speak for themselves or are business interests so paramount that these companies dare not risk losing commercial clients? Now it is impossible to say what my first impression would have been, now that these have been taken away from the display. On the other hand, without it, I might not have heard about it and seen it at all. My best guess is that my first impression would have been that it is merely a girl with deer antlers and would have pondered the mysterious mixture of her playful yet serious gaze. Is there something about her pose or her physical appearance that is supposed to be erotic? In truth, I do not even find it really sensual; and even if it were, what of it? An artist contributes to her cultural paradigm and should not be taken away assuming it has not been produced by abusive means.
None of this was ever the photographer’s intention. Keulards shares her own account of what happened (translated into English):
Last weekend, I got a phone call from WTC The Hague Art Gallery that they took two of my portraits off the wall. Since October 19th, two photo series hang on the walls of the gallery: “Flaming Grace” (portraits of red-haired children) and “Bloody Mary and Sloppy Joe” (documentary portraits of my time in the US). Business people walk by my work daily as the gallery is located within a commercial environment. An international company, renting an office within the WTC, complained that they think two images in my exhibition are offensive. It concerns portraits of two children with bare upper bodies: a red-haired little boy and the other one is my own daughter. The gallery has decided, after consultation with the WTC Executive Board, to take these images off the wall. They said they had no choice, they needed to respect the decisions of WTC.
The entire weekend I was upset because of this action. Of course, photography and art are a matter of taste, you’ll find something beautiful, or not. But to qualify my work as offensive? That’s a comment I heard for the first time. I became emotional after hearing about this, but it took very little time to discover where this feeling came from. These portraits, that I made from the heart, where I tried to show beauty and innocence, have become infected. That makes me sad. Who on earth looks at these portraits this way? At my own child? What goes around in these viewers’ heads? That’s what gives me the chills!
That what these viewers see, and what I have intended to capture, are miles apart from each other. Through my eyes there’s nothing, absolutely nothing sexual or offensive in these portraits. The fact that someone sees something totally different says a lot about this person. To let this issue pass me by silently felt very wrong. I have to stand up for myself and my work. In fact, I also need to stand up for our community of professional photographers. Creative freedom suffers when we do not speak up. Where do you draw the line between what is acceptable and what is not? A difficult discussion in these times, but I do know that I find the vision of this company heavily exaggerated, hypocritically prudish and narrow-minded. When I made this portrait of my daughter in 2010, she was six years old. She was like a fish in water in the nature of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. Together with a friend they were pretending to be deer, holding the antlers to their heads. As a mother, I found this touching to watch. I saw my fragile girl happy and confident again in this outdoor setting, and this after a difficult time as a preschooler in the Netherlands. That’s what I put in this portrait and nothing else! My images often leave room for interpretation. In fact, it cannot be otherwise, because everyone looks at images with their own filter, their own luggage filled with experiences, education, upbringing, standards and values. However, I find it insulting that my images are found offensive. I simply don’t understand. This just happened in the Netherlands, where we still had a high standard of openmindedness and tolerance. Which is exactly why I want to share this story. If we do not raise our voices on these kinds of issues, against this censorship, even coming from a commercial, business world, we create a ridiculous taboo. This is not what we want.
Maybe the artist should have taken away the rest of her art from this gallery; the artist deliberately left her pictures there with two empty places till the end of the expo. I went there to find the two empty spaces on the wall where the photos once hung. At least I found most probably one.
These pictures come from two series. ‘80349, Bloody Mary and Sloppy Joe’, about her time starting in 2010 in America. The second is ‘Flaming Grace’, portraits of red-haired children, compiled in a book of the same title. The series was originally titled ‘Elusive Beauty’.
Keulards writes that her portraits are staged. Probably that is what I see in them: serious, deep gazes. Sure, they are posed, but not merely so. It is as if the photographer was waiting until she could see a kind of drama—an elusive grace. Although the artist’s daughter does not actually have red hair, two souls with ‘flaming grace’ were taken away from this expo, and therewith its soul; for who might have walked by wondering about the white, empty parts of the wall that could not handle the weight of such portraits. Rather silly for a wall, don’t you think?