Photographer Hellen van Meene's art radiates softness and quietness, so it comes as a surprise when she finally declares, "Stand up. Show your hairy balls. And mine are really big and hairy, I promise you that." We are deviating from talking about art to discuss Trump and women's rights, so perhaps nothing is off limits. She's telling me about how she thinks women should rebel against being singled out and pushed into a corner, in art and in life.
This Dutch photographer has been photographing adolescent girls around the world for two decades, using natural light and carefully staging shots that come out looking mysterious, eerie, and sometimes terrifying. In Terrains of the Body, which opened this week at London's Whitechapel Gallery, a selection of Van Meene's pictures sits with the works of 16 other contemporary female artists who have aimed their cameras at the female body. They were drawn from the collection of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, in Washington DC, the only international museum dedicated to art made by women.
From Nan Goldin's intimate yet uncompromising self-portrait in bed, to Anna Gaskell's dreamlike scenarios played out by young girls, via Nikki S. Lee's recreations of American subcultures, or Shirin Neshat's complexly meaningful hand portraits, the show includes photography and video, going from 1970s feminist art to Marina Abramović's performance art—and it definitely feels like it should be bigger, incidentally.
Van Meene is as enigmatic as her images. "I am not interested in just a beautiful picture. That a photo makes one feel slightly uncomfortable is not necessarily a bad thing. The best compliment for me is for people to stay and look at my photos longer and make up a story." She seems to have perfected a sixth sense in finding her subjects, whom she approaches on the street—mostly in her hometown of Alkmaar, but also in Japan or Russia. She calls them "jewellery that people walk by and don't notice," insisting that she chooses people who don't have the conventional "perfect" features of the fashion industry. "For me, it's more challenging to find somebody on the street. I take them out of the shadow and put them in the light."
Accidentally predicting the Instagram aesthetic, Van Meene started using a square camera in 1994 and has continued to take square portraits to this day. It forces her, she says, to get pickier because she can't show everything. Her compositions are carefully staged and planned. Dreamy and ethereal, they often transmit a sense of quiet tension—while the light and composition recall Vermeer paintings, the subjects often appear to be lost in time and space, detached but tense, and objects and clothing often appear inside out, out of place or otherwise disturbing. They capture the awkwardness of adolescence, but they also seem to depict a strange, emotionally-removed world.
She says her work is a "combination of chemistry and attention," and prides herself in managing to intuitively connect with her subjects at an intimate level. She passionately tells me about this 11-year old Russian girl she met on the street, who eventually agreed to pose for her after a drama-filled, lost-in-translation exchange with her brother.
"It felt like she was growing in the pictures and that she was turning into a Velázquez." The picture does shockingly resemble the girl in the Las Meninas painting depicting Infanta Margaret Theresa of the Spanish royal family. "I only work with daylight, so I have to come and stand close to a window where the sun comes in, and that's exactly what painters did. But I still feel like a photographer. I think Dutch painters were so good, even though you don't think about them they're part of your inheritance. You go to so many museums as a child, they're probably hidden in your mind."
Van Meene asks me, "Do you see age? Do you actually care about their age when you look at the pictures?" Her subjects do appear to be oddly ageless, and she says that is precisely why she has continued to photograph young girls and teenagers, after accidentally starting when she picked up a camera at 15 and photographed her friends. "Younger people have the ability to fool us into different ages. Their face is so open to different interpretations. It's not about the young skin, it's about the openness in it, the chemistry that takes you beyond that and reminds you of other things." She purposefully captures images that are not attached to a time or a place. "I don't want people to be able to tell when they were taken, because that's not important. By telling this child to straighten her back and lift her chin, she is growing into something different beyond her own imagination."
While she wants to leave the individual meanings of her artworks to the viewer, her work is a statement against beauty standards and the relentless striving for "perfection"—a word she keeps bringing up—of the fashion, beauty and health industries. That is her message. "Work on shaping up your inside and your inner strength. The outcome doesn't really matter. I don't care if you're perfect; you are perfect for me. You might not be asked to pose by a commercial magazine, but you are so powerful that everyone will remember you as a Velázquez."
Terrains of the Body is at the Whitechapel Gallery until April 16, 2017.