Animal Magic: Hellen van Meene Finds a New Path

Hellen Van Meene—Courtesy of the Artist and Yancey Richardson
Hellen Van Meene—Courtesy of the Artist and Yancey Richardson
Untitled 390, 2012

In 2010, Hellen van Meene, who is best known for her portraits of adolescent girls, unexpectedly started to make photographs of dogs. The decision to photograph canines came as a huge surprise to van Meene herself, who had been bitten by a dog as a young girl. “I was not thinking about dogs,” she told TIME. “We have cats and other animals in the house, but a dog? No way.”

Van Meene has always striven for a certain atmosphere and control in her photographs. From her earliest pictures of teenage girls from her hometown of Alkmaar in the Netherlands, made almost two decades ago, she has guided and directed her subjects like actors, positioning them with meticulous attention to detail. She has been less concerned with sociological aspects of photography than with light, shape, posture, gaze and general mise-en-scene.

Van Meene’s departure from her usual subject matter and her newly discovered interest in photographing animals was sparked while “making photos of my daughter with a Flemish Giant [a large white rabbit],” she says. “I had some film left so I took some pictures of the rabbit [alone], more for fun than anything else. When I checked the film, I thought it was quite interesting.”

“It got me thinking of taking photos of other animals. Where I live [in Heiloo, a town in the province of North Holland], we all have big gardens with horses, goats, chickens or other animals.”

But van Meene was unsure which animals would work for her pictures. She tried to take photos of her neighbor’s rooster — “but he didn’t really listen.” Winter came, and van Meene tried photographing a goat, “but goats have funny devilish eyes and they don’t listen, either.”

A month later, after the unsuccessful goat photos, van Meene’s good friend, the owner of the Flemish Giant, found an old family photo from the 1920s of a dog standing in a studio.

“Nowadays everyone has a smart phone and digital camera,” van Meene explains “but in the Twenties people only made one photo each year in their best dress. It was special that these people had their own dog photographed in the studio. I realized that, for some people, dogs are one of the family.”

The found photo was the inspiration that van Meene had been searching for. “I saw the picture and I thought to myself: I need to make photos of dogs. It all fell together. Although I was afraid of dogs, my instincts were so right to do it.” To her surprise, the dogs did listen, and a new world opened up for the photographer.

Not wanting to give up the portraits that she loved making, van Meene decided to combine the two and photograph the dogs and girls together. “I didn’t pick them out because they resembled each other, but because there is some chemistry that could work well,” she says.

Aesthetically and formally, as with van Meene’s earlier work, her latest dog and girl photographs reference paintings by the old masters and employ familiar motifs from art history. They also recall Victorian studio portraits and are intentionally left open to interpretation. Although they have a very specific mood and atmosphere, it’s difficult to gauge whether they were made yesterday, or 50 years ago. They trigger nostalgia, “a warmer feeling — that longing for the past.”

A show at Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York, opening this week, presents the pictures of girls and dogs with more familiar van Meene portraits of girls alone, alongside an even more recent development in van Meene’s work — still lifes.

Earlier this year, while working on an editorial commission at a friend’s old family house in Ireland, van Meene photographed dresses as still lifes, treating them as characters in themselves — without models in them — positioning these extreme high-fashion clothes in such a way that they felt more like a woman in a painting from the 1800s than a contemporary fashion photo.

“I’m not only focused on the girls any more,” van Meene says. “They will always be with me, but it opened up my eyes — a dress can be a Hellen van Meene girl even if the girl is not in there.”

“I did girls for 18 years. Why would I do dogs? I never thought I would do still lifes, either. It is such a new way of thinking,” she says, “but I realize if I keep my heart in it, I can do almost anything and can keep my signature.”


Hellen van Meene is a photographer based in The Netherlands. Her latest work in The Years Shall Run Like Rabbits, is on view at Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York from November 8, 2013 – December 21, 2013.

Phil Bicker is a senior photo editor at TIME.


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