About

PAUL KOELEMAN | WORK – preface 

Paul Koeleman is a portrait photographer. He photographs people – and the occasional animal – and records and manipulates his subjects as if he were a movie director experimenting with poses, postures and expressions, composition and scenography, clothing, accessories and props, but also through the experiment with the photographic material itself.

To Paul Koeleman a portrait is never just a portrait because in his portraits he searches for the nearly unattainable: to capture that world we all carry within ourselves and to show how we project that inner life to the world at large. This seems an impossible task because does the representation of the physical and inner reality of a subject not always depend on the perception and the reality of the photographer? And what is in actual fact the reality of a picture? In his beautiful short story The Adventure of a Photographer, part of the collection Difficult Loves (1970), the Italian writer Italo Calvino tells us about Antonino Paraggi and his quest to try and grasp the reality of photography. In the course of the story the young Antonio changes from being a sceptical spectator, a ‘non’ photographer, into a photographer who is looking with increasing obsession for that one perfect picture. In the process, he develops a theory that critiques the snapshot because, as Calvino has Antonino say: “Photographed reality immediately gets something nostalgic, the character assumes a lost joy, a memorial, as though it is a picture of the day before yesterday. And the lives you lead in order to photograph it, is basically already a memorial of its self. The idea that a snapshot is more real than a portrait that one has posed for, is a prejudice … “ In his story Calvino examines the purpose, significance and popularity of the photographic image and he argues that photography is always about framing a particular moment in a particular way. Therefore the motivation for a photograph does not lie within reality, but in the creation of its own ideal, its own ideal image. And therefore it is also about love.

Good Old Gays (2008 -) is a series of double portraits of gay couples that have been together for many years, sometimes more than fifty. These are arranged portraits, carefully thought through and photographed in the familiar surroundings of the couple’s own homes. In this way Koeleman creates an associative visual framework for the intimacy between the partners, one in which he combines both actual and imaginary characteristics. In so doing he follows the long cultural and historical tradition of the portrait that not only portrayed the likeness of the sitter, but also, through clothing, environment and other details, expressed their social and societal status. Homosexuality is (of course) rare in this tradition and the relationships between two men or two women are still surrounded by prejudice and taboo. “The idea that gay men and lesbians just hang out in darkrooms and are unable to have long-term relationships is just not right,” Koeleman says. “The series shows that homosexual couples are absolutely able to have a long-term relationship.” In addition to these socio-historical references the pictures pay particular attention to the expression of the love between the people portrayed. Atmospheric and full of humour as they are, these portraits are anything but mundane. At times theatrical and exuberant, at others modest or shy, a little stiff and dignified, they exhibit themselves for the lens. Surrounded by their personal objects, emphasizing the intimacy of their relationship, the Good Old Gays give us a clear and moving picture of a lifetime spent together.

When you look at the portraits of Nelly however, it is almost as if you’re seeing double. You see a tormented woman, a joyful or fearful one. The slightly distorted face makes it difficult to guess her age. The Nelly’s I-6 (2013) are part of the series The Emotions I and is based on the book Face and Character (1958) of the recently deceased Dutch professor of Emotion Theory Nico Frijda. His book investigates facial expressions as the visible manifestation of emotions. In order to illustrate his theory, Frijda photographed his then wife, the young actress Nelly Frijda. He asked her to ‘act’ a wide range of different emotions through facial expressions. Many years later Koeleman had a conversation with Nelly and she told him how this went about. ‘Nelly, act happy, and now, Nelly, act sad.’

This anecdote inspired him to create a new series of portraits. More than fifty years after the original pictures he gave Nelly the same assignments as once upon a time her husband. He then placed Frijda’s old negatives – battered by time and water damage – on top of the new, while also adding scans from glass fragments and stains, and created the mysterious and layered effect of these ageless facial expressions.

In the series Emotions II (2015) you can see Nico Frijda, the famed researcher of emotions himself, in a virtual dialogue with actress Kitty Courbois, the grande dame of the Dutch theatre and someone who, like no other, knows how to depict human emotions. A remarkable encounter between art and science.

Emotions are clearly a recurring theme in the work of Paul Koeleman, he summons them and stirs them, masks and exaggerates them and plays with them. A theatrical use of mime, movement and gesture that often makes it seem as if the sitter plays a role within the context of his or her own reality.

The ancient Greek word for mask is maschera. In the classical Greek theatre, the actors wore masks not only to indicate their (social) role, but also to set them as different characters to appear on the scene. In order to prevent the audience from identifying a particular actor with a particular role, the mask served as a demarcation between the spectacle and audience, between fiction and reality.

Many people go through life with a similar, albeit illusory mask behind which they hide or cover up their feelings. In the series Anonymous Amsterdammers (2007) 28 known and unknown Amsterdam locals got to put on a white clay mask. After the mask had dried, they were asked to crack the clay using their facial expressions. Hidden behind the layer of clay they literally broke out of their anonymity and expressed their emotions, regardless of whether they were true or feigned. In Gesti Italiani (2009) however, Koeleman refers to the language of gestures and other physical signs that, often unconsciously, show what we feel or that we use to emphasise our words. Adorning a blank poker face actor Ton Heijligers expresses himself only in sign language, a sort of alphabet of visual communication.

The game with the mask gets a thoroughly unique form in the portrait of Ale from the Neon series (2008). A series that should also be read as research into the basic material of the photographer itself: light. The neon light tube that Koeleman mounted on top of the portrait of Ale functions as a mask of light. The light attracts the viewer and promises to reveal something but deprives us at the same time of the ability to dominate the picture in it’s entirety with our gaze. Both the portrait and the photographer look back at us and remind us ever so teasingly of our own subjectivity.

In the past a portrait conveyed a formalized (and idealized) image, today we are overwhelmed by a record number of snapshots of both ourselves and of others, forming a huge and almost grotesque collection of images of every possible mood. The portrait in itself no longer seems representative, but as the pictures of Koeleman show, the underlying language of the portrait is unchanged and ever resourceful. How and what it communicates to the viewer, the light voyeurism that it evokes, the blurred distinction between private and public, reality and imagination. A good portrait shows the complexity of the identity of the subject and how this manifests itself and can be expressed. For Koeleman the photographic portrait is a means, like Calvino in his story about Antonino Paraggi, to immerse himself in that ambiguous love triangle between the person portrayed, the viewer, and himself, the photographer.

Renée Padt – Stockholm 2016