Hellen Van Meene
Hellen Van Meene b. 1972, Alkmaar, Netherlands
15 3/8 x 15 3/8 inches (39 x 39 cm)
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Purchased with funds contributed by the Photography Committee, 2001
Hellen Van Meene
Since the mid-1990s Hellen Van Meene has produced intimate photographs of adolescent girls whom she finds on the street. Like her fellow dutch photographer, Rineke Dijkstra, Van Meene is interested in adolescence as a fleeting, transitional stage. But unlike Dijkstra's large, full-length portraits of frontally posed youths, Van Meene's images are small and square in format, her models usually shown at half- or three-quarter length and at close range. Rather than confronting the camera, the young women in these photographs turn to the side, avert their gaze, or close their eyes. As a result, they appear to be caught by the camera in private, unguarded moments of introspection. But these photographs are far from candid snapshots. Although Van Meene uses only natural lighting and works in ordinary domestic spaces or outdoors, she maintains control over every element in her images, from the color and texture of the girls' clothes and props, to their pose and gaze. Van Meene is not interested in creating portraits; her subjects are anonymous—all of her works are untitled—and their real-life personalities remain obscured. Instead, she treats them as "objects you direct and guide" in order to achieve a "certain mood." Van Meene acknowledges a certain affinity between the production of her pictures and filmmaking. In their careful arrangement of color, light, and texture, her works also recall traditional Western paintings. In particular, seventeenth-century paintings from the artist's native Netherlands are echoed in the cool northern light that appears in the broody sky at play against a girl's transluscent, blue jacket, or in a softly lit domestic interior that recalls paintings of Johannes Vermeer.
Van Meene never idealizes her young models. Although they are costumed and choreographed, their bodies are those of ordinary adolescent girls, honestly recorded with baby fat, pimples, and other imperfections. The friction between artful effect and realism in her photographs is joined by an uneasy tension between the girls' lingering childhood and their nascent adulthood. In one image, a girl wearing heavy eye shadow touches a bubble of chewing gum in her mouth; the bubble echoes the girl's round cheeks, but also the shape of her breasts under the blouse. In another, the sitter's lace wedding dress, a traditional marker of womanhood, is juxtaposed with her knee-high schoolgirl's sock.