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Hanneke van Velzen

Of a different nature ... a catalogue of natural selections

Hanneke van Velzen work from 1992 - 2002

Of a different nature ... a catalogue of natural selections


Standing Stones various locations in England and Scotland, 1997

Cattails Harriman State Park, New York, 1999

Tr e e Tr u n k s various locations in The Netherlands, 1998

M u s hr o o m s Swamps of southeast North Carolina, 2002

Tr e e To p s Prospect Park, Brooklyn, 2001-2

J-mo/mo I-sqr.beest B-clospook D-gsha G-madon H-laylad M-pregn tedbr williew brombr major bug fair ladyhair NHallover MarZHippie MarZHscheef deadhlk Thetree multitree dijkNHtopheavy A19-ear A12-drd C31-yo.ti C24-ou.ti I A9-fce A16-man.k A3-spl.hrn skelt grleavesblue yelloak leggegele forsyth hem.mas oakoberhead

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Standing Stones various locations in England and Scotland, 1997





















As a child, I was infatuated with menhirs and loved the character Obelix in the comic strip “Asterix and Obelix� for habitually carrying one of them around. Their attraction for me has to do with their mystery and mythical associations, whether they are interpreted as temple complexes aligned with the heavens or as human beings who were turned to stone for misbehaving. They appeal to the subconscious, and photographs of them are very powerful when printed life-size.








Cattails Harriman State Park, New York, 1999



















The Standing Stones series left me fascinated with transformation and made me reread Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Walking around with that mind-set, I found these cattails irresistible. Having grown up in a cold country, I had never seen cattails exploded by the heat. Their shapes range from characters from movies Aliens and Gremlins to fairies, dancing dervishes, and teddy bears.








Tree Trunks The Netherlands, 1998-99




















Here, too, Ovid’s Metamorphoses was on my mind. In this case the changes areman-made rather than due to the wrath of the gods. Owing to the yearly cutting of their branches, which are used for various practical and industrial purposes, these willow trees have acquired contorted shapes and individual characteristics. This has been going on for centuries, and many trees have not survived the onslaught.








Mushrooms Swamps of southeast North Carolina, 2002
















C24-ou.ti I


C29-ou.ti II



My fascination with North and South Carolina has a lot to do with their history and music. The southeast area of North Carolina, one of the first places in America colonized by Europeans, is now impoverished. I was photographing abandoned houses overtaken by nature there when I saw a huge ring of mushrooms in front of one of them. The mushrooms were large and curiously shaped. They were all very different and somehow evoked the personalities of people I had just met during a bluegrass music festival. While taking these pictures, I imagined the mushrooms as big shields hanging in a circle on a wall. They remind me of mandalas.








Treetops Prospect Park, Brooklyn, 2001-2






















I took these photographs at a time when New Yorkers were preoccupied with the sky and the horrors it had brought. Looking up had become second nature. There had been charred papers flying over Brooklyn, but there were beautiful tree canopies above as well. Beauty seemed a good antidote. 58

While enhancing the colors in the computer to match the splendid hyperreal hues of fall and spring that film cannot capture, I started mirroring the images. The symmetry and decorative qualities of such images of nature, as Ernst Haeckel demonstrated in his book Art Forms in Nature, are a happy coincidence, as are the resemblance to totems and sixties drug-induced imagery.








Layers between the daily grind and the collective subconscious Edie Peeters

We’ve agreed to meet at Schiphol Airport. The photographer has just arrived from New York, where she’s lived since 1987. She doesn’t know me. I’ve only seen her once. The plane had a tail wind and landed ahead of schedule. I’m running late. Scanning the arrivals hall, I see hundreds of people walking, waiting, watching. People drink coffee, they hug, they chat. My eyes sweep like searchlights. Then suddenly I see her, and she me. We shake hands and exchange pleasantries.

An interview consists of questions and answers. Concentrating on words and ideas. That leaves little time for other things. Balancing on the airport’s people movers. Joking with the man in the elevator about the names for the parking areas. Do we want “Bike” or “Race Car”? We get in the car. Leave the garage. Credit card. Billboard for Jaguar at the barrier by the exit. Hands on the wheel. Shift gears. Signs above the highway lead us to Amsterdam.

This isn’t how you write an interview! But it is how the photographer sees things. “If someone asks me about my work, I always tell them that I like to consider how an alien, someone from another planet, would view all these ordinary things and people here on Earth. I think the fact I came to the United States from another culture, however Western, influenced that way of looking at the world. It’s similar to the unbiased way a child looks at things. When you have to survive in another world, getting as much information as possible from all sorts of different sources is of the utmost importance.


I found that when one understands the basics, the true art of being part of a foreign society is in the simple details. So I try to look at everything with curiosity, as if I were seeing it for the first time.”

Are people on the beach merely people on the beach? Are mushrooms just mushrooms? Are digitally altered images of trees simply a nicely executed graphic exercise? If so, then this interview is already over. The quicker the better - we’d like that very much, since all of us are wrestling with time constraints. Look at the people waiting for the subway. Do they realize that reality consists of multiple layers, just as those viewing Hanneke van Velzen’s work recognize and hopefully experience that even photos of reality are more than two-dimensional representations - that precisely that flat, artificial representation makes the viewer think, or better yet, feel something? That’s what the photographer II

wants to elicit - an appreciation of the many layers sandwiched between the daily grind and the collective subconscious.

Hanneke van Velzen not only has the eye of a child or an alien; she also possesses the feel of a scientist. “Just living my life I see things, like mushrooms or lying on the beach, that are considered really ordinary but that would strike me for one reason or another as not so ordinary if I had come from another world. I’m always reminded of an anthropologist researching a culture. The people of the culture find their own eating habits and utensils, for example, so normal that they never think much about them, but the researcher derives many conclusions from such a simple given.”

The photographer is curator of her own musée imaginaire: “The museum of natural history is a frame of reference for me. I see my work not as individual pieces or even as

single series but as a collection. The photographs relate to one another, individually and as groups. They are different facets of what I call life. Besides the ones in this book, I have series on snakes, pregnant women, plant bulbs, crying children, dog toys, feet, and so on. In the right relation to one another, they will tell a story about culture and nature and the relationship between the two. In my mind, that’s what a museum of natural history does. But it also raises questions. Does culture imitate nature, or vice versa? The answer has to do with how we view things, as they are represented in totems, cartoons, myths, and films. How do archetypes, stereotypes, artifice, and nature relate? My dream is to exhibit in a museum with many rooms where all these series will weave their web and tell their shared story. Where they will become what you might call a complete experience.”

Occasionally Van Velzen uses words such as “spiritual,” “meditative,” and “magical.” “I love peace and quiet, and I’m fascinated by the hidden and the mysterious.” But don’t get her wrong: she’s no dreamer. She’s searching, as we all are, for some order in the barrage of stimuli.

She’s a photographer and thus concerned with imagery. “The series Five White Males recalls Civil War–era photos taken to identify dead soldiers. The soldiers were stood upright in their coffins and photographed. I reversed things by first photographing my subjects as they were lying down and then standing the photos up. The Tree Trunks series echoes Ansel Adams. The black borders around the pictures of laughing black women draw from 1980s photographic tradition. Printing the negative edges was a hard-earned right for photographers, proving they had produced a finished image. The Tree Tops call to mind drug-influenced imagery from the 1960s.”


Van Velzen creates typological photography inspired by the work of August Sander and Karl Blossfeld. Just as the more recent German wave led by Bernd and Hilla Becher, she sees her way of photographing as a reflection of the medium itself. “Photography is reality. You photograph what is. But ultimately you still do it for the subjective value. Photography is always about projection. Whether it’s people, rocks, or cattails, you can project anything onto them. But it is always the viewer who sees himself, or at least something of himself.”

That insight makes the photographer wary of portraits. The tension is palpable in the two series Underground 33 and Boardwalk. The principle of pure registration is strained. “The titles I gave these photographs were based on external visual clues so that when I would see one as a file in my computer I would know what the image looked IV

like. I recognize that they teeter close to stereotyping. It shows the ambiguity of facts and the judgments we all make when dealing with or describing others.”

Van Velzen’s recent work has become increasingly more abstract and ambiguous, compared with the clearly identifiable messages seen in earlier series such as Five White Males. “My work used to be more political. Five White Males was inspired by a Laurie Anderson video in which she turned her camera on every man who whistled or made catcalls at her, reversing the roles.”

For many men, the life-size, upturned images of their naked peers are confrontational. “Naturally there’s an entire tradition of photographing nude women, and nobody is shocked. There are photos of naked men, but many of them are erotic or romantic in nature, as in the tradition of the female nude or of homoerotica. I was aiming for

reversing the gender roles and showing male vulnerability in an unemotional fashion. My projection was more important than the personality of the men, as in most nude photography.”

Van Velzen took another step in her artistic development with series like Standing Stones, Cattails, and Mushrooms. “The change has to do with the position of power you have as photographer. It frustrated me that one can never truly capture a personality in a photo. You can never do people justice, even if you have their permission to take their picture. The portrait becomes a reflection of you as the photographer.”

That Van Velzen’s work is constantly changing fits well with one of her themes: transformation. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a Latin classic that has guided so many artists, is a source of inspiration. She’s fond of classical myths in which the gods punish mortals for misbehavior by changing them. Explanations for the unknown born of a desire for control are a favorite motif.

“The Standing Stones series is key. It shifted the focus of my work from cultural and social issues to archetypal, mythological, and otherworldly themes. Yet the vision stayed pretty much the same. The word ‘otherworldly’ perhaps describes it best. Again I look at phenomena, this time of a biological or mythological nature, as if I’m coming from another world, which now I literally am. This time I impose my cultural viewpoint on nature and historical artifacts. The standing stones are remnants of a world of which we know so very little. Those who live today can project anything they like on them. I still opt for detached documentation, to let things speak for themselves, but again to allow room for interpretation by the viewer.’


Thus, we arrive at change and illusion. “That is, more or less, what all my series are about: artifice and reality. I’m emphasizing that aspect increasingly in my work. There’s a connection between mythology, the medieval alchemists, and modern biogenetics. From a technical perspective things are more refined, but the impetus is still the same power over that which we can’t control.”

An entirely new wing has been added to the photographer’s imaginary museum. It has become a museum of natural history in the strictest sense. Subjects from nature induce reflection in the viewer. The contemplative quality of the work has increased. There’s quiet in a time that has made a virtue out of busyness.

Now Van Velzen is adding yet another layer to her work: art for art’s sake. VI

“After September 11, I needed to make beautiful things, as a kind of remedy. Everyone was depressed. Many New York artists had this feeling of ‘What do we do now?’ The desire for beauty was one of the reasons I created the series Tree Tops. The colors of the leaves were not as intense and splendid on film as I had actually experienced them in real life. So I enhanced them on the computer. Besides the color correction, I started playing with the forms almost automatically. Before I knew it, I had mirrored the images. In a way, it became a kind of artificial visual overdose. Recently I heard that beauty in art is again more acceptable.”

We’ve reached the end of the interview - the concentrating on words and ideas, the intellectual activity we’re taught from birth, the increase of knowledge that so easily gets in the way of our experiences and feelings. But Hanneke van Velzen is seeking to touch a chord as well, to create powerful images that speak to the senses and stand on their own

merits. Not everything needs to be deliberated or evaluated. “Since it is ‘about looking’, you might as well thoroughly enjoy it.”

Edie Peters (Heerlen, 1958) is an Amsterdam based freelance picture editor and consultant. He writes about photography and publishes the website He also lectures at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam. In 2001 he finished a successful career at De Volkskrant, a major Dutch newspaper.



Repetition Frank Ligtvoet

Between 1888 and 1891 Claude Monet painted a haystack, he saw on a farm nearby his house in Giverny, dozens of times. When the now famous series was exhibited in his gallery Durand-Ruel in Paris in the spring of 1891, the titles of the paintings made it clear that he was not so much concerned with the subject as with the circumstances in which the subject found itself: End of Summer, Last Ray of Sun, Sun in the Mist, Setting Sun. One critic was not overly impressed with the repetition of the subject and wrote ironically: ‘Five stacks of straw. “The same” stack of straw, painted at different times of day. Here we have the grey stack, the pink stack (six o’clock), the yellow stack (eleven o’clock), the blue stack (two o’clock), the violet stack (four o’clock) the red stack (eight o’clock in the evening), etc., etc.’ Monet himself spoke to a visitor about that repetition with an entirely different meaning: ‘You see this painting here... [....] that alone is completely successful. Perhaps because the landscape was giving everything it could. And the others? There are some which are really not bad: but they only acquire their true value by comparison [with or within?] the whole series.’ So for Monet it was not only about getting down particular circumstances, but also about finding, through the medium of art, the one landscape, the landscape ‘that gave everything.’ 1 As a method of approaching the real, repetition belongs to the tradition in which artists continually render the same subject in the hope of overtaking their predecessors. Monet’s haystack is a secularized and individualized variant of ‘Madonna and Child’ or ‘The Descent from the Cross.’


Just as the Christian god disappeared from the nineteenth century (and wasn’t a reality for Monet anymore), so truth disappeared in the twentieth century. There is no longer anything but individualized truth, and Monet’s critic has after all gotten more right than Monet. Repetition in a ‘truthless’ world is nothing more than etc., etc., etc. Even the painting that Monet thought to be the ‘one’ is unknown and cannot be reconstructed because it existed only for the artist. We no longer evaluate the separate haystacks on the ‘depth’ of the image, but on the quality of painting. In American Visions, Robert Hughes compares Andy Warhol’s ‘32 Campbell’s Soup Cans’ (1961-62) with Monet’s haystacks: ‘Warhol’s thirty-two soup cans are [...] about sameness [...]: same brand, same size, same paint surface, same fame as product.’ There is no such thing as an ‘ideal’ image: each image has equal value and has consequently become worthless. And when, a bit later in the book, Hughes addresses X

another great artist of repetition, Donald Judd, he writes about his installation of two hundred aluminum boxes in two enormous hangers in Marfa, Texas in 1982-86: ‘No movements, no metaphors, no secrets: just the thing in itself, and a completely inexpressive thing at that.’ 2 The value of the image disappears with Warhol, and with Judd the value of art as a sign that points to something other than itself.

No matter how seriously we doubt our powers of perception, in our century there is nothing more than what we see (and hear and feel): the endless images on the street, in magazines and newspapers, on television, in the arts. The structure that we apply to the multiplicity of images is - for whoever dares to do it - a strictly personal one, one that is made by a mind that thinks and feels personally. And we test every structure that is offered to us by someone else, by an artist, against our own structure. The other’s proposal is a challenge to oneself.

Is the order that Hanneke van Velzen creates, and discovered through repetition, in ‘Of a Different Nature...’ tenable? Are her ‘Natural Selections’ indeed ‘natural’? Don’t her ‘Tree Tops’ belong with ‘Cultural Selections’? Is it a given that only mushrooms are to be found in ‘Mushrooms’? Don’t certain images in ‘Trash’ sooner belong to certain images in the ‘Cattails’ series? Nothing is assumed anymore and an artistic presentation must therefore not be ventured only against the background of the history of art, but also against the personal history of the viewer. Those who want to can confront the images of Van Velzen’s ‘Of a Different Nature...’ with the images that the viewer has aquired and made into signs during the course of his life. Those who have never thought about their history in this way can still - following up on the suggestion of the artist - create their own images. But whether the book in the end stimulates confrontation or creation is not significant. Those who want to look at these photos are ready to put their own structure in the balance, and that makes ‘Of a Different Nature...’ an intimate book. 1 See: Daniel Wildenstein. Monet or the Triumph of Impressionism. Köln: Taschen/Wildenstein Institute, 1996. P. 272-282. 2 American Visons. The Epic History of Art in America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. P. 539 and P.564.

Frank Ligtvoet (Rotterdam, 1954) moved to New York in 1996 after a career in publishing. From 1996 to 2001, he worked at the Consulate General of the Netherlands, where he was responsible for Dutch-American cultural exchange. Currently he lives in New York's East Village as a freelance writer and a liaison officer for the University of Amsterdam.


Acknowledgments The artist wishes to express her very special thanks to Mrs C. M. M. van Velzen-van Rossum and Jacqueline Hassink. She is very grateful to John Antonides for editing the text. She would also like to thank the following individuals, who assisted in various ways: Ben Alkemade, Lida Bervoets, Duncan Dobbelmann, Jennifer Nolan, Fernand Jadoul, Philip Jakubowski, Erik Kessels, Frank Ligtvoet, Colette Olof, Edie Peters, Annie Schlechter, Geert Setola, Fred Schmidt, Maartje van den Heuvel, Marleen Veeren, Marcel Vleugels, John Worden, Rachel Youens, and all those people and dogs who are the subjects of the photographs.

Colophon XII

This book was published to coincide with the exhibition “Of a different nature ...” at the Foto Museum of Amsterdam (Foam), 6 November 2003 - 15 January 2004. 2003 © Published by tra_art Publications, Den Haag, The Netherlands. 2003 © Photography by Hanneke van Velzen. Texts © Edie Peeters, Amsterdam, Frank Ligtvoet, New York and Hanneke van Velzen, New York. Translations: Duncan Dobbelmann, New York and Jennifer Nolan, Washington. Editorial coordination: John Antonides, New York. Design: Geert Setola, Oirsbeek, The Netherlands. Lithography and printing: Lecturis bv, Eindhoven, The Netherlands. This publication was kindly supported by two anonymous sponsors. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted by any form or by any means without permission in writing from the publisher.

Profile for Hanneke van Velzen

Of a different Nature, but... from the same Planet part 1  

First part of monograph, in which natural collections are shown. Nature, art, archive.

Of a different Nature, but... from the same Planet part 1  

First part of monograph, in which natural collections are shown. Nature, art, archive.