March 9: Atmosphere

Date #9March 9: In photography, light is like oxygen, giving life to meaning.

Camara Oscura, Alameda, 16, 1 B, in the heart of the gallery district of Madrid, Spain today launches a comprehensive exhibition Elements by Dutch photographer Ellen Kooi (*1962).

To introduce her work here is a story that one of her earlier pictures, from 2004, tells. Teenagers, a girl and a boy, lean against each other neck to neck, for support, but only needing support because they lean. Should one lean too hard, or one attempt to lean back, both will fall and the floodgates of grief will open. I have told it badly, but Kooi is eloquent, even in this work from her mid career.

Ellen Kooi. Nieuwkoop - sluis, 2004
Ellen Kooi (2004) Sluis (Lock) Nieuwkoop (western Netherlands, in the province of South Holland)

The teenagers in their tango might be safe on solid ground, but not here, on the gates of a lock on a canal. Any slight move will tumble them into the murky water where they will suffer a sobering soak, or worse.  We ask ourselves if the tension of their pose against the sluice gates will make that fall inevitable; the void that divides them is placed at the very centre of the image and as it is the lightest area of tone it seems to widen as we watch. Their distorted, tangled reflection in the oily and undulating waters tells us what is very likely to happen.

The position of the Sun in this picture is clear; we can see it reflected in the water and yet there are some lighting anomalies in the image when you look closely. It is fair to assume the banks of the canal are parallel, and likewise the pegs on the bollard will be aligned with the walls of the lock, and yet on the left the light wraps around past the peg, while on the right hand bollard the shadow covers the peg. There is at least one other light source that projects the shadow of the figures onto the brick wall, which closer to the camera is shaded from the sun. That is how we are able to see the faces of the couple seem to meld, before we separate the placid, languorous expression of the girl, which we don’t doubt mirrors that of the boy.

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Ellen Kooi (centre with camera) shooting on location

I have long admired the work of Kooi for her sensitive and intelligent use of daylight augmented by flash;

For me flash light is atmospheric. I want to highlight the points of interest, I do not necessarily seek a surreal effect because then the story of the photo is soon sent in a different direction. 

Her work serves as an object lesson in how the available light at a location may be enhanced, as in this even earlier image (below), made before digital imaging would have permitted editing of reflections or repetition of figures. Each of the balloons blowing toward the camera from the prevailing sea wind reveals in their reflective surface the presence and position of two flash units. In this shot made against the light, they illuminate the foreground and fill the shadow side of the children who otherwise would be mere silhouettes.

Ellen Kooi. De Houtwielen - ballonen, 1997
Ellen Kooi (1997) Ballonen (Balloons) De Houtwielen

Kooi, who herself spent her childhood wandering the fields around her native Leeuwarden, provincial capital of the States of Friesland, and who started her career photographing for theatre productions, sets this scene in familiar territory on the polder of the northern district of the Netherlands. The partly wild area bears traces of ancient land reclamations which mark where the Friesian mainland transitions toward the vast Holwerdse Salt marsh landscape to the Waddensea, the largest tidal area in the world and of World Heritage value.

The crowd of children spread out across this flooded landscape with its typically flat horizon under an optimistic break in the grey clouds. All are in dark weatherproof jackets and perhaps it is that special comfort of being snug and protected from the environment that is signified by the red helium balloons they hold, which Kooi says “represent lightness”. Feasibly, then, it may also be an appropriate reference to Albert Lamorisse’s much-loved 1956 French children’s fantasy featurette in which a red balloon is a magical companion to a lonely boy.

Ellen Kooi. Boskoop - dome, 2018
Ellen Kooi (2018) Dome, Boskoop.

Importantly, atmosphere reinforced through added light is the scene-setting for remarkable visual narratives. A very recent image, dated this year, which features in this exhibition, is Dome, Boskoop, photographed in a town known for its nurseries and gardens. The warm pinkish light filtering through the twisted trunks of these low tamarisks (or japonicas?) can be seen to emanate from bright patches outside the arc of green and pink foliage. That the trunks themselves are also coloured magenta indicates that filtered flash is the source. The modulated, gentle light reinforces the feeling that we share in the boy’s sense of shelter and his meditative isolation.

Kooi invites us to participate in the fantasy that occupies her subjects; these are not voyeuristic images made for spectacle like those of the American, and therefore more widely-known, photographer of child subjects, Sally Mann (*1951), nor are they the showy histrionics of Gregory Crewdson; Kooi’s lighting is subtle. She shares a tempered, less cinematic, distinctly European approach with compatriots Hellen van Meene (*1972) and Rineke Dijkstra (*1959) which harks back to that Dutch stream of foto-roman found in Ata Kando‘s much earlier Droom in het Woud.

Leiden - lake
Ellen Kooi (2016) Leiden – lake.

Though she has included her own two daughters in her photographs Kooi is not concerned with autobiography, but with touching on the universal human internal monologues and fantasies of which childhood presents us with the most vivid experience. In a 2012 interview with Patrizia Arena in SHUTR magazine she explains;

On the one hand, you have the points of recognition with which a viewer can identify, the point of contact. That is why I regularly use children or child-like figures; you identify with them more quickly: with an adult you think ‘oh that’s not me’. But it also brings uncertainty, confusion, opposition. That combination raises quite a few emotions: wonder, joy, comfort, fear. That is why the photos are sometimes also a confrontation with yourself, a mirror.

Haarlem - Wies
Ellen Kooi (2017) Haarlem – Wies

That is not to say however, that Kooi does not look to other artists that she admires, and clearly one inspiration is American; the painter Andrew Wyeth (1917–2009).

Ellen Kooi. Borssele - rode jurk, 2007Enduraprint, Plexiglass, Reynobond. 100x152 cm y 80x122 cm.
Ellen Kooi (2007) Borssele – rode jurk, (Borssele – Red Dress) Enduraprint, Plexiglass, Reynobond, image 80×122 cm.

Borssele – rode jurk (‘Red Dress’) of 2007 (above) pays close attention in homage to Wyeths’ composition, but the differences call attention to those particular conditions of the Dutch landscape which, here at Borssele in Zealand south of Rotterdam, is distinguished by the presence in the distance of the stacks of the Netherlands’ only commercial nuclear power plant, surrounded by sparsely-populated countryside in an urban/rural mix that is typical of most of the country. However, she fears that is changing, which influences her imagery:

We modern people are alienated from nature, and I am too. We do not really know what real nature is anymore. You can see how the landscape is becoming increasingly fragmented, how around the cities more and more space is being created for industrial sites at the expense of nature. When I drive around I sometimes see a factory looming in the middle of the landscape. That is why the emptiness in which nature can thrive becomes smaller and smaller. Nature has become a park around the corner. The experience of the landscape is increasingly being taken away from us. My question is what effect that has on your mind.

Ten years later Kooi, in another, more sophisticated and oblique take on Wyeth’s portrait, makes jocular reference to ‘Dutch Mountains’; dunes in Wijk aan Zee, with the village church and the chimneys of the steel company Corus on the horizon. Here two companions have separated in their wanderings, one to contemplate the North Sea, the other to examine something, also unseen by us, in the grasses. The slight puzzle encourages a reading of body language to comprehend the emotions of the image.

Ellen Kooi. Wijk - Dutch Mountains, 2018 Fuji Crystal Archive print
Ellen Kooi (2018) Dutch Mountains, Wijk. Fuji Crystal Archive print

The theme of the reclining figure in an intervening work 2013 Overveen – vogelmeer shot this time in in the national park in Overveen not far from Kooi’s current residence in urban Haarlem, plumbs the gravity of teenage relationships in this charged confrontation of a pink clad girl in a lake facing one of the Highland cattle that wander the wilderness and frighten the walkers.

My images can be seen as unresolved enigmas, but that would be an overly ‘logical’ way of thinking, as if there had to be an answer for everything. But there is no single answer to a narrative. What I really care about is that the stories I tell about the body, its strength and its vulnerability, resonate with people’s personal experiences. My narratives are open ended and I present them in such a way so that everyone can imagine their own stories and find their own answers.

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Ellen Kooi (2013) Overveen – vogelmeer. Fuji Crystal Archive print, Diasec, Dibond. 65×135 cm

But let us not misunderstand these similarities in pose as being typical of Kooi’s approach. One of her best-known and best-selling photos is Sibilini-rim, of a young girl leaping, so overcome with joy that she appears to be climbing into the sky. She has become “a symbol for what people really want,” says Kooi.

Ellen Kooi. Sibilini - Rim, 2006 Enduraprint, Plexiglass, Reynobond. 120x120 cm y 90x90 cm
Ellen Kooi (2006) Sibilini – Rim, Enduraprint, Plexiglass, Reynobond 90×90 cm.
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Screenshot from 2012 video of Ellen Kooi and assistants including some of her students from the Rijksacademy Amsterdam on location gives an indication of the portable flash heads used.
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Screenshot from 2012 video of Ellen Kooi on location using both handheld Mamiya 645DF digital and film camera on tripod.
Ellen Kooi on location with Mamyia RZ67 medium format camera.

Since the advent of digital imaging however, an Ellen Kooi image is typically 1.00 by 2.20 meters; they are wall-filling and imposing panoramas of such dimensions that you are immersed in and re-experience the environment in which each image was made, though that is mediated by her approach, begun around 2011, in shooting analogue and then scanning to enlarge and edit them.

Currently she photographs directly with medium format digital, montaging the panoramas, but through her background in the discipline of film photography, is able to dispense with any major retouching. She works from drawings of ideas but is always prepared to make alterations to her plans on location to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the weather and available light.

The installation of her work for government bodies and corporations capitalises on its scale. For example, in the restaurant of the housing corporation De Key in Amsterdam her pictures are presented as large-scale transparencies that fit into the windows that surround the room on three sides. The clients of De Key are made present to the employees as they eat, as these portraits of residents appear to share the same outlook over the city.

In the Dutch Embassy in Brussels, her portraits of children installed in meeting rooms manifest as young guardians from the countryside who will symbolically monitor the decisions made there which will influence their world and future.


Through the vividness of her images Ellen Kooi revalues childhood, brings back to us our dreams that filled our young days and gave us a narrative for our lives, and reminds us that we are still the same being that felt everything so powerfully then.



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