To mark the occasion of her 65th birthday, the Hague Museum of Photography is holding the first ever major retrospective of work by Rotterdam artist and photographer Helena van der Kraan. Her photographic oeuvre, spanning a period of over 35 years, consists mainly of portraits, still lifes and documentary pictures of everyday life. In a world full of visual bombast, Van der Kraan’s work is an oasis of subtlety, tranquillity and attention to detail. No matter where she photographs, she invariably keeps her distance and takes her time. One of Van der Kraan’s basic rules is to capture her subjects in an even natural light. She rejects the use of any kind of flash, soft box or film lighting rig, preferring to use available light – often sunlight, but sometimes a bedside lamp or neon-tube lighting in a gallery.

The rigour of Van der Kraan’s views on lighting is also perceptible in her careful choice of subjects. Her portraits are mainly of people she knows well or happens to come across, such as workers employed on building sites in her neighbourhood or museum visitors met at an exhibition opening. Her work never expresses any longing for the exotic and unknown, but demonstrates an attraction to common-place sights whose very familiarity might seem to rob them of any photographic potential. In these unspectacular scenes and situations she finds images which bear witness to a clear mind and a sharp eye for the poetry and beauty of everyday life. However, the genuine compassion that Van der Kraan demonstrates for the lives of those around her never degenerates into sentimentality or romanticism. Usually printed in subtle tones of black and white, her photographs have an extraordinary directness and severity of composition and framing. This reveals the photographer, despite her social engagement, as an artist with a strong preference for the formal, academic aspects of photography – a taste she no doubt owes to her background as a graphic designer and popular art school tutor. Helena van der Kraan was born in Prague in 1940. Her maiden name was Helena Jirina Maazel. Following the failure of the 1968 revolution in what was then Czechoslovakia, she fled to the Netherlands, where she was accepted by the renowned postgraduate art training institution, Ateliers 63. This was where she met the man who is now her husband, sculptor and graphic artist Axel van der Kraan. In the 1980s they worked together on a range of projects, such as installations and sculptures. In 1970 Van der Kraan began to explore photography, initially as a way of documenting her projects and before long as an autonomous discipline. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue containing a preface by Wim van Krimpen and essays by Paul Hefting, Edwin Jacobs, Wim van Sinderen and Hripsimé Visser (Terra Publishers, 160 pages, price € 45,00; ISBN 90 5897 373 5).

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Roger Ballen
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