Hans Neleman talks to Richard Marshall about tarts, tattoos, and trust.
3AM: When did you begin to see yourself as a photographer?
HN: I grew up in Holland in the sixties. The school I went to was as experimental as the decade; more time was spent on folk dancing than on math, and classes like jewellery-making and knitting were considered as important as geography. After high school I spent a year at an anthroposophical school based on the principles of Rudolf Steiner. There my dream of becoming an actor was shattered in the first acting class almost immediately. I became involved in photography then, as I was trying to build up my portfolio for the Art Academy. I was accepted at Goldsmiths' College in London where I studied Fine Art. Fascinated by the immediacy of photography (compared to painting), I was soon shooting still lives and models instead of using brushes.
After a B.A in Photography and Film, and receiving the Kodak Young Photographer Of The Year Award, I crossed the Atlantic and finished my MA in studio arts at New York University. In New York, with its eighties art scene, 'fine' art sensibilities were reintroduced to my work, which had already taken off, commercially speaking, while I was studying in England.
3AM: Your first collection, Moko: Maori Tattoo looks at the sacred Maori art of Ta-Moko. How did you become connected with this given that your background is New York?
HN: In 1997 an invitation to lecture in New Zealand became my opportunity to try to document a fascinating art form. Ta-Moko (the art of tattooing) had practically died out and had become the new inspiration for a silent revolution through facial tattoos. I was motivated by the fact that history inspired the future.
3AM: When I look at the pictures in that collection, it is the people as well as the tattoos that are striking. I'm interested in your ability to avoid voyeurism in your work. How would you define the relationship between yourself and your subjects? How did you avoid the colonialist, voyeuristic, tourist, freak show approach to this work?
HN: My main goal was to document the people and to produce a book about a phenomenon still hidden from much of the world. It so fascinated me that I felt compelled to do whatever it took to achieve that mission. The trip to New Zealand was a life transforming experience. I have a deep respect for the Maori and their culture. Above all, I wanted to reveal dignity in the portraits whether they represented gang members, political leaders or tribal members. The relationship with the sitters was based on trust and the intention to donate all royalties, and to allow the subjects to own the copyright. My passion for the project was honest and based on mutual respect.
By shooting everyone inside a makeshift tent/studio, the emphasis was placed on the fine minute details and the less people 'posed' the stronger the work became. The natural style of lighting (strobe to resemble daylight) emphasized this and was the right choice to show all detail in the skin. The 8x10 camera also demands a "painting"-like approach: the sitter has to remain very still so all portraits gained formal strength.
3AM: In a way the work is a campaigning work, a political work. Are you happy to call yourself and your work political?
HN: What was so amazing about this experience was seeing the world through other eyes. It made you question everything. Family, relationships, the rat race, your legacy in this world, the role of photography (and specifically its power), and so on. All this brought about much change in my personal as well as in my professional life. Now, if any of that means added historical or political significance I am proud of it, although I would not make such a claim myself.
3AM: Your second book, Silence is a different kettle of fish.
Found art, Duchamp, Schwitters and co. This seems to link more closely to glamour photography, fashion and so on. What drew you to this work?
HN: My work has always been multifaceted. I have always worked in portraiture and still life in both the commercial and fine art arena. The still life work used to be 'personal' work until art directors became familiar with it from exposure in magazines, galleries and awards. This work was very popular at a time when there was no fear in advertising and my still life work found its niche. I think even though it may at first glance appear different from my other work it is deeply connected. In the stills and the portraits too, there is always evidence of my fascination with modern taboos, decay and morbid beauty.
3AM: I really like the pink flamingo photo. How did you come to that shot? Do you have a concept first or is everything achieved afterwards, in retrospect?
HN: The pink flamingo was part of an advertising campaign for Agfa scanners. In this case the briefing was very loose, as used to be the case with a lot of my assignments. There was a bird theme and the only other key words were "keep it surreal". A lot of my stills are conceptual in inspiration; meaning I set out to find the objects to best illustrate an idea, but at times an object I find on my travels or even in a dumpster on the street can be the starting point for a collage or an assemblage. I like to compare them to visual poetry. Sometimes the juxtaposition of elements suggest meaning, but there is always room for interpretation.
3AM: How do you feel about the collection now? Do you find your ideas about your previous works change over time?
HN: I am very proud of this work. I don't think the ideas change but the way in which they are expressed does.
3AM: Your new book, Night Chicas, seems to be more closely aligned to the first. How did this project come about?
HN: An old story needed to be told in a new way. The project came about after I had walked into a "bar" in Guatemala on vacation. Not aware it was a place of prostitution, I was surprised when a "waitress" made advances. The image of this toothless, black-eyed, scarred siren who tried to kiss me with her blistered lips as she keeled over backwards stayed with me for about a year. I went back with my 8x10 camera.
3AM: Again, as with the first, there is a tremendous danger in you turning the whole thing into a rather tacky, and in this case sexist rather than racist, piece of work. Again, you seem to be able to avoid the obvious by treating your subjects with a kind of humane grandeur despite their poverty and, in some cases, their sadness. How did you obtain the women's trust for this project? What are your feelings about the subject matter? Did these feelings change as you worked on it? And have they changed again since the book came out?
HN: Thank you. It definitely is a fine line. When you start out, fascination -- both visual and intellectual -- is the only issue. But the longer the journey, the more the path swerved, fascination faded quickly into compassion, and then into frustration. George Pitts, art director at Vibe, saw the work as it progressed. In an oddly encouraging way he said: "You are one tormented soul..." Working with the women was an exchange that involved money, but also more than that: it was their confidence, respect and trust I obtained somehow. No one was doing anything against their will and my intentions were clear from an artistic standpoint, which I think most women intuitively sensed. Together we created a 'zone of understanding' and they presented themselves. When I photographed the corpse of a murdered prostitute in a morgue I thought I had found the ending for the book. It turned out this was only the midway point -- ultimately we covered 288 pages.
After that, we helped a twelve-year-old prostitute off the street and were shot at by a gang in the process. At a certain point you just have to let go. I finally felt a sense of completion when the book was in the layout stage and the message was coherent -- especially after essays and press quotes were completed. My feelings at the moment are of hope: that the book may be received to deliver an honest message. What happens next is up to the reader.
3AM: What happens after these shoots? Do you stay in touch with the people you've photographed? Do they see the finished product? What would you do if you had negative feedback from participants?
HN: In the case of Night Chicas, because the work was done on and off over a three-year period, I did have the opportunity to meet and even shoot a few of the women more than once. They saw their pictures and most were thrilled, loud in a drama-queen style, and excited about them in a positive way. The last part of the question is tricky. You can't please everyone. But by not compromising the situation at the time of the actual shoot, there should be no surprises at the editing stage either.
3AM: I'm struck by my feeling that your fashion photography doesn't seem so far away from the other work. It seems less obsessed with mere surface but even the most beautiful and sexy women are given an inner life. Is this something you are consciously doing? I was also intrigued by the fact that in the Chicas work, the faces, though in many cases unconventionally beautiful and sometimes old, were still beautiful. Is this something you would welcome as a response to your work?
HN: Yes. It was amazing, sometimes the women from a distance would appear very 'hardcore' and even during the initial conversation you'd sit and wonder. But I love to discover this when I shoot. They become real. A person, not a cliché. Every face was appreciated for its unique beauty. It is the artist's power and privilege to project this.
3AM: Looking at the portraits, there's a mix of the fantasy and of the grotesque as well as the primitive beauty of the Chicas work. You get very close up, and nothing gets airbrushed out, yet the result is astonishingly striking. Do you think that bringing someone into such a close-up focus reveals something new to us? I suppose this leads on to the big question: what do you think the purpose of your photography is?
HN: I think my work is different from what has been done before on the same subject. It is raw but for a grander objective. This is hard to accept for some. It is not documentary in a traditional sense, and I don't try to tell a story in a conventional way. My aim is to deliver heartfelt work which I hope disturbs yet distinguishes itself partly because of its 'modern realist' approach and partly because the message is delivered fairly subliminally at the same time.
3AM: There's a photo of a pair of blue shoes that is almost painterly. How did you get that quality on that photo -- the grainy background and the wonderful colour of the shoes? It's a very simple image, but it seems again to have the depth of the best kind of still life painting. I am interested in how you think what you are doing relates to other visual arts. Do you work in media other than photography?
HN: I must admit that the image feels almost too perfect and the message too blatant. But it is very immediate and connects with the mother-daughter relationship as expressed in the images prior to it. The mix of still lifes such as these with portraits is important for the rhythm of the book. For Night Chicas none were set up or preconceived, which for me was a refreshing way to shoot stills. Richard, I am not certain what you mean with how my work relates to other visual arts. Commercials and music videos so far have been the only other outlets, although I have been very close to, and still obsessed by, the idea of making a feature film.
3AM: Who are your influences? Other photographers, other artists generally?
HN: A question I try to avoid if possible. It is hard not to acknowledge my Dutch background and all the obvious influences. Also a lot of my inspiration comes from history, cinema and travelling.
3AM: Do you think that people are sophisticated about photography these days, or do you think that it is a form not yet taken seriously enough?
HN: In some ways it is hard to recommend it to anyone as a career, yet fine art photography has never received as much attention before.
3AM: September 11th and so on: how has that event affected you, and will it be something that might find its way into your work at some point?
HN: The 9/11 event has destroyed much. I have not found a way to incorporate any emotions about it into my work.
3AM: Finally, what future projects can we expect from you?
HN: I am working on a new book called Body Transformed. It explores how people use body modification for spiritual, ritual, tribal and sexual reasons. It is disturbing, dark material photographed in a serene, classic, painterly way, on location and in the studio.