Hellen van Meene (The Netherlands, born 1972) was herself barely out of girlhood when she began to photograph adolescent girls whom she knew, or found, in her home town of Alkmaar in the north of Holland. Although she was at the time a student at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam, it is significant that she went home to make these pictures: that the origin of Van Meene’s particular approach to photographic portraiture was the place where she had spent her own adolescence. Van Meene believes that “the ‘best’ kind of adult is one who is able to keep some bond with childhood, and this bridge is adolescence.” In her pictures of pubescent girls, we sense Van Meene’s durable bond through her keen insight into the grace and awkwardness that are the physical and psychological hallmarks of this age.
Significantly, when Van Meene was invited to photograph in Japan in 2000, she found that while she could not communicate directly with her subjects, her instincts regarding the universality of adolescent experience, and her visual and stylistic approach to it, were translatable. That she was able to work so successfully with unknown individuals in culturally unfamiliar circumstances suggests that Van Meene’s pictures only masquerade as portraits. Her photographs of unnamed girls are best understood as collaborative reflections on the genesis of individuality, and how best to visualize it.
Using a square format and operating from a medium focal range, Van Meene strives to compose: “photographs of adolescent situations and attitudes, which represent the type of ‘normality’ we don’t usually share with others, but keep to ourselves.” Her process depends upon mutual trust and the shared curiosity of the artist and her model. Van Meene’s stage direction in these pictures is discreet, but undisguised. She directs her subjects in their appearance and pose sometimes introducing ambiguous components such as a girl’s hair caught up into tree branches or a dampened, transparent blouse. Essentially Van Meene relieves her youthful models of any responsibility for self-expression in these pictures. The artist has observed that, unexpectedly, through the process of posing, her models frequently begin to own their performance as they come to recognize themselves and their “normality” within the depicted scene or situation.
The girls that Van Meene has selected as models do not appear to be great beauties in the classic sense, but they may grow to be so. Their ages and degree of physical maturity range from prepubescent to fully formed. Through posture and pose, her models display a youthful naiveté of self, as well as an acute awakening to their own sexuality. Few of the girls seem at home in their bodies, though they are all struggling to become so. Bruises, bad complexions, awkwardly applied make-up, and bleached hair are exposed to view. These details, and others more troubling, are corporeal reminders that Van Meene’s models are real girls who, like the rest of us, are imperfect as human specimens. Accepting them as such, Van Meene works with them, and using the transformative power of photography, uncovers the inherent grace in their changing faces and bodies.