Creating Atmosphere

During the 1600s, landscape painting flourished as an in- dependent genre in the Dutch Republic (United Provinces of the Netherlands) and in the Spanish Netherlands (now Belgium). Flemish landscapes were broadly divided into two categories: realist and imaginary. Those that favoured the latter took sprawling mountainous topography and built on its outline, as seen in the likes of Kerstiaen de Keuninck (1560- 1632) and Joos de Momper (1564-1635). These imaginary landscapes were generally deemed more valuable, sought after by collectors who valued invention and “refined” fiction.

Dutch photographer Ellen Kooi (b. 1962) creates theatrical images that are reminiscent of these historical artists, producing dramatic stories in nature. She recalls the work of the Golden Age – toeing the line between fantasy and reality – whilst re-inventing the trope of the “figure in the landscape” by shifting focus towards female protagonists. Shot in the Netherlands, the photographs often present a brooding sky and unsettled scenery in order to re-enact inner turmoil.

Kooi’s background in documenting theatre and dance is evident in her central characters, who are often in motion or lost in thought. This ability to add narrative to familiar scenery pulls the creations away from the everyday, and plunges them into a magical environment in which colours are increasingly vivid, shapes are all the more pronounced, and nature takes on a wilder expression. Kooi’s work has been exhibited across the world, from MoPA San Diego to Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León, with the most recent presentation, at Camara Oscura Gallery, Madrid, open until 23 December as part of APERTURA Madrid Gallery Weekend.

A: To what extent are your images “planned”? Can, and should, a photograph ever be mapped out entirely?
When I am on the road, I carry a smaller Leica with me, as opposed to my larger Phase One camera, in order to be more flexible. I make a habit of location scouting as a reference point. I look back on these initial shots to see if the immediate sensation I had with a given place is something I can extend further. Despite this list of preparations, I always leave room for chance; uncontrollable elements are a crucial part of my practice. I work with non-professional models and try to welcome unforeseen circumstances. In this way, my interventions are met with others’, and they infiltrate one another.

A: You’ve often been compared to Baroque, Renaissance and Early Netherlandish painters such as Johannes Vermeer, Pieter Bruegel and Hieronymus Bosch. How do you feel your work sits amongst these historical figures, and what, if anything, do you take from them today?
EK: Whilst I must say I am hesitant to compare my work to painters of such stature, it would be hard to deny that their work has impacted my development. In my years of study- ing and appreciating art, I came to respect all images that can transfer the atmosphere and identity of a landscape or scene. The reason these great painters are still relevant today is due to their capacity to make images come to life. In my work, I can only hope to do the same, using my camera to make a given moment appear almost tangible to the viewer. Just like these great painters, I look to colour, composition and setting – adding lights that emphasise the atmosphere

– but the technique we use is considerably different. Many painters of that century never saw any of the landscapes they painted. They copied parts and made up totally new sceneries. I could do the same with the new photocollage techniques but I choose not to. Also, my protagonists have been captured on the spot. For me, the fact that this actu- ally happened – that we were together – is important.

A: You have also been revered amongst contemporary Dutch photographers such as Erwin Olaf, Rineke Dijkstra, Ruud van Empel and Hellen van Meene. Many of these comparisons are tied to your Dutch identity, given that the images are all shot in the Netherlands. How far is geography important within your practice? Is it something you wish to be defined by as an artist? In 2021, how relevant is our physical location?
EK: The places in which we choose to live – to take root and build our collective identity – influence us greatly, passed down through generations upon generations. This is also why my Netherlands-based pieces can be considered the most personal; they reflect my history and that of those around me. However, I aspire to achieve diversity in my work, which also means I shoot abroad and consider new locations. Whenever I venture out to other places, I always try to respond to the history of a place, which requires studying archives or consulting sources on the topography. At other times I try to make a “foreign” location personal. For example, in the piece Sibilini – Rim (2006), I responded to a vast open space in Italy, flanked by mountains and the threat of a dark sky. I placed my daughter in the image, and she moved freely against an expansive plain of possibility.

A: Your photographs seem to build on romantic tropes, with lone figures abandoned in nature: individuals walking down empty paths, or standing, pensive, star- ing across woodland rivers. Elsewhere, models are half- submerged in sunken lakes, arms stretched towards the sky. What does nature mean to you and your subjects? How do you use photography to express this?
EK: I would not say I build on romantic tropes as much as I seek out a certain romantic symbolism. The difference lies in the tension. My figures are not only depicted as wit- nesses to what goes on around them, but they are also positioned in reaction to it. The landscape solicits a certain response that can be interpreted as pensive by some, or rather as longing or fear by others. This is what I hope to achieve – to create a kind of friction between the subject and their environment, the basis of which is open to interpretation. Nature, in a way, does the same. We look at the world around us and project our own meaning onto it. Two people may look out over the same woodlands, but they will never share the same view completely. There’s a kind of psychological projection that takes place. Our history, ideas and stories shape our experience, and nature leaves enough room for multiple perceptions to co-exist.

A: Choreography is a hyper-visible element here, is there a lexicon that can be built through gesture?
From my early days as a theatre and dance photographer, I developed an eye for body language. The way a body is balanced can totally change the meaning of an image, even down to the stiffness of a hand. I still find that fascinating. My figures aren’t passive, rather, they are overcome by the supremacy of the organic world. Sometimes the individuals appear unsure of their surroundings, whilst at other times they are gravitating towards it, or even wholly consumed by it. There is a sense of magnetism at play – the push and pull between personhood and the materiality of nature. I’m interested in how physical movement reflects, or reveals, our inner contemplations or desires. There is a connection between interior and exterior at play, and I’m fascinated by how this can come to light within the frame.

A: In the Anthropocene, it’s become crucial that we reconceptualise the role that humanity plays. It’s widely accepted that we must change our modes of thinking and decentralise ourselves as a species. We must con- sider our existence part of a larger, fragile ecosystem, one which we have irrevocably altered. How can we use photography to engender new ideas, with this in mind? How might the protagonist be replaced, no longer dominating the picture, both literally and metaphorically? Is this something you feel responsible for?
EK: As a photographer, taking an Anthropogenic stance might mean shooting empty cityscapes or landscapes with- out human presence – maybe only traces of us – or imagining how a world might look if we never existed. Maybe I am not beyond trying yet, I haven’t given up on humanity. I am still hoping that we can reconnect, so I consider where we are at right now: mostly alienated from the Earth, sometimes lost from our own human nature, but close to the answers which lie all around us. Getting people to recognise their vulnerability is my way of pointing out our significance and responsibility towards each other.

A: Your new series, Written in Water, is currently on display at Camara Oscura gallery, Madrid. Beyond its aes- thetic and atmospheric qualities in images, why does water continue to inspire and invigorate us as viewers and artists? Should images offer something more?
EK: Whilst not all the works in this show feature water in their composition, the temporality of water is what moved me. All the pieces capture a transcendental moment, the idea that everything is fleeting – here one minute and gone the next. To my mind, water contains these same properties. It can drag something down, washing the past away as if it were never really there. Scientists and philosophers have always put water and its many apparitions at the centre of their world, and their wider conception of the self. Key examples of this include Greek philosophers Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 530-470 BC) and Thales (c. 624-545 BC).

A: How do their philosophies apply to your work?
Thales declared water to be the nature of all things. It is inherent in his hypotheses that water, therefore, had the potential to change all things. Heraclitus stated: “We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not. Cold things grow hot, the hot cools, the wet dries, the parched moistens.” These early philosophies may be deemed as romantic, anthropological, abstract or even geological, but they provide a literal sea of possibilities. It’s crucial that we consider our constant state of flux. Even the molecular structure of water is complicated, I’m told. This may well be the reason it has captured our interest as artists and spectators for so long. I feel a certain pull towards its ever-changing form, wondering about what lays beyond.

Words: Kate Simpson

Ellen Kooi: Written in Water Camara Oscura, Madrid. Until 23 December.

Image Credits: 1. Ellen Kooi, Herenduinen – zwart water (2021). Courtesy of the artist and Camara Oscura Galeria de Arte, Madrid.
2. Ellen Kooi, Coruna – bloemen (2019). Courtesy of the artist and Camara Oscura Galeria de Arte, Madrid. www.
3. Ellen Kooi, Halfweg – nevel, (2019). Courtesy of the artist and Camara Oscura Galeria de Arte, Madrid.
4. Ellen Kooi, Itegem – kite (2018). Courtesy of the artist and Camara Oscura Galeria de Arte, Madrid.
5.Ellen Kooi, Herenduinen – zwart water (2021). Courtesy of the artist and Camara Oscura Galeria de Arte, Madrid.
6. Ellen Kooi, Heemskerk – groep (2018). Courtesy of the artist and Camara Oscura Galeria de Arte, Madrid. www.