The art of allowing your emotions to guide
Hans van Ommeren (June 11, 1948)
on his photography
“Photography allows us to condense reality and to live in the realm of our imagination. Photography is one of the few domains where these two can meet. As many have discovered, good photography comes to a very acute way of seeing things. What keeps the photographer occupied between photographs – most of the time unconsciously – is the question how to convey, beyond mastery or equipment – what the mind’s eye has seen through the physical eye. It makes me a rather restless person. Because the photographs that once have appeared in my head, just have to be made!
And the more I make them, the greater the desire to make them better. The search for better and better compositions, luminance in the contrasts of blacks, whites and greys, or colour combinations, and for the right texture of my final prints, can crowd out anything else in my mind for long periods. When I try out possibilities I relish a feeling of fulfilment. Most recently my challenge has been to make the viewer experience what is not quite concretely there in the photograph. To take one example, the sense of your skin just touched by caressing fingers…
The second most decisive moment in my life – nothing competes with birth of course – was when my grandmother handed me some simple development equipment that had belonged to my father, saying “this is just the thing for you”. I was nine years old and that brought me to a course to learn how to look, to study techniques, to talk with photographers and to learn by trial and error. I built my first enlarger out of triplex, using a gaspipe as the pillar, a sample piece of greenish glass as condenser, and an old lens and old bellows. I used the Ilford Sporti, after that a second -hand 6×6 Rolleicord. My first enlargements were 18×24 cm, to me that meant a lot at the time.
My first love: Hasselblad
Things then became deadly serious. I thought of nothing but improving my equipment, which I could defray by delivering newspapers. This financed a Hasselblad Sunshade, when I was 15 years old. The lenses, film back, and the body itself, I thought, were bound to follow.
When I started my professional career I learned to make do with little equipment. The Hasselblad Sunshade was followed by a A12 filmback, then came the 500C body, and the 80mm Planar. Other lenses came later, like the wonderful Super Wide. The square format had fascinated me from the beginning, and Hasselblad was a boyhood dream. Inevitably, the desks I had to sit at in school cramped my style. How could I concentrate on anything while there was so much to be photographed.? The solution in a country with compulsory education was to make the school my photographic project. Classrooms, pupils, biology specimens, physics laboratory stuff, the occasional teacher – nothing could escape from my merciless lens. In the back of my mind, already then, was the nagging thought that the results should contribute to something bigger than what was gleaned from the individual frames. Something conveying the atmosphere of life in that involuntary setting.
I was always looking for affirmation of the fact that I was able to convey photographically what I saw. What helped was that I began to win first prizes in competitions. This made a once audacious thought the only thought worthy of consideration: I wanted to go to the best photo school and become a photographer. My father disagreed, and the classic ‘battle’ fought by many a budding artist began. I won. After finishing compulsory education I began to work with well-known photographers. One of them, an important teacher for me, was Max Koot, a quite creative and innovative photographer for that time, and a stylish person. His professionalism had brought him to the status of official photographer of the Royal Family.
Studying the masters
I studied and studied, was inspired by the masters, tried all manner of techniques; tried what others had done and then what they had not done. I can still be inspired by photographers such as Lartigue, August Sander, Irving Penn, Ernst Haas, Sarah Moon and Eddy van Wessel, first prize winner of the Zilveren Camera 2013.
What they make is simply beautiful. I search for photographic beauty and striking visualizations in books and magazines from all over the world. Wherever I find myself on the globe, I try to visit photo galleries and museums; and consider it a feast when I find an impressionist painting.
(Emil Nolde is my very favourite…).
When I was 26, after working with other photographers for eight years, I opened my first studio, in an old cement factory. My first concern, then, had to be making a living. But that was no problem at all, as commercial and advertising work suited me fine. It forced me to be creative in a special way. I enjoyed working with customers. I enjoyed working more than a full day. What particularly began to fascinate me was to imagine images on the basis of texts, and then create them. The great challenge was to transform the thought, the dream, the obsession of the client into the freshest contribution to photographic art. How could that ever be boring ?
As for equipment, I stuck with my first great love: the Hasselblad camera. Also in its newest incarnation it remains my favourite. It is utterly reliable. It offers the greatest lenses. It produces large size results. Whether for traditional photographic film or with a digital back, it remains simply a beautiful tool. For digital work the Hasselblad left its trusted square format and with its rectangular sensor it gives you the classical choice of landscape and portrait positions.
The suggestion of movement
What keeps me intriguing are the possibilities of combining sharpness with unsharpness. The suggestion of movement has long been a challenge in photography, and I believe that we can bring it several steps further than generally has been done so far. It can tell stories that are waiting to be told. Reality must be sharp, but not statical. What I saw with my photographic imagination, very often included motion and I refined the technique of moving the camera at one point during the exposure, as well as a technique with multiple lights. The challenge then was to combine commercial photography with these moving images. Agencies and their art directors saw a lot of the work that I did for myself, and they became fascinated by what could be achieved with a suggestion of movement. The people around me began to be caught up in this quest as well. They even organized contests. Some appear to think that my photography is produced with software adjustments, but that is not true. I try to introduce the least possible adjustments with Photoshop. I belong to that older breed with the steadfast belief that a photograph is made with a camera and not with software. How to use photographic software in a optimum manner, remains an interesting question requiring much experimentation for the right answers.
I have been engaged with digital photography ever since it allowed the creation of good quality images. Today, in my daily work, the dividing line between analogue and digital has faded.
I now mainly use the Hasselblad H4D with a 60 megapixel chip and for bad light conditions the Nikon D3S.
For scanning my film, whenever that is still called for, I use the Flextight II.
For processing the digital work MacPro’s Intel does the job. The most beautiful prints in colour as well as in Black&White are produced on Epson inkjet printers 11880, 7900 and 4900 Stylus Pro with Ultrachrome K3 HDR inks. For long print life they cannot be bested. These printers create the best ‘photographic’ results on my favourite papers, such as Epson Cold Press, and Somerset Velvet Fine Art for the EPSON DIGIGRAPHIE certification. Traditional Photo Paper and also Hahnemuhle RAG and Agawam and are most suitable for my fine art prints.
If it can be done in a different way, it should be tried in a different way. That, I think, is a good principle for photographers driven by the urge to use new technology and novel techniques to improve what they make. Try it with long exposures, with different light sources, with moving light sources. The phenomenon of the ‘decisive moment’ applies here too. A movement has a moment in which it appears most dynamic. I prefer to use my Hasselblad for capturing this. I do not use digital cameras because they are faster, I use them because I can immediately see what pictures I have made. I do miss the tension of the waiting between shooting and seeing the results, and of course the excitement when seeing what returns from the photo lab. But I want to know if what I am trying to do, works out while I am shooting, so that I can try again immediately under the same conditions.
Out of focus vs autofocus
For me the interaction of sharpness and unsharpness is one of the most fascinating aspects of photography. That means that I want to have all the freedom to determine the points on which I want to focus. Hence any equipment with an auto-focus feature should make it easy to overrule it. Auto-focus, in spite of all the miraculous advance in technology it has represented, and all the new possibilities for some photographers, is not very interesting for me.
Apart from conveying movement, my ideal images are quite simple. I take much time to observe the subject before I start to shoot. I guard against introducing a plethora of primary colours. I try to use available light, preferably natural light with relatively long exposure times – a half or a full second – and selective focussing. If there is little light, and I still want a ‘frozen’ moment, I often use low intensity flash from my Broncolor Scoro light or a piece of coloured cellophane or gelatine filter in front of my lamp heads. When I work with models, I want their make-up to come across soft and natural. Many of them find me odd, as I ask them actually to move during the exposure, after the ‘frozen’ moment. That motion completes the photograph I am aiming at. I often move the camera along with the movement of my model. This causes considerable hilarity among art directors and models as I act out the movement myself first. They like working with me. Probably because I try to keep things light and pleasurable. A sense of humour is almost indispensable if one wants to do this work.
I have been experimenting with digital photography after 1997. I started out with Silicon Graphics and the Barco Creator, but my favourite today is the fast MacPro with the Eizo Color Graphics CG series. It is at the centre of my digital darkroom. Old sweet love. I can now print on any paper (coated or self coated) with Epson inkjet technology, and can go 160 cm. wide. The results are better than what I ever managed to produce in the darkroom, and they astound veteran darkroom workers. Luminescence, local contrast, detail, all are superior to what could be achieved with light-sensitive barite and chemicals. We can imitate those to a point where no one can detect the difference, but there is hardly any reason to do so. I do not dwell in the past, I try to grab every chance to improve my results. These new printers are not only great for commercial photography, they also have become ideal for fine art printing. I use them for every image I send out to galleries and exhibitions.
Learning how to use the digital version of photography was more difficult than learning to work with the old analog equipment. It is possible, of course, that this was merely a matter of age. Still, I started young enough. A difficult learning curve, but pleasant enough. One big difference when compared to the old days is that technology keeps evolving, and to keep studying it all is the challenge.
My daily work as a photographer consists mainly of campaigns for art directors and commercial agencies. I also like doing year reports for companies, in which I like to concentrate on people in their working environment. I sometimes do fashion, mostly children’s fashion, as I love children. Then I do photo books and studio stills.
My favorite cameras for these jobs are Nikon D3S, Leica Monochrom and Hasselblad digital 60 mp.
Building my own optical systems
What is changing in my creative feelings? Now, with own made lensglass parts, I am building a new optical system to reach real ‘expressionism’ in my photographs. I build it on my Sinar P2 with shutter and on the back H4D 60mp for my photo project “Troostbomen”: my most interesting photography now. In the meantime also possible on the Leica S by reason the shutter is inside the body.
Ideally, a photographer tries out a lot of different types of photography in his or her career.It goes without saying that one important reward for his of her work is the appreciation shown by customers. A number of art directors select me because I complete their ideas. I tend to have strong opinions about what will work best, and am not afraid to diplomatically tell them when I think they are wrong. More important than money is the pleasure the photographer gets from an assignment well done. I try to put a lot of myself into it; to become emotionally involved.
Once it is clear that the product is a Hans-van-Ommeren-photograph, and only then, I will be satisfied.
When Dutch specialists refer to a technique that they have made totally their own, so that they can apply it blindly, they say that they have it in their trouser pocket. If you were to ask me if I am much concerned with technique, I should answer yes as well as no. I carry it in my pocket, as it were, in the sense of an ability to control my equipment blindfolded, knowing what I should do in varying situations, and predicting the results I will get with whichever lens. But a preoccupation with technique will hamper good photography. If a violinist is continually conscious of what her fingers are doing, you will not hear great music. It is the art of allowing your emotions to guide you. When they establish the knowledge of what you want to convey, this gets mixed up with the knowledge that is in the back of your mind of how to proceed technically. And this all happens in a split-second.
Obviously light is of crucial importance. We paint with it, as the term photography implies. The way I use light is not considered traditional; it is unlike the way I learned to do it when I studied with other photographers. I often use natural light. Daylight in combination with long exposure times is frequently most satisfying. My studio has light that would be ideal for sculptors. But I also like big lights and the contrasts I can achieve with them. My Broncolor equipment serves me well. For long I have noticed how painters use light. I love light spots and often use a flashlight to create an accent: to freeze the special moment in a movement. Sometimes we move the lights along with moving the camera and the models.
At the moment I am mostly involved in personal work. Entirely new techniques have become possible, such as printing on massive hand-made cotton papers, and my hand-made silver- en gold coatings. My inkjet prints are marked with the ‘digigraphie’ standard. I make icons, very beautifully framed and coated with my own developed coating.
These images sell well. I sold more than half of the new gold-silver prints at my first exhibition of this kind, so I feel that I am in the middle of my future.
Also, in my hometown Woerden in the old castle I opened a gallery for professional photographers. A stage for quality and creative minds. (and on top: good drinks and good food in ‘Fotogalerie In De Gewelven’, in Kasteel Woerden, near Utrecht in the centre of Holland.)
I wrote a manual for fine art printing with Epson materials and equipment, illustrated with a lot of images out of my commercial as well as my private work. Sold out.
My search for new stories, colour combinations and unusual compositions almost completely possesses me. When I am not engaged in photography I am not really happy. Apart from some people that I love, It is truly the only important thing in my life. Is that a bad thing ?”
Hans van Ommeren