"Rabbits can make babies so fast that we can't even count," muses Dutch photographer Hellen Van Meene. That speed is the essence of the title of her new collection of photographs, The Years Shall Run Like Rabbits. Taken from 1994-2015, the vast majority of the images are square portraits of young women. By turns awkward, gorgeous, opaque, and inviting, the photos are beautifully composed in a way that is often compared to Dutch master paintings. But Van Meene sees them as more ephemeral, "It's about the speed of life. Also, when you are not so happy with a photograph taken, don't worry, the next day it's different."
Hellen is based in the north of Holland, but she finds her unlikely Lolitas all over the world, often by just walking around city centers and shopping malls. How does she know when an adolescent will be right for one of her delicately composed pieces? "It has nothing to do with being beautiful or not; it's more about chemistry," she says. "And this can be based on the mood they have, or the hair, or the skin, or if they are fat, brown, freckled. It's just there is something inside them that I feel. It's more like I am looking with my belly rather than my eyes."
It's with her belly that she has found subjects like the tentative redhead in her orthodontic headgear, the wanton Korean girl blowing a pink bubble, and the identical twins - loads of identical twins. The common thread, for the most part, is their youth and their in-betweenness. As Hellen says, "The faces are so open and you can have different interpretations. I prefer younger faces because it's like an open book."
Once she's done the casting, it's time to create the precise mise-en-scene. Because Hellen likes her images to have a timeless quality, she shoots them at abandoned, unrenovated Granny houses in the countryside and often styles them herself using thrift shop nighties and dresses. "In my work I like it that you don't have a clue when it's been taken. Is it this year? Or is it 20 years ago? or 40 years ago?" she says.
The forgotten homes she likes to shoot in are a dying breed. She speaks of them with a hint of nostalgia: "Those houses are getting very rare in the Netherlands. Everyone, even the grandmothers, are getting very hip now. I almost feel responsible to document these kinds of houses. Sometimes things go quicker than I wish they would." The image on the cover of the book features the pea green geometric wallpaper of a house that Hellen had cycled by for years before finally getting access to. It's a little slice of Dutch design memory.
But for all her careful planning, Hellen is still ruled by her intuition. And after twenty years of making pictures, she's confident in her approach. "I'm not a researcher," she says. "It's not like, 'Did someone already did this or that?' I don't care. It's my invention. Children have been done, dogs, houses, you name it, it's been done. Everything has been done. But, not by me."
With their perfect square shape, you would think that her photographs would find a welcome home on Instagram. But while there's definitely a healthy #hellenvanmeene hashtag, you won't find the photographer on the platform any time soon; she's quite anti. "I don't like to share photographs with the rest of the world in that way," says Hellen. "When I take a new photograph, I will never share it with anyone [right away]. I keep it with myself as if it is a new baby that's been born. I don't want to share it with the rest of the world unless I know that it has been settled and grown up."
The 183 photos in Hellen's new book are all grown up works, and together they tell a compelling and open-ended story.
Text Rory Satran
All images courtesy Hellen Van Meene