A balancing act

(...) Suzanne sees unsuspected beauty in packing materials. Styrofoam blocks used to pack a new television in its box become a headdress, the lengths of translucent foam become a millstone collar, trimmed with gold filament. An old black yoga mat becomes armour plating. Rose hips transform into the beads of a rosary, the ring-pull lid of a tin of tomato puree a precious ring. When Suzanne discovers the artistic potential of packaging materials in 2007, her work gains momentum. Every element that holds meaning for her coalesces in the series Mind over Matter: the serene portraits of Old Masters such as Hans Holbein and Jan van Eyck that entranced her as a child, the love of handicrafts she inherited from her grandmother, the artisanal slowness of the making process. There is a welcome ambiguity in that packaging material: a disposable material with no intrinsic value which now reveals itself as an exquisite, elegant textile. Intended to protect and yet innately fragile. In her photographs, the white of the ruffs and caps contrasts clearly against a shadowy background. For her, this contrast between light and dark is redolent with meaning. It is precisely in the dark that light shines brightly; by experiencing pain and sorrow, you feel joy more intensely. (...)

The images she makes are not portraits in the classical sense that tell something of the social position or character of the person portrayed. The people she asks to pose are often family members, friends, friends of friends, or their children. They are often young people, rarely are they older than Suzanne herself, and often she knows them only superficially. She asks them to pose because they have a certain look. A certain presence that makes visible something of the state of being she wishes to convey. To better understand who she is and her interior world, she needs these others. By looking at the other person, talking to her, dressing her, positioning her in front of the camera, providing props and photographing, she gains a deeper insight into herself. Ultimately you could, therefore, see the portraits as indirect self-portraits. What the other person entrusts to her sometimes filters through into the image: personal stories about maternal love, divorce, mourning and courage inform Suzanne’s choice of pose and props. A boy is given a sword to help him through the difficult times he is going through at home (Prince Jona), a young woman sets foot over a threshold, ready to take a bold step in her life (Confronting Love).

To a large extent, photography is a matter of technique and practicalities: every detail of the face, clothing and background must be recorded sharply, from the right angle and with the right exposure. But during the photo session Suzanne’s attention is primarily with the person who is present at that moment. Once the model fully trusts her and can surrender to her, relaxation occurs, and that typical introverted, calm expression comes to the surface. She cannot force that heightened concentration, that magical moment—it is always a gift. (...)

(...) Time seems to be slowing in Suzanne's work, like a river as it freezes. Images created centuries ago by Hans Holbein, Jan van Eyck, Piero Della Francesca and Albrecht Durer, resurface in our time. Paradoxically, the techniques she uses for that resurrection are digital and ultramodern: camera, image editing software and printing techniques are the newest of the newest.

The making process is long, both before and after the photo session. In the run-up to it, she carefully selects her materials and props, and often spends hours making the clothes by hand. The photo session is followed by a lengthy period of image editing: like a painter she builds up the final image, from many details, layer by layer, and adjusts colours, shadows and contrasts until everything is right. With this painstaking work, she takes the time, step by step, to clarify the story she actually wants to tell. Which often comes into sharp focus when the work is almost finished, and only then can she give the work a title.

The fulcrum between those two slow processes of preparation and post-production is the one day the model is in the studio. And, in particular, the one moment of deep connection between model and photographer. Which is followed by that peace, that expression, that presence.

These two opposing forces, the timeless and the fleeting, converge in every portrait. The flowers and seeds that often grace the models have this same duality: in nature the cycle of growth, flowering, dying and germination has neither beginning nor end, and thus is timeless. But within that eternal cycle, the instant a flower bud opens is a brief, incandescent moment.

The multitude of contrasts charges Suzanne's work with potency. The infinite contrasts with the moment, light cannot exist without dark, life experience contrasts with childlike innocence. Melancholy needs a subtle joke to  leaven it. Divine inspiration springs from the earthly, everyday world that surrounds us. Those confronted by death appreciate the miracle of life all the more. (...)

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Fragmenten uit 'A balancing act, tekst voor het boek 'Moving through contrast' van Suzanne Jongmans. (Uitgeverij Lannoo, 2019)

Vertaling: Lisa Holden

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