PhotoLexicon, Volume 25, nr. 39 (March 2008) (en)

Helena van der Kraan

Lotte Stekelenburg


In the early 1970s, the artist Helena van der Kraan picked up a photo camera to document a variety of artistic activities. From that moment on, she discovered the possibilities of photography as an independent medium. Devoting significant attention to aspects of form, Van der Kraan started photographing people in her personal surroundings. Over the years, she has applied different techniques for this purpose. Van der Kraan today possesses a varied photographic oeuvre, which stands as her unique contribution to Dutch photography.




Helena van der Kraan was born Helena Jirina Mázl on 14 June in Prague, Bohemia. Her father, Otakar Václav Mázl, is an attorney and her mother, Anna Kristina Kubrycht, a schoolteacher.


Within a short period of time, Helena loses her brother, sister, and subsequently her mother.


Helena attends secondary school. She studies at the ‘Gymnasium’, comparable to the same advanced secondary school programme encountered in the Netherlands, but without Greek and Latin, and with classes such as ‘love for the fatherland’, political awareness, and shooting practice. At the Gymnasium, Helena becomes a member of an underground surrealist artist’s group. She paints, and also writes poems and stories.


Following her final exam, Van der Kraan wants to apply to the art academy, but is not allowed to do so for political reasons. She is allowed to choose a technical study and therefore decides on architecture. She quits the study after one year, because she still wants to be an artist.


Van der Kraan is obliged to work and finds different jobs in the propaganda department of various state companies, including the postal service. During this period, she continues to paint and make graphic art on an active basis. She applies several times to art schools, but her efforts prove fruitless.


Van der Kraan begins doing freelance work as a graphic designer. She continues to paint.


In August, the ‘Prague Spring’ comes to an end due to Russian intervention. Van der Kraan decides to leave her country and settles in the Netherlands. She attends a language and assimilation class for foreign students, where she comes into contact with academy instructors. They advise her to apply to the post-academic art study Ateliers ’63 in Haarlem, where she is accepted. Here she meets the artist Axel van der Kraan.


Helena and Axel marry in January. They move to Amsterdam. With her first camera, Helena van der Kraan photographs Axel’s projects. As they have no suitable working and living space in Amsterdam, they move to a farm in Ovezande on the island of South Beveland.


Helena and Axel van der Kraan collaborate on projects and installations. They also produce their first sculptures together.


Although Helena prefers to be called ‘Van der Kraan’, she decides nevertheless to have her maiden name phonetically adapted to the name ‘Maazel’. Besides painting, Van der Kraan devotes significant time to photography. She has her first solo exhibition of photographic works at the Zeeuws Museum (‘Zeeland Museum’) in Middelburg.


Helena and Axel move to The Hague (Scheveningen).


The Van der Kraans move to Rotterdam. Helena stops with painting and focuses on her collaborative projects with Axel as well as her photography. She photographs chiefly indoors in black and white.


Photographic works by Helena van der Kraan are added to the collection of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, the Leiden University Print Room, and the Nederlandse Kunst Stichting (‘Netherlands Art Foundation’).


When attending vernissages, Van der Kraan photographs other people present. As a follow-up, Van der Kraan produces photo series of visitors to museums in the 1990s.


Helena van der Kraan has her first important retrospective at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague.


Van der Kraan becomes interested in non-silver p printing processes, chiefly gum printing and cyanotype. She uses these techniques to introduce ‘colour’ in her images. Van der Kraan becomes an instructor at the Sint Joost Art Academy in Breda.


During the 1980s, Van der Kraan places increasing value on the documentary significance of photography. She initiates several long-term projects by portraying a number of people on a regular basis. Helena, Elisabeth, and Emma—children of friends—are photographed from their baby phase to the present day.

In late 1989, Helena and Axel van der Kraan have an exhibition at the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam.


Van der Kraan visits Prague, the city of her birth, for the first time in years. She starts photographing cityscapes there.


For the primary school ‘Het Palet’ (‘The Palet’) in Zoetermeer, Van der Kraan carries out her first spatial assignment. Van der Kraan experiments with the colourisation of photos.


Van der Kraan contributes to the development and realisation of the new post-academic study programme ‘Post St. Joost Photography’ in Breda. She also teaches in this programme.

Van der Kraan is commissioned to portray the members of the Dutch senate, resulting in the book and exhibition Senatoren.


Van der Kraan receives additional assignments, including the spatial project Engeltjes (‘Little Angels’) for the Raad van de Kinderbescherming (‘Council of Child Welfare’) in Rotterdam, commissioned by the Bureau Rijksbouwmeester (‘Chief Government Architect Agency’) of the Ministry of VROM: Volkshuisvesting, Ruimtelijke Ordening en Milieu, ‘Public Housing, City Planning and Environment’).


Van der Kraan stops with teaching.

She decides to start photographing in colour, alongside black and white.


The Hague Photo Museum organises a retrospective on Helena van der Kraan. A book featuring her photographic oeuvre appears simultaneously.


Van der Kraan takes photographs at the Dijkzigt Hospital on assignment for the Erasmus Medical Centre.

The Nederlands Fotomuseum (‘Netherlands Photo Museum’) purchases Van der Kraan’s series Diergaarde Blijdorp (the Rotterdam zoo), with the intention of publishing the series on the internet.


Van der Kraan decides to concentrate on her autonomous work. She organises existing material from her oeuvre and compiles photobooks from these images to be used for possible publication, e.g. Stad Rotterdam (‘The City of Rotterdam’).


Helena van der Kraan approaches the medium of photography as an artist. For most of her life, she has worked as an autonomous photographer, but from time to time she takes on commissions. She only does so, however, when the assignment falls within her scope of interest. She then approaches the subject in the same manner as her autonomous work. When it comes to her choice of subject matter, approach, and finishing technique, Van der Kraan is in no way influenced by contemporary trends but chooses instead to follow her own steady course.

Despite Van der Kraan’s interest in art, she was never given an opportunity in her own native country to develop her artistic talent. Following the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, Dutch friends made arrangements for her to be allowed entry in the Netherlands. Referred to the possibility of participating in a post-academic art study programme in the Netherlands, Van der Kraan applied at Ateliers ’63 in Haarlem and was accepted. At Ateliers ’63, artists were given a studio, where they were able to concentrate on their artistic development under the guidance of well-known artists. It was during this study that Van der Kraan came into contact with photography. She did not, however, receive any specific instruction in this area. As a photographer, she is in fact an autodidact. Exhibitions and publications concerning photography have served as her learning school.

Van der Kraan’s graphics background has had an influence on her photography. When photographing and printing, her attention is chiefly devoted to aspects of form. First and foremost, she strives for a balanced composition. Each photo is part of a study in composition, tones, tints, textures, and the effect of light. As the photography historian Hripsimé Visser wrote, theme and subject in Van der Kraan’s work lose out to the significance of form, elevating her images above and beyond any kind of categorisation, which the photographic medium readily invites one to do. (Van Sinderen et al, 2005).

Van der Kraan composes her still lifes carefully and sometimes corrects a person’s pose. Her photos do not have the character of explicit staged scenes, as she never diverges significantly from reality and always uses available light.

Over the years, Van der Kraan has photographed a variety of subjects: still life, interior, portrait, landscape, and urban architecture. Nevertheless, her oeuvre is consistently oriented towards one theme, namely ‘form and composition’. Her subject matter is secondary. By her own account, she is ‘in fact interested in everything that forms an image by the grace of light’. It is for this reason that, from the very start, she has found her subject matter simply in her own surroundings.

Van der Kraan’s photos of friends and acquaintances from the art world are not snapshots, but images of people who are well aware of the photographer’s presence. They casually look into the camera or, lost in thought, turn their gaze in another direction while Van der Kraan takes the time to observe and photograph in her own probing manner.

Van der Kraan initially photographed people in combination with their surroundings. Since the 1990s, however, she has concentrated more on the face, photographing her models in front of a neutral, grey rear wall. Just as ever, among those she portrays are friends, acquaintances, handymen, and anyone else who stops by her studio. When the composition is right and the person portrayed radiates a natural calm, only then does a portrait photo find its way into Van der Kraan’s growing archive of ‘koppen’ (‘heads’), as she refers to them.

In the 1990s, Van der Kraan made a theme of the ‘observing person’ by photographing visitors to institutions of art. This resulted in three publications, respectively Musée Rodin, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen and Arboretum Trompenburg. These books concern the phenomenon of the museum, comprising three important components: the housing, the use of the collections, and the behaviour of visitors.

In the 1990s, Van der Kraan began to take photographs of cities on a regular basis. As she describes it herself, she photographs ‘(…) that which makes a large city great; besides the massiveness of its dimensions, particularly the severity and lack of adornment of areas that lie outside the centre. The poetry of the large cities is present in pure form in that which is labelled as boring, monotonous, and sad.’ A second approach to urban photography found in Van der Kraan’s work dates from the late 1990s. It was then that she began to photograph certain locations in colour over extended periods of time. She captured these places during different seasons, weather conditions, and times of the day. In doing so, the viewer is forced to interpret details and to ponder the duration and elapsing of time. In the series that arose from this undertaking, such as Vista and De Oevers (‘The [River] Banks’), the object and social aspects again play a subordinate role, with the effect of light emerging as the apparent subject at hand. They are objective representations of light-object effects, which photo curator Wim van Sinderen has compared to the way in which Claude Monet (1840-1927) consistently painted changing light on the facade of Rouen Cathedral in the nineteenth century (Van Sinderen et al, 2005).

Van der Kraan by no means underestimates the documentary value of her own photos. Stated in her own words: ‘(…) any photo that contains more than a compositional arrangement will become a document of its time with the passing of years, possessing its own documentary value’. It is based on this awareness that Van der Kraan has photographed, for instance, her friends’ children on a repeated basis. In no way does she limit herself to a fixed interval or moment in time, framing, or camera angle. Instead, she grants herself the complete freedom to work in her own fashion.

Van der Kraan likes to apply various techniques, but the majority of her oeuvre consists of gelatin silver prints. Van der Kraan is extremely inspired by work conducted in the darkroom. As a starting photographer, she preferred prints that were high in contrast. Over the years, she learned to appreciate subtle transitions. Colour entered into her photography when discovering an interest in non-silver printing processes such as gum printing, cyanotype, and watercolour printing. Van der Kraan developed her own knowledge of these special techniques through self-study, composing her own formulas. These techniques led to a certain abstraction based on the robust quality of the support material, such as watercolour paper for the series Senatoren, in which she portrayed members of the Dutch senate. Van der Kraan stopped with these time-consuming and labour-intensive techniques in 1996.

Hereafter, Van der Kraan introduced another technique entailing brightly coloured strokes of chalk pastel applied to small black-and-white portraits, which were then subsequently scanned in order to produce large wax prints. Van der Kraan employed this wax technique, which had fallen out of use, when producing monumental projects to be hung in major office buildings, such as that found in the headquarters of the Raad van de Kinderbescherming (‘Council of Child Welfare’) in Rotterdam from 1998.

Van der Kraan had always preferred black-and-white to colour photography, because its abstract character was well suited to her graphics background. Up until the 1990s, she was still sceptical about colour photography, but felt it could no longer be ignored. She consequently began to experiment with colour photography just as time elapse and subtle light were becoming important to her. Since then, she works in both colour and black and white.

With the digitization of photography, a number of analogue products have been taken out of production, including Van der Kraan’s favourite Agfa baryta paper. While changes of this kind have proven to be problematic, she searches for solutions that enable her to continue working in her own way.

In discussions of Helena Van der Kraan’s photography, emphasis is often placed on her foreign background. In her work from the early 1970s, the influence of growing up in Prague and the impressions it made are clearly evident. Anyone describing this early period as characteristic of Van der Kraan’s entire oeuvre, however, is overlooking her further development in the Netherlands. After all, it was in the Netherlands that she first came into contact with photography. Furthermore, Van der Kraan has been influenced by photography originating from the United States, Japan, and the rest of Europe.

The non-judgemental and objective manner in which Helena van der Kraan draws attention to intimate, day-to-day images can also be linked to the influence of seventeenth-century Dutch painting. The role of her Dutch surroundings is similarly reflected in her no-nonsense approach to landscape and urban photography. The abstraction of the Dutch landscape is extremely interesting for a photographer intrigued by aspects of form.

Helena van der Kraan’s photos inspire one to pause and reflect on the ordinary things that life has to offer. They provide a counterweight to the growing number of images that wish to persuade the viewer based on motives of social engagement or commercialism. Because of the profound simplicity encountered in the subject and image, the observer is perhaps inclined to associate what has been photographed in terms of a metaphor. Nonetheless, it has never been Van der Kraan’s aim to steer the observer’s interpretation. For her personally, a bottle remains a bottle. She finds comfort and beauty in the photography of the day-to-day and wishes to share this with others.