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Once upon a time, in a place far, far away…: The paradoxical third space and the photography of Jaap Scheeren and Babette Kleijn

“I don’t remember, but I wanted to go back to sleep and keep dreaming.”

—- The girl Ako in Hiroshi Teshigahara’s short film Ako/White Morning (1963).


Where exactly are we, when we are looking at a photo? Asking the question is easier than providing answers. At the most, we can talk about it in approximate terms. So, instead of pretending to be able to answer the question, I would like to offer a few possible routes of thought. When I think about being absorbed in a photographic image, I am not thinking about being somewhere physically or geographically, but about being somewhere mentally. In other words, looking at photographs takes the observer into a kind of reality that differs from that of sleeping, dreaming, grocery shopping, talking to someone, etcetera. Moreover, looking at photos creates a different experience from looking at paintings or other kinds of two-dimensional images.

The almost invisible mediality of photography can give a person the sensation to be present in (or at) what is represented. This is a vital aspect of religious pictures in particular: by means of the icon, Christ is deemed to be present. Icons offer the believer a spiritual framework and an incentive to believe, regardless of whether the image is ‘photorealistic’ or not. I am not trying to claim that photos are or can be icons, nor do I think that photos may be compared to icons in the traditional religious sense of the word. However, the analogy between traditional icons and photographs is, in general, their capacity to make believe that the portrayed presents itself unmediated. Photosensitive paper is imprinted by light, and nature paints itself – that is how people regarded photography’s magic in the primeval age of its conception. As far as the icon is concerned, the reality presenting itself was thought to be a revelation of the ‘other’ reality of faith and imagination. Conversely, in the eyes of many, photography reveals reality itself. We often assume the world looks the same on a photo as it does through the naked eye. Yet the world on a photo is a photographed world – no more and no less.

The German media philosopher Lambert Wiesing introduced the theological concept of immersion in a discussion of the deceptive character of virtual realities.[i] ‘Immersive’ images, he says, create the impression that the (re-)presented is really present. In my eyes, the photographic image is located on the delicate borderline between fantasy and reality, between a reality outside us and a projected or imagined reality inside us.

Photos are projections. They bring about a consciousness that mediates between our imaginary and perceptive faculties. The British photo-historian Elizabeth Edwards situates photos in the ‘paradoxical third space’, borrowing the term form the famous psychologist Donald W. Winnicott: ‘The “paradoxical third space” being neither inside in the world of fantasy (expression) nor outside in the world of shared reality. Rather it partakes of both these positions at once.’[ii]

To this I would like to add that photos also could be situated between the material and the immaterial, and between past and present. Photography mediates, the photographer being the co-mediator. In defiance of pre-programmed camera features and visual editing software, good photographers, especially when utilizing their powers of imagination, are magicians.

In the contemporary world, flooded by more or less commonplace pictures, there is little left of the initial amazement about photography’s capacity to conjure up images as though it were sheer magic. You could say photography has become too ‘common’ to us. However, there are photographers, even if they have to call themselves artists in order to be considered as magicians, who generously employ their imaginative powers in order to create magical pictures. Jaap Scheeren and Babette Kleijn are both like this, in quite dissimilar ways. By means of their pictures, they present realities that touch on all of those fine lines – between inside and outside, present and past, fantasy and reality.

Jaap Scheeren created a series of photos inspired by Slovakian fairytales of authors such as Pavol Dobsinski and Samuel Czambel. Fairytales are worlds in themselves, brimming with imagery. Scheeren almost seems to take this literally in his photographs, which themselves could be conceived as imageries. He came up with the title 3 Roses, 9 Ravens, 12 Months for his series, referencing to the often enumerative titles of fairytales. The title alone is food for our imagination.

Scheeren’s photos leave everything and nothing to the imagination at the same time. They look immaculate; there is no photographic noise, so to speak, that could withhold a clear view of wonderland. Everything that may be seen, is to be seen. However, all that the pictures represent in such high definition, is rendered mysterious – a figure sitting, seen from the back and wearing an enormous mantle of artificial grass – and sometimes possibly alarming, such as the woman wrapped in plastic, hanging from the branch of a tree. Then again, Scheeren makes it quite obvious that he manipulated the staging of the landscape: people are posing in a forest, hidden away in a tree-stump or in a semi-subterranean hut, and a hedge of fake herons has been lined up on a hillside. Still, everywhere, Scheeren intervened only to such an extent and with such subtlety that he hardly interfered with the natural surroundings.

In New York City, where Scheeren made a series of pictures for the project Dutch Seen: New York Rediscovered in early 2009,[iii] he worked the other way around, emphasizing the mythical natural origins of an almost entirely man-made urban ‘jungle’. Pseudo-natural elements, such as fur coats or a stuffed beaver on a city roof garden, take the lead here.

Babette Kleijn’s photos are more pensive, quieter, and darker. Their tone is cool, with shades of black, blue and green being the predominant colors. Her individual pictures seem to be less singular; they rather come across as stills from long, silent and mysterious movies, or as photos out of lost family albums. The landscape and natural setting is of equal importance as it is in Scheeren’s work, but in a more melancholic way. Decay, traces of a lost civilization, reflections in water, or a bouquet gone to seed set the tone here. The pictures allow a more explicit photographic interpretation: grain is visible, their color scheme is out of balance, their saturation is low. This intransparency intensifies their romantic sense of loss and their illusory quality.

Kleijn explains that she based her series on sensations of sleeplessness and lack of clarity. In the course of the series, she is becoming better rested. The cloudiness in her head disappears, which creates an almost threatening kind of realism. Photography is able to offer us a virtual escape from harsh and unwanted realities, just like stories, verbal or visual, and particularly fairytales have done since times immemorial.

Both Scheeren and Kleijn do play with narrative elements. For them, stories aren’t so much meant to be told, but rather to be shown. Kleijn’s mystifying images seem like illustrations of stories yet to be told, or stills from non-existent films, while Scheeren’s crystal-clear photos are freely engrafted onto – or at least they suggest being illustrations of – folktales, origin myths and fairytales. His series looks like it’s drawn from magical stories, even if still untold.

Scheeren told me how several Slovaks, after seeing his work, said they recognized themes from their mythical traditions. “Everybody has their own cultural baggage of fairytales and other stories which they can bring into play while looking at the pictures,” Scheeren explained. “I wanted to keep them open to interpretation, so everyone would be free to imagine what the people and things in the landscape are doing, and how they might relate to one another.”

For Slovakian observers, the familiar atmosphere of the landscape and the humans or animals living there, must have been a significant factor in their identification with Scheeren’s work. Still, his photos are just as much invitations to make up new tales. It is of no importance whether they were taken in Slovakia or in New York; what matters is that they speak to us about connections between the natural and the artificial, which gives them a universal appeal.



[i]. Lambert Wiesing, Artifizielle Prasenz: Studien zu Philosophie des Bildes, Frankfurt am Mein, 2005, pp. 110-112.

[ii]. Elizabeth Edwards, ‘Beyond the Boundary: A Consideration of the Expressive in Photography and Anthropology’ in: Rethinking Visual Anthropology, Marcus Banks and Howard Morphy (eds.), New Haven/ London 1997, pp. 53-80, p. 56.

[iii]. Dutch Seen: New York Rediscovered was realized by the Museum of the City of New York and Foam on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the Dutch arrival on the island of Manhattan. The exhibition, curated by Kathy Ryan, photo editor of the The New York Times Magazine, was shown last summer in the Museum of the City of New York.


This essay appeared in print in Fw: #9 Off the Wall (Amsterdam 2010)

(Translated from the Dutch by Sanne de Boer)

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