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Book Review: Paula: Silent Conversations


Book Review Paula: Silent Conversations By Hendrik Kerstens Reviewed by Colin Pantall Paula: Silent Conversations is a series of formal portraits of Paula taken by her father, Hendrik Kerstens. Perhaps the best known of these portraits is one where Paula poses with a plastic bag on her head. She sits looking at the camera wearing a black jumper against a black background with a white plastic bag on her head.

Paula: Silent ConversationsPhotographs by Hendrik Kerstens.
Ludion, 2013.
 
Getting Under Paula’s Skin
Review by Colin Pantall

Paula: Silent Conversations
Photographs by Hendrik Kerstens
$55.00
Ludion, 2013. 128 pp., 70 color illustrations, 9¾x13".

Paula: Silent Conversations is a series of formal portraits of Paula taken by her father, Hendrik Kerstens. Perhaps the best known of these portraits is one where Paula poses with a plastic bag on her head. She sits looking at the camera wearing a black jumper against a black background with a white plastic bag on her head. It’s a floating head picture, one where the focus falls on the skin, the lips and the eyes. It also marks a division between the earlier, more varied pictures of Paula and the later art-influenced images.

Nearly all the later images feature Paula photographed against a dark background with some art historical reference to tie the picture down; Jan Van Eyck, Petrus Christus and Leonardo da Vinci are three of the artists that are referred to in the introductory essay.

Paula: Silent ConversationsPhotographs by Hendrik Kerstens. Ludion, 2013.

But the references are twisted so they become a kind of sight gag. Instead of wearing the 15th century bonnet that Christus’ young girl is wearing, Paula wears a lampshade. In other pictures, she’s shown wearing an icing bag, aluminium foil, bubble wrap and a napkin. And then just to confuse the issue, we see her in a hoodie, a Yankees cap or with a ring of empty beer cans wrapped around her head.

These are the more controlled and knowing pictures. But the more interesting ones are from the earlier body of work. In these, Paula still has the same deadpan expression (most of the time), but her body and dress play a far more prominent role; these are pictures that are not contemporary remakes of 15th century Flemish art, something very beautiful and very popular. Instead they show a girl moving into her face, her body and her life. And from that perspective they are quite remarkable.

Paula: Silent ConversationsPhotographs by Hendrik Kerstens. Ludion, 2013.
Paula: Silent ConversationsPhotographs by Hendrik Kerstens. Ludion, 2013.

The first pictures show Paula wearing a bathing cap in a bath tub and then wearing a swimsuit while standing on a chair; the references are there but this time they are elliptical and photographic. And maybe they don’t exist in the first place.

As Paula ages, she changes. She’s photographed naked, with budding breasts. Her face is made up and she’s wearing blue beads but she is not sexualised and she is not turned into an adult. This is even more apparent in a picture of Paula wearing only a pair of pants. Her belly is swollen, she is wearing panty liners and she’s looking slightly down at the camera. It’s a coming of age picture stripped of sentimentality.

There’s a few lines in the book where Kerstens justifies his work by saying that Paula gave consent for the pictures. That’s beside the point. If someone is not in a position (of age) to give consent, then any consent they give is invalid. The justification of the work lies in the pictures themselves and the aesthetic they employ (and, more to the point, the aesthetics they don’t employ).

Paula: Silent ConversationsPhotographs by Hendrik Kerstens. Ludion, 2013.

The pictures are very direct. The title says it all. Weep shows Paula in a red track top weeping. It looks like it is shot outside by the sea. Paula’s hair is wet and she’s weeping; the tears trickle through her mascara and stain her cheeks. Why she’s crying we will never know. Sunburnt shows her appallingly sunburnt; her back is arched, and her arms folded as she stares sore-faced at the camera. Braces shows her in braces. She’s wearing a white shirt and black tie. It’s all a bit fascist really and she’s baring her braced teeth.

Paula: Silent ConversationsPhotographs by Hendrik Kerstens. Ludion, 2013.

Silent Conversations is a book in two parts then. One part is interesting from a commercial but still distant art-historical perspective, the other is interesting for its human content, for a sober, caring and very personal examination of what it is like to be a young woman growing up at the turn of the 21st century. These pictures are organic and focus on skin, which from the Venus Figurines to Rubens and Freud, have a far deeper significance than the nods to specific schools of painting. Here it doesn’t feel like Kerstens is making the pictures (even though he is). Instead it feels like Paula is giving us the pictures and letting us both into her own life and the life of every young woman who ever lived. That’s something very rare and very special. And that’s what you buy the book for.—COLIN PANTALL


COLIN PANTALL is a UK-based writer and photographer. He is a contributing writer for the British Journal of Photography and a Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of Wales, Newport.http://colinpantall.blogspot.com

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