We have been fond of Rene de Haan’s effortlessly sensual work for quite some time, so on the chance of the publication MOOI , de Haan’s retrospective dedicated to women, we have a talk with the Amsterdam based photographer, focusing on portraits and nudes, about the process of book publishing, inspiration, his style and the duality seen in the depiction of the female body.
Interview by Demetrios Drystellas.
Rene, you just published your first photographic book “MOOI“. How many years of work do we get to appreciate in its pages and was there a particular vision behind making the book?
It has been about 15 years since I started shooting nudes on a more regular basis, so itâ€™s a compilation of those past 15 years; a few pictures were taken before 1998 and the last picture for the book was shot in August this year. I donâ€™t know if there was a â€œvisionâ€ behind making the book. Itâ€™s just that I had been trying with publishers in several countries for a couple of years, but since Iâ€™m not internationally famous and there are no “hot babes” in sexy poses or women in expensive lingerie with lots of make-up in luxurious locations, those publishers did not think my work was commercially interesting enough, they would not make money with my photo book. So I decided to publish the book myself. Also because I think the models are worth to been seen in a beautiful book instead of only on a computer screen.
Publishing books is a dream for many photographers, to view their images printed and the book, with their names on, being featured in bookstores. Were there any difficulties of technical, artistic or legal nature that you had to overcome?
All in all, it went pretty fast. First, in the middle of September, I had talks with a businessman who financed a big part of the printing costs. The first copy I had in my hands in the end of November. In between, there were talks with Patrick van Dam, the former art director of Playboy’s Dutch edition, with whom I had cooperated for about 7 years, about the design, then making the selection.
First I was trying to find a suitable title. I did not want a title with â€œnudeâ€ in it. I had already found my cover image. Everyone who saw that image said “wow, mooiâ€ (ed. beautiful, nice in Dutch). And it was that word which covered the contents in the best way. Plus, MOOI looks nice graphically, especially with the font Patrick found for it.
How hard was it to select the images to include and how painful to discard images you like?
The plan was to have around 100-125 pictures. On the 152-160 pages we had planned and were calculated for the costs. I started out with 300 pictures, which were pretty quickly reduced to about 150. Off course I had some darlings to kill, itâ€™s always hard not selecting pictures that are dear to you, that have accompanied you for many years; but it is good to have someone with a more objective opinion, â€œyes, very pretty girl, but is it an interesting or special picture? Eh…not really. So…â€)
There were some pictures that were not sharp enough for a spread so had to go for that reason, some models that I did not have signed a model release with, and did not want to be in the book, and off course I had taken pictures over the years that were quite similar, so we had to decide which was the best ones.
The design itself was ready in a couple of days, the fine-tuning took much longer. Patrick was on top of it all the time, being a total perfectionist we e-mailed daily, changing pictures and their placing. I had one of my models write the introduction.
Then Chris Stevenet (another Playboy contact) started with the whole technical part, while we were still fine-tuning. Some pictures still needed a bit of retouching, and high resolution scans of the shots on film had to be made. Retouching did not take much time. In general I can say that the majority of the pictures is hardly retouched, just some minor colour/contrast changes or a colour filter.
How did you feel the first time you laid your hands on a finished copy?
Early November everything was ready to go to the printer. We had some colour proofs made, did some final adjustments and then the waiting started. I first got an unbound, cover-less copy and a week later the real deal, 1000 copies were delivered. And yep, it was great to see the book in itâ€™s final form. Somehow bigger in size than I had imagined. Very well printed. So Iâ€™m more than happy. Off course there are always details that could have been improved, but that will always be the case I think.
Your work features an underlying essence of natural beauty and purity. Where do you draw inspiration from? Are there particular artists that have shaped you and how do you translate this in your images?
I think big inspiration for me when I started out with shooting nudes were the pictures of Jock Sturges, the beauty and the purity of them. Although shooting for Playboy for more than 10 years, my series being published in editions around the world, glamour was never really something that inspired me to shoot nudes. Other photographers that I admire are Gavin Oâ€™Neill, Bruno Bisang, Andreas Bitesnich, Ryan McGinley , but also fashion photographers like Peter Lindbergh and Paolo Roversi. And nowadays talents like David Bellemere, Kesler Tran and Nicolas Guerin. So many great photographers around to get inspired by !
From Jock Sturges for sure I have taken the purity part, the absence of photoshop. From Ryan McGinley the spontaneity of poses and expressions, from David Bellemere the use of reflections and reduced colours. And probably all kinds of other things from images that pass my eyes every day, being it pictures, or movies, or architecture, or models.
A strong preference for locations, instead of the usual studio setting, along with natural light, can be seen in your images. What attracts you to it?
The best thing about shooting with daylight is that you have no control. Some people will say thatâ€™s a big disadvantage, to have no control over the light. But I think itâ€™s good to improvise, to manage with what is there, to let the model and surroundings inspire you instead of having to deal with failing remotes or replacing fuses. And daylight can surprise and astonish you. Nothing can beat daylight.
And on location youâ€™ll have a different background every time you take two steps aside, or turn around. A studio could only work for me with a great concept and a great model, not improvising with an inexperienced model like I so often do.
If you had the chance to photograph 3 people, living or dead, and there were no budget limits, who would they be and how would the photographic session be?
Iâ€™d prefer not to shoot any dead people 😉 Thereâ€™s so many beautiful models out there that Iâ€™d like to shoot! Career-wise it would be better if I would shoot famous people, like say Obama, Lady Gaga or Eva Mendes. Having famous people in your portfolio will give you more jobs. But somehow fame does not really interest me. Iâ€™ve worked on film sets of Dutch movies for many years, as a stills/set photographer, so worked with some famous Dutch actors and although I admire their skills I donâ€™t find them more interesting than, letâ€™s say, the catering assistant or the light technician. There are world famous people like Miley Cyrus, Beyonce or Lindsay Lohan that I would for sure not even recognize when bumping into them on the street! Another â€˜problemâ€™ with famous people is that they have been photographed already so much, that I donâ€™t know if I could add anything to already existing pictures. Also they (or their agents) will have a lot of issues with nudity 😉 Penelope Cruz has been on my wish list for a long time.
But okay, you want three names:
a) Emily Ratajkowski
b) Christopher Walken
c) Sheri Chiu
Emily I would take â€“how cliche- to some island in the South Pacific, Sheri to Morocco for a shoot near some Kashbah close to the Sahara desert, or in a luxurious Riad in Marrakesh and Christopher Iâ€™d like to shoot in some cool 60/70â€™s design villa, like the Sheats Goldstein residence for example. Emily and Sheri would be walking around naked a lot, Christopher can keep his clothes on.
Female nudes occupy an important place in your body of work, both regarding assignments (having shot a number of Playboy features) and your personal projects.Â How do you go around the usual tug-of-war between purity and sexuality and how important is the model’s personality in this equation?
Shooting for Playboy means there has to be some sexual tension in the picture(s). For my personal work, which is 97% of all pictures in this book itâ€™s not what Iâ€™m looking for. It can be there, but if itâ€™s not Iâ€™m totally okay with that. I find it more important that the model and picture itself looks nice than that I try to get the model into a fake pose she would never think of doing herself. I hope I can show something of the modelâ€™s personality in my pictures. By working together, improvising, not by sticking to any worked-out plan or concept. Communication is important, if thereâ€™s a click the pictures will get better for sure. I hardly ever work with very experienced models. Most model agencies are not interested in their models shooting with a â€œplayboy-photographerâ€ (even if I have no Playboy-style intentions). So Iâ€™m missing out on some great models out there. But less experienced models have the advantage that they wonâ€™t easily fall into standard poses; what they do comes from the moment, not from something theyâ€™ve done before and know all photographers like to see.
What are your thoughts on the female body as seen in the media?
In the media the female body mostly is connected with sexual attraction and desire, but for me, in my work it has more to do with beauty than with sex. I don’t think â€œMOOIâ€ will change anything in the media in any way, but I think itâ€™s good that thereâ€™s a book that focuses more on the naturalness and the beauty of the (female) naked body than on sex and the body as an object.
Will we see any new projects soon?
I jokingly said my next book should be called “Lelijk” (ed. ugly in Dutch), which is the contrary of Mooi. But I guess that will be hard to sell and find the right people to pose for it. MOOI has not been a project. Itâ€™s a collection/selection of my nicest pictures of the past 15 years. Thereâ€™s no concept or story behind it. I hardly ever work with real projects, or concepts. Maybe I should. Some 20 years ago I shot and exhibited a black & white series of portraits of people with freckles. 50 people, young and old, men and women. I have a weak spot for freckles. Maybe I should repeat that somehow and combine it with nudity. I donâ€™t think we get to see many freckled models nude. Reto Caduff made a beautiful book in 2012 “Freckles“, but itâ€™s portraits, not nudes. Hm. Problem will be Iâ€™d have to travel around Europe and beyond to find them…budget problem!
Mooi (152 pages, hardcover, 24.5×32.5cm) is available in select bookstores in Amsterdam, and online via www.renedehaan.com/mooi