Daniëlle van Zadelhoff: Of Time and Authenticity

© Daniëlle van Zadelhoff ‘Nightmare’ [detail] 2014

But behind every image there is a contemporary story that looks to the future.


Throughout its history, photography has had a conversation with the more traditional visual arts. Sometimes seeking to be recognised as an equal member of the Fine Art family. Sometimes emphasising its uniquely different relationship to the world around us: an image captured rather than constructed. But there is another strand to this conversation in which the traditions of Fine Art and the nature of photographic processes maintain a more intimate dialogue.

In pursuing this intimate dialogue, some artists use photography as part of a wider creative practice involving sculpture, installation or painting, while others draw on the visual language of Art History to suggest layers of meaning that juxtapose the present time with the styles, stories and symbolism of the past. They connect the individual with a shared cultural memory and, since cultures differ one from another, their meanings change depending on who is viewing them.

Through the subtle use of lighting and pose the Belgian photo-artist Daniëlle van Zadelhoff recreates the feeling of paintings from the Golden Age in the history of the Low Countries. This was a time of cultural and economic flourishing when art in the region moved away from religious paintings for churches and cathedrals to more domestic art that explored moral and philosophical ideas through allegory and portraiture.

She does not restage specific paintings as photographic tableaux but draws on a shared cultural memory of this important period in the western history of art. Like the poetry and literature of the past, we recognise the visual language of another era and associate it with the deeper meanings that those poems, stories and pictures sought to engage. – What does it mean to be good? What does it mean to be mortal? What is it to love, to suffer, to despair? – In setting her portraits within the visual language of the past, Daniëlle van Zadelhoff invites us to look beyond the simple fact of photographic representation to the more profound questions that have engaged and perplexed the minds of human beings for centuries.

Alasdair Foster

[Left] © Daniëlle van Zadelhoff ‘Camille’ 2020
[Right] © Daniëlle van Zadelhoff ‘Blue Turban’ 2015


Alasdair: When did you start making photographs? 

Daniëlle: I began later in life. I was coming out of a difficult period personally and was seeking a way to express myself. It was a way to explore my subconscious feelings, including the darker parts.

Why do you choose this art-historical atmosphere?

I want to create a bridge between the past, the present and the future. I do not think we can make wise decisions for the future without considering the experiences of the past. The visual feeling of the image suggests the past. The models and the act of photographing are in the present. But behind every image there is a contemporary story that looks to the future.

For example, in the image of the young girl with the skull I am thinking about the kind of world our children will inherit. We raise our children to love the world, yet we teach them to love material things that have a terrible impact on the environment. The world we leave them has so many problems to solve: polluted water, mountains of plastic waste, too much carbon dioxide in the air…

I find I experience your images emotionally. The stories unfold as feelings…

Yes. I am interested in capturing the emotions. What is important for me as an artist is to be honest and authentic: for the viewer to believe in the story. For me photography is like good theatre. When you see a stage play, you don’t analyse it as a sequence of acting techniques. You just allow the actors to engage you as a viewer and make you part of their story. You cease to be aware that you are even sitting in a theatre. Good actors can convince you that what happens in front of your eyes feels real. The same applies to photographers. Unfortunately, ninety per cent of the images that I see do not make me believe. I look at them and think to myself that the lighting is great, the model is great, but I still don’t feel and believe the story it is trying to tell. All I see is a posed, artificial scene.

My goal is to evoke an authentic feeling, an emotion, the real thing. Therefore my models wear almost no make-up and I do not use any Photoshop. Real art is like religious faith, you want to believe in it and have no doubts, because this helps you to understand that there is a meaning, beauty, and a lesson hidden in the most difficult feelings and emotions.

© Daniëlle van Zadelhoff ‘Lost’ 2015

What is the most surprising response you have had to this work?

I was showing at an Art Fair. There was a big strong man standing in front of my image of a girl with a key on her back… and he began to cry. He returned two days later and bought the photograph. He said that he never cried and that this was why he had to buy it, because the image was stronger than himself.

Which artists have inspired your work?

When I began, I had no particular artist in mind. Living in Belgium, I have seen so many works by Old Masters such as Rembrandt, Ruebens, Vermeer… It is our cultural background, a whole library of artists already in my mind.

To be honest with you, I am really not very interested in the Golden Age. What I like about the paintings from that period is the way they use light to engage timeless human emotions. I always become fascinated by the light. In it the models transcend themselves and suggest something universal. It is a quality evoked in the transition from dark to light and vice versa. That is where the story develops, where it is told. Yet, much of this is intuitive for me. The sole purpose of lighting and pose is to enhance the story, a story that links the past to the future. And what is beautiful about emotions is that they do not change over the time, through the centuries.

© Daniëlle van Zadelhoff ‘Vesper’ from the series ‘Lazarus’ 2016

In 2016, you made a series of images using a Lazarus Mask that for me amplify that span across time.

It was a collaboration with two other artists, Neri Oxman and Naomi Kamper, the creators of the Lazarus Mask.

What is a Lazarus mask?

It is a modern interpretation of a death mask. Traditionally, a death mask was made by taking a plaster cast of the dead person’s face, which was then used as the mould for a wax likeness of the deceased. The Lazarus Masks are created using a 3D printer. Neri Oxman calls them ‘air urns’. [The 3D printer uses data recorded at the point of death that map the facial contours and the flow of air in their final breath, translating these into visual form.]

So it is a futuristic take on an ancient idea?

Yes. Neri Oxman and Naomi Kamper contacted me because they had seen my photographic work and recognised that we are interested in similar ideas of connecting past and future. Of course, visually, the masks appear very futuristic. It was my task to set them within a context that is more timeless, more human.

What have you learned about yourself in the process of making these images?

For me, making photographic art is one of the few ways to show a piece of my soul. If people recognise themselves in it, it creates a connection and that offers me consolation.

© Daniëlle van Zadelhoff ‘Raphael’ 2016

Biographical Notes

Daniëlle van Zadelhoff was born in Amsterdam in 1963. As a child, she spent many hours looking at art books in the family library. In 2014, following a long illness, divorce and the death of her father, she bought her first camera and, from that moment, became obsessed with photography. She was mentored in the use of an analogue camera by the retired photographer Leopold Beels van Heemstede, subsequently undertaking training in digital photography in Antwerp. She started putting her images on social media and rapidly developed a dedicated following online. A museum director saw her work in an amateur exhibition in Amsterdam and later invited her to exhibit at the museum. She has since presented six solo shows and her work has featured in a further seventeen group exhibitions and festivals, in Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Poland, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

Her photographs are included in a number of public and private collections including Musea Brugge (Belgium), Centro di Ricerca e Archiviazione della Fotografia, Spilimbergo (Italy), Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga (Spain), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (USA), and the historic church Pio Monte della Misericordia, Naples (Italy). Her work has been published in three monographs: ‘Relatos Del Alma’ [stories of the soul] (CAC Malaga, 2018), ‘Daniëlle van Zadelhoff’ (Stockmans, 2018), and ‘Survivors’ (Stockmans, 2018). Daniëlle van Zadelhoff lives and works in Antwerp, Belgium.

This article was initially published in Chinese, in the January 2021 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. The theme for the year was Art and Photography.