Photographer in Focus: Carla van de Puttelaar

Self-portrait by Carla van de Puttelaar, 2018 © Carla van de Puttelaar

Self-portrait by Carla van de Puttelaar, 2018
© Carla van de Puttelaar

When did you first start taking photographs?

I had a camera since I was in my early teens, but I started to use the camera intensively in the first year of the art academy (Gerrit Rietveld Academy, Amsterdam). I was admitted as a painter, but in the first year you could try out all kinds of disciplines. And there I found out that photography suited me even better. So after the first year I decided to switch to the Photography department and I never went back to painting as an artist. However, I hold a PhD in Art History and I am specialised in British and Dutch portraiture, mainly from the seventeenth century.

What or who has influenced your work?

Mainly Old Master paintings and sculpture have had an impact on my work. Great Early Italian and Flemish masters such as Caravaggio and Van der Weyden, but also artists such as Van Dyck, Holbein, Rembrandt, Cranach, Vermeer, Artemisia and Orazio Gentileschi, Riemenschneider, Roman and Greek sculptors, Bernini, etc., etc. The list is endless. There is so much to love and to be inspired by. Basically, inspiration can come from anything and anywhere, but essentially always it is about people. It might be the sunlight touching the face of a person, a certain moment, a look, a pose. Moreover, some great writers had an impact as well, such as the Dutch essayist Rudy Kousbroek who wrote the essay for my first book and while reading it, it was as if doors opened to a world of my own that I had not completely understood or even had seen before and which is now deeply rooted in all I do. The second writer is Ian McEwan. When I read Atonement (2001) a description struck me as being so close to my work that I had the quote printed in my book and named it Adornments.

Did you always want to be a photographer?

No, as mentioned, earlier on I intended to become a painter. From my childhood on I had painted and made drawings. I always made portraits or painted after live models.

What is it about portraiture that attracts you? And how do you feel photography is particularly effective for portraiture?

I have a profound interest in people, it is a great passion, and I am a keen observer. And there are so many moments of brilliance, in which the person, the emotion and the light come together in a magical moment. I feel an urge to catch and keep these forever. Photography is the ultimate medium for me. An extension of my head, an extension of me. I do not feel whole without a camera, always afraid that I would miss out on precious moments that I encounter and that I can keep for posterity and look back to and be inspired by.

Which sitters have you most enjoyed photographing?

That is a very difficult question! And there are so many memories of encounters that I treasure. There are so many interesting, inspiring people. My Women in the Art World portrait project (from which the National Portrait Gallery acquired five portraits) brought me into contact with over 400 women up till now over the last two and a half years and the project continues to grow and blossom. Most of the sitters I connected easily with, which is the first important thing, and then we build up a collaboration which leads to the ultimate portrait. Often it feels like a sudden enchantment, purely magical, as if the world outside does not exist and the portrait becomes a world of its own. When that happens, I am most happy. Also, it is such a privilege to meet brilliant, strong women who I only knew by name and with whom I am able to connect and create a work of art. One of them is Diana Scarisbrick, the jewellery historian, who I photographed on her 89th birthday (I only learned later).

How do you prepare for a shoot? Do you research your sitters beforehand?

That depends – I do not work according to a specific plan. It also depends on the project and on the occasion. For The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine, I have worked on very emotional portraits and, of course, I read a lot beforehand, but when the parents who lost their daughter started to cry, I cried as well. I felt the deep sorrow and loss, it hit me. And that is how I am. The emotion, the persons, the circumstances are important.

Is there an individual you would like to photograph in the future?

Many, predominantly strong brilliant women. For my Women in the Art World project, I still have a very long list including Cheyenne Westphal, Kara Walker, Jenny Saville, Yayoi Kusama, Tracey Emin, Carrie Mae Weems, Cindy Sherman, Sadie Coles, Cecily Brown, Marina Abramović, Maureen Paley and many, many more! And outside the art world legendary women such as Michelle Obama and Jane Goodall. And people I would have loved to photograph, such as Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010).

Do you prefer using colour or black and white? Digital or analogue?

I definitely prefer colour, and I started to work with analogue, but switched to digital around 2010 and I love it. It gives me more flexibility. I like to catch the moments of sheer beauty and then you have to react quickly.

What are you working on next?

I still go on with my Women in the Art World project. I just finished my first book, which will be launched officially in the UK on 29 November at the National Portrait Gallery, and which contains over 300 portraits. I am also working on the preparations for several solo exhibitions, such as a retrospective show at The National Museum of History and Art in Luxembourg which will run from 20 March until 30 August 2020. Moreover, I work on two different series, one involves portraits and amazing fabrics and the other is inspired on the work of Egon Schiele, which I hope to develop further in the upcoming time. And on the art-historical site, I am in the process of turning my doctoral dissertation into a book that will be published next year.

Favourite works by the photographer in the National Portrait Gallery's Collection

Diana Scarisbrick
by Carla van de Puttelaar
NPG x200783

I love Diana Scarisbrick's portrait. The whole encounter was memorable. I came to her home on 8 October 2017. She looked fabulous and we started to talk immediately about cameos and art history. Diana is one of the leading historians on jewellery and we share a passion for cameos, so within minutes the conversion became very animated. I took several photos, but I had not yet found the magic moment. I asked her if she could comb her hair again and while she walked out of the room her face was caught in the beautiful late sunlight that suddenly came into the room. I wanted to call her back immediately, but I had to wait maybe two or three agonising minutes until she returned and I hoped that no clouds or trees would obscure this light. But she was back in time and I took her portrait with her face in this radiant light that still enchants me today. Only later I found that it was actually her 89th birthday that day, which made it even more special.

Maria Balshaw
by Carla van de Puttelaar
NPG x200779

Also, the second portrait that is presently on view at the National Portrait Gallery has a story behind it about light. I always work with daylight and when I was scheduled to take a portrait of Maria Balshaw, I looked for a place in which the sunlight in the circular hall of Tate Britain came from the upper windows. It was beautiful, so I set up my equipment and black background and waited. And while waiting, I saw how the light changed as the sun was partly obscured by clouds, but also in this case, too, I was lucky and in time to take the portrait.

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