Rummaging through a chest of drawers full of memories I stumbled upon an old album of my mother’s, an oblong hand-sized photo book containing, two by two, small black and white portraits. I remember how as a child I used to scrutinise the pictures of children of my own age from a distant past. Paging through this small album I realise how profoundly these images are etched in my memory:
I recognise every detail of their clothing, the looks in their eyes, and I know exactly which portrait I am about to find on the next page. Slowly that same sensation that enraptured me as a child comes back to me, the feeling of being initiated into the unreal reality of days long gone by. Once more I imagine how a last hand of the photographer, a mother or a father pushed a cap just slightly more backwards or adjusted the ribbon in the hair, and I recognise the sense of helplessness with which the children resigned themselves to being photographed. Virtually all pictures show they are not posing, but rather submitting themselves, passive and vulnerable. They look at us, timidly, from a small world that has been wiped out by time. There is nothing I know of this little blonde girl with her silvery locks, of the boy with the dark hat. Even their names, though they were once told me, have slipped my mind. And quite possibly, it occurs to me, I did not really want to know who they were even then, because it would break the spell.
Without identities, with no stories of their lives, no dates of birth or death, they are forever frozen in that single moment and forever lost in secrets. Just as those in my mother’s album, the children in Van Empel’s photo-works are devoid of names, identities and particulars, leaving us in the dark as to any context and thus allowing free rein to the imagination about where and how.
Even though at first glance the works may seem to have been shot with a camera, on closer inspection it turns out this is not the case. All portraits have been meticulously composed from numerous photo fragments from the photographer’s digital archives. While the children in my little book were once part of a here and now, those in Van Empel’s pictures never are. Although surrounded by the imaginable, they were created, non-existent. With all the attention paid to physiognomy, detail and clothing they give an impression of realism, sometimes even hyperrealism. But at the same time the spotless beauty of the images, the features, the lighting and the accentuation of lips and eyes evoke a sense of alienation and artificiality. It is this tension between the realistic and the artificial that largely contributes to the mysteriousness of these images.
In his photo-works Van Empel pushes aesthetics to the limit. In assembling his images he creates smooth transitions, soft wallpaper patterns and he allows colours to bathe in a warm and sensitive play of light and shadow. Both in this chiaroscuro and in his texture his photo-works refer to artistic traditions that go back as far as the Renaissance and the Baroque.
Because of this process-based approach – carefully building fragment-by-fragment, composing and creating new images – his work is frequently associated with painting in a technical sense as well, especially to indicate that it has little to do with pure photography. In fact, both in content and in form the work relates to both painting and photography, but it belongs to the latter domain, because all fragments are photographic in origin.
Van Empel’s methods may relate to painting, as the final prints create the suggestion of regular photography, but ultimately the work is defined by characteristics peculiar to a discipline all his own: computer montage. Over the years Van Empel has proved himself a master of this modern discipline. While initially he preferred to create theatrical scenes in which the human figure played only a minor part, in the series Mood he focuses on the characters, leaving out the anecdotal motifs. By portraying the children at close range, he creates immediate contact and the photos show some resemblance to the traditional photographic portraits of which the small photos in my mother’s album are simple examples. In their focus on colour, tone, effects of light and shadow, they seem to refer to portrait painting in the early Renaissance, even though his consistent preference for dark-skinned children has hardly any precedent in the history of western art. With their decorative patterns in background and clothing they give his images a comfortably warm atmosphere, which is alternately brooding and fairy-like, enough to carry the imagination into more distant regions than the less-dimensional portraits from the photo album.
But along the way there is always the slumbering suspicion in every look, the uneasy sense of spying upon what is defenceless, and the mutual embarrassment it evokes
(By Han Steenbruggen)