I first became aware of the magical black and white imagery of the Dutch photographer, Awoiska van der Molen when I was studying for an MA Photography at Falmouth University. Her haunting images of faraway and remote places captured my imagination at a time when I was searching for ways of accessing and photographing the essence of Skye – its ephemeral hiddenness, the ‘otherness’ of this beautiful Island. Such was her impact on me, I chose to include the following quotation from her in my Critical Review of Practice (Price 2019) which was part of my final assessed work:
“I go away from everything in the present to move in these quiet situations to be able to leave things behind me and become quiet in myself.” (Van der Molen 2017)
As I did more research and read various articles and gallery introductions about van der Molen, such as Bewitched by blackness: photographing the desolate beauty of the Canaries (2014) by Sean O’Hagan (2014) of The Guardian, it became clear that she was also searching for a sense of being in the landscape. A quest that we in turn, share with Nan Shepherd, the twentieth-century writer of the classic, The Living Mountain (1977):
“It is a journey into Being: for as I penetrate more deeply into the mountain’s life, I penetrate also into my own.” (op cit).
In Gerry Badger’s terms (2010), van der Molen might be considered as a shining example of “the quiet photographer”. One that he describes as being attentive to “the thereness of things and places”. Furthermore, O’Hagen refers to van der Molen’s search as not only for the thereness but also the “whatness” of things – a phrase used by James Joyce. The patience, care and attention in van der Molen’s imagery is reflected in her working process through the use of long exposures, taking her images in the early morning, or at dusk, and in the painstaking care she takes to produce the final print on silver gelatin paper. Her photographic craft and attention to detail is also borne out in the production of her books.
I have recently acquired her latest book, The Living Mountain (2020) which is beautifully and simply presented following a format used in her previous books Sequester (2014) and Blanco (2017) – this, for me, giving it a greater sense of authenticity. This link provides some images of the cover and page layout:
Included in the book is a music score of a new work by the composer Thomas Larcher, which will be given its premiere at a concert celebrating her images. Van der Molen says:
“Regardless of how personal the starting point of my work may be, in the end I hope my images touch the strings of a universal knowledge, something lodged in our bodies, our guts, an intuition that reminds us of where we came from ages ago. A memory of our core existence, our bedrock, unyielding certainty in a very precarious world.”
The Purdy Hicks Gallery (Gallery 2016) refers to van der Molen’s work “as a metaphysical quest, a journey to the essence of being” going well beyond first appearances.
What is extraordinary about van der Molen’s work, from my point of view, is the silence that looms out of her dark images and the way she only reveals those aspects of the scene she wants to convey and draw attention to. Her images are hauntingly beautiful. Her approach is a labour of love, a painstaking process, and one to which she is deeply committed. She confirms my view that the camera has the power, in the right hands, to transcend space and time and to present a glimpse of the essence of reality. She is far ahead of me in the journey I wish to take.
Badger, G. (2010). The Pleasures of Good Photographs. New York, Aperture.
Gallery, P. H. (2016). “Awoiska van der Molen.” Retrieved 16/3/2021, from https://www.purdyhicks.com/exhibitions/43-awoiska-van-der-molen/press_release_text/.
O’Hagan, S. (2014). Bewitched by Blackness: photographing the desolate beauty of the Canary Islands. The Guardian. London.
Price, A. B. J. (2019). The Ephemeral Hiddenness of Skye: Critical Review of Practice, Falmouth University.
Shepherd, N. (1977). The Living Mountain. Edinburgh, Canongate Books.
Van der Molen, A. (2017). The Photographers’ Gallery interviews Awoiska van der Molen.