Photoworld - volume 391/ issue 7/ 2014

Meditations on Portrait - Best European Contemporary Photographers
Written by Dr. Tatiana Rosenstein

When I first saw the work of the 33-year-old photographer Sarah Mei Herman I was impressed by her skills as a narrator, the quietness of her protagonists – a father and a son, a boy and a girl in love, siblings, teenagers and kids – and they seemed to talk to each other and to me in a silent language. Surely in front of the camera people show different degrees of vulnerability and the photographers decide to reveal the special moment with an appropriate visual response. Herman’s narration unfolds after a series of portraits, photographs of people she watched for years, and sometimes she tells a story in a single image. Sarah Mei is fascinated by a period of the human being’s life, which one can define as “transition”.  Her protagonists are children, teenagers, young adults who seem to be caught on thresholds: a child to become a teenager, a teenager on the threshold of the adult world.
Some of her photographs remind us of the French artist Edouard Manet, who lived in Paris in the 19th century, when the French capital was considered to be a center of world art. Manet knew how to capture his subjects’ faces and expressions in just a few details, with a few brushstrokes. He was also one of the first artists who noticed alienation of people from each other. In his famous work “Breakfast in the Studio” the characters are at the same space but hardly pay attention to the surroundings and to each other. In the same way the protagonists of Sarah Mei, seem to be together, sometimes very close, building a noticeable bond between each other, but they still live in their own world. Following the philosophy “less is more”, she shows the portraits of people in a very ‘un-staged way’: they are natural without any sense for self-presentation, dressed ordinarily, matching the bare settings.  The background is neutral and nothing distracts from the portrayed.
Sarah Mei Herman belongs to the generation of the most promising young portrait photographers in Europe. A graduate of the prominent Royal College of Art in London, she had – shorty after receiving a Master’s Degree – her first solo exhibition in the Soledad Senlle Gallery in Amsterdam, the city where she was born and where she is based now. In the same year one of her portraits was displayed at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Herman was honorably mentioned at the Magenta Foundation’s Flash Forward award and was selected to publish her portfolio in Foam Magazine Talent 2010 edition. Most recently she had a solo exhibition at the prestigious Le Chateau d’Eau in Toulouse and at Kahmann Gallery, which shows her works.

The Art Economist - Artist to watch - Volume 1 / issue 3 / 2011

A photographer and video artist, Herman portrays the unspoken but highly noticeable bond between family members, especially siblings and twins. As she states, “The most fragile and elusive things between people often seem to exist beyond the reach of language. I am fascinated by people, the physical closeness between them or what sets them apart and the necessity of this physical proximity to others. Following a less is more philosophy, her photographs and videosare quiet and subtle. her subjects are at ease and dressed ordinarily without primping, matching the bare settings that are obviously or familiar to the participants. The scenes are common and un-staged, adding to the overall natural tone of the scene. This tranquility is by no means pedestrian. The images grab your attention and emit an intense psychological sensation. Upon first seeing her photograph of jana and Feby in the press release on, I was immediately drawn to the serene, powerful look in Feby’s eyes. My mind immediately leapt to the awesome expression in Dürer’s Northers Renaissance masterpiece, Self-portrait at 28. He portrays himself Christ-like and wearing a fur-trimmed coat with a reviting gaze that makes you unable to look away, as if you are being drawn into a staring contest with him. Herman in remarkably proficient in capturing this type of psychological connection in nearly allof her portraits. Also, the photographs do not cross over into saccharine sentimentality, a difficult task to accomplish when your entire oeuvre is centered on children and young adolescents. herman was born in Amsterdam, studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in The Hague and then earned an MA in Fine Art Photography from London’s Royal College of Art. In November 2010 Soledad Senlle Gallery in Amsterdam exhibited her premiere solo show, the same year her work was selected and displayed at the National Portrait Gallery, London, for the Taylor wessing Photographic Portrait Prize. Her photographs were also exhibited in the Singapore International Photography Festival. -MJP


Sarah Mei Herman interviewed by Marc Feustel in Foam Magazine - Fall 2010 # 24 Talent

Q: Your work focuses mainly on stages of childhood and adolescence. What is it that draws you to these fases in particular?

A: I’m drawn to the fleetingness and vulnerability of these stages. The constant changes that occur during them. In these stages our relationship to others is constantly evolving. A child has the ability to escape from the everyday into an endless world of imagination. I think this is one of the most enviable aspects of childhood. They can experience an endless wonderment about things. Children just are. Pur and real. I love their directness. In their being they can seem totally seperate from the adult world. The transitions from childhood to adolescence, and from adolescence to adulthood can be a time of extreme loneliness. These transitions can make closeness impossible during certain stages of life; like a young girl suddenly losing closeness and intimacy with her father because she is not a child anymore, or a boy feeling miles apart from his older brother. On the other hand other close friendships can exist at a certain stage in life, before relationships are formed with partners from outside… like the twins Jana and Feby who I have been photographing for the last five years. I’m also very interested in the ambiguity that often exists between femininity and masculinity. Up to a certain age, these boundaries have not yet fully set and can sometimes still be blurred.

Q: You grew up as an only child. When you gained your half-brother Jonathan, when did you first decide to start photographing him and his relationship with your father?

A: I started photographing Jonathan when he was about four years old. The first series I did of my father and half-brother (and grandmother) was during a trip to South Africa. I started photographing them in a very intuitive way, without really asking myself why. In the past two years I have become more focused on the triangular relationship between the three of us. The series is as much about the relationship between a relatively older father and his younger son, as it is about my relationship to them and my memories of being a young child which are now in a way mirrored in my halfbrother Jonathan. Not being my father’s only child anymore, taking these photographs was also a way to relate to my half-brother, who is twenty years younger then me. A way to get closer to him.

Q: You have done several series involving your family members. Do you always work with family or friends, for example in the case of the Siblings series? How different is it for you to work within the intimacy of your family versus working with strangers?

A: I don’t always work with my own family: my father and half-brother are a very important subject in my work which I will persue, but apart from that I work with people outside my family who I have slowly got
to know by photographing them. The projects on people outside my family started from when we were total strangers. Trust builds up slowly over time with these projects and visiting the same people again and again becomes almost like a ritual. Ofcourse there’s a difference between photographing my own family and people from outside my family. But in both situations moments of intimacy are created between us. This all depends on how close they allow me and my camera to get.

Q: In the series Jonathan, and indeed in all of your series there are virtually no images that portray joy and laughter. This strikes me as slightly unusual for images of children. Is this a conscious decision on your part and if so why do you avoid this kind of image?

A: It’s not so much a conscious decision, but I search for a certain stillness and withdrawnness which one can’t get to when capturing laughter. The people I photograph are physically present, but often mentally absent or in another space. For me, by capyuring these moments of stillness, the delicate and tender things between people can be revealed. For my brother his seriousness and stillness is very much how he is. I try to get a bit closer to his inner world… children can be extremely serious, and these are the ones that I’m drawn to most. When I photograph I’m concentrated and close to my subjects, and so are the people I portray. I never tell them not to laugh.

Q: Your photographs often seem to focus on moments of physical or emotional tension between people.What attracts you to these moments? Do you intervene when you are shooting to stimulate the tension or do you take more of a ‘fly on the wall’ approach?

A: I’m drawn to the things between people that are hard to put into words. Sometimes gestures and bodylanguage can reveal so much, and make things very palpable. I’m interested in the boundaries of the body, the closeness and distance between individuals, how people relate to each other, how they respond to the other’s presence, the importance of our physical proximity to others. By isolating my subjects from the rest of the world for one moment, I explore the thresholds between them, both physically and emotionally. I try to find the delicate balance between staged photograph and snapshot. There is no single way in which I always work. Sometimes I have a certain image in my head, but most of the time it’s an interaction between the subject and myself. Sometimes I see something happening which I then ask them to act out or perform again.

Q: Photographing children has always been a controversial issue, as can be seen in the lengthhy discussions that surround the work of Sally Mann or Elinor Carucci. What is your reaction towards those that see photographing children as exploitative?

A: I think Sally Mann and Carucci are able to make these photographs because they are the mothers of these children. In my opinion Sally Mann has photographed the sensual beauty of fleeting childhood, in a very direct and honest way, without trying to make it look any more or less beautiful then it just is. I don’t think photographing children is exploitative as long as your intentions are honest, genuine and loving. I never feel that I’m exploiting children or young adolescents. I am very careful and never put any pressure on them. It is a collaboration between them and me, and I take them very seriously.

Q: Are there any photographers or movements that have influenced or inspired you?

A: I draw inspiration from many different fields: cinema, photography, painting, literature. Cinema is an important sourse of inspiration for me and I’m particularly drawn to the subtle magic-realism in certain Spanish and South-American films. In terms of photographic inspiration I’ve already mentioned Sally Man, but, although his work is very differnt to mine, I’m also very intruiged by the way that Philip-Lorca diCorcia is able to get close to people. I also discovered the Victorian photographer Lady Clementina Hawarden’s portraits of her two adolescent daughters. These images, mostly of the girls posing together, are very intimate, and seem to speak of adolescence, eroticism, sibling- and mother-daughter relationships.