Fotograf Magazine

Phoebe Maas

A naked female body curled up on white sheets – amid colorful pillows, red and white, printed with rose petals and leaves – of which we see only a large, pinkish back and strands of brown hair: the cover photograph which opens the catalogue of the Dutch photographer Phoebe Maas, entitled Moments In-Between, is among the most painterly of the whole collection. The bed is framed on the top by striped curtains, with light passing through them, the warmth of the light pervading the whole scene and lending a finishing touch to the pastel colored, intimate composition. The careful framing, the sophisticated play of colors, self- absorbed indoor figures, captured mostly from the back and revealing only small parts of their bodies – this, in short, is the repertory of Maas’ work. With these elements she balances on the edge of a formalism inspired by painting and physical intimacy. The title possibly alludes not only to those “frozen” moments taken out of the continuum of events (refering to something that has already happened and at the same time implying the future development of the figures portrayed) but also to the space between the emphatic painterly quality of the photograph and its subtle hint at an intimate corporeality.
Phoebe Maas is inspired in her work by accidental impulses, details that strike her while sharing a common space with those close to her, as she noted in an e-mail to the author: “The reason for wanting to create a photograph may start with something insignificant. An armchair, the color of the curtains (colors play an important role in my work), the way someone leans over, the lighting in a room. I begin with what interests me, I compose an image around it and the photograph slowly gathers form.” Human bodies become parts of a larger pattern. Their corporeality, however, is not suppressed; instead this forces the other elements to participate in a dialogue of mutual relationships. They are formal elements of a meticulously hermetic composition, but at the same time they extend beyond its frame. Through always capturing bodies as fragmentary, with faces either concealed or cut off, Maas tries to indicate that one should look for mystery outside of the visible field of the image.
In the last couple of years she has created a number of photographs of people near to her in intimate situations, and we can clearly see in them a tendency towards emphatic formality, extending either to a cold aesthetism, or to atmospheric tenderness. The experience itself is masked by the process of taking the picture. Instead of immediacy we find sophistication; a mysterious meaning concentrated within banal moments. The world of visual signs dissolves uniqueness. Inspiration from painting – in the case of Phoebe Maas, nurtured also by an inclination to the “Dutch” passion for enclosed interiors suffused in radiance of light and color – should nonetheless take into consideration the nature of photography in terms of its mechanical recording of extant phenomena. An excessive pictorial quality may come perilously close to mere prettiness. Phoebe Maas’ pictures, however, in their conflict between fleetingly captured corporeality and sophisticated framing, never lose their strange, ambiguous tension. A photograph entitled Isly (2001), is a section of an indoor scene, framed on the left by a hanging red dressing gown, which projects a shadow on a half-open door, while on an antique sofa with a carved frame and burgundy upholstery, a male figure lies on its stomach – but the artist has cut off the upper part of the trunk just above the buttocks; these naked male legs are accompanied by the tail of a dog, lying alongside the sofa, facing in the same direction. Another remarkable picture is Olly 1 (1997), revealing little of a female figure reclining on a leather sofa: black stockinged legs, a half-lifted blue dress, battered black stilleto pumps. Human torsoes appear as theatrical, puppet-like, surreal. They do not form part of a story, but rather of an absurdist scene.
In contrast to her coeval, Elinor Carucci, Israeli by origin, with whom apart from the date of birth (1971) Phoebe Maas shares an interest in penetration of the intimate sphere of people in near proximity, as well as emphatic use of color and atmosphere built on lighting, Maas is not concerned with relationships between individuals. The people who appear in her photographs, even though their names are used as titles, are elements of the composition rather than live beings. They are dots of color rather than beings endowed with emotions: thus the particular color and structure of human skin is part of the overall impact to the same degree as that of various fabrics, carpets, or the surfaces of walls, even though naturally it attracts the most attention. The photograph Erik 1 (1997) is an example of this: a bent male figure, of which we see only the back of a head with short cropped hair, wrapped in a striped shirt with two holes in the shoulder seams, placed in front of an abstract background of two different shades of green.
Moments-In-Between, which excited much attention (it has been exhibited in Fotomuseum Winterthur in Switzerland), collects photographs from the second half of the 1990s until 2003, when it appeared in book form.

lenka dolanová