Jan von Holleben: Conceptual Illustrative Photography

Jan von Holleben Photography

Dreams of Flying Revisited

Jan von Holleben was born in 1977 in Cologne and brought up in the southern German countryside. He lived most of his youth in an alternative commune and identifies a strong connection between the development of his photographic work and the influence of his parents, a cinematographer and child therapist. At the age of 13, he followed his father’s photographic career by picking up a camera and experimenting with all sorts of „magical tricks“, developing his photographic imagination and skills with friends and family and later honing his technique in commercial settings. After pursuing studies in teaching children with disabilities at the Pädagogische Hochschule in Freiburg, Jan moved to London, earned a degree in the Theory and History of Photography at Surrey Institute of Art and Design, and became submerged within the London photographic scene, where he worked as picture editor, art director and photographic director. Jan von Holleben quickly set up two photographic collectives, Young Photographers United and photodébut, followed more recently by the Photographer’s Office. His body of photographic work focusing on the ‘homo ludens’ – the man who learns through play, is itself built from a playful integration of pedagogical theory with his own personal experiences of play and memories of childhood.

Jan’s work has been exhibited internationally and published widely throughout the world. His favourite collaborators are: his friends and any pirates, fairies, dragons, monsters and punks that are about. Also the sun behind some tiny clouds, Zeit Magazin, Neon Magazine Dazed&Confused, Geo and Steidl Publishers. Otherwise Jan greatly fancies loads of cups of herbal tea, Bircher Müsli, colorful socks & sneakers, his bike and walking in the mountains. Much more info and plenty of images can be seen on his personal website. But first we invite you to read the interview with Jan von Holleben.

AP: Jan, tell us about your first photos. What did they look like?

Dreams of Flying

Blackforrest Wonderworld

JVH: When I was 13, my mom gave me a little red snapshot camera. By then I was already excited about my dad’s photo experiments. I started using the camera to document my friends and classmates. Usually I’d be only one on trips with a camera at that time (besides the teachers) which already early on gave me title of a “photographer” amongst my friends. Four years later saw me setting up photo-shoots with my friends, copying fashion and portrait images of great photography masters of the time, which I found in magazines. By the age of 19 I had an extensive portrait portfolio in black and white which I would develop myself in the school labs. I still love those early images which show my playful approach onto photography very well in which I’d develop fun ideas with friends.

AP: Do you have any formal education in photography or were you self-taught?

JVH: First I learned a few basic things from my mom and dad (my mom knew a lot about photography by supporting my dad during his photography studies.

Jan von Holleben Photography

How to Disappear

Then I joined a school photo lab and learned a lot by taking and analyzing my favorite images. Also I liked to discuss it with my teachers and also my dad, who got very excited about my approaches. Then later on, I assisted an industry still-life photographer who taught me all about light and running a business.

Stillot convinced me that photography should be my career; I enrolled in a teacher for handicapped children degree and envisaged to follow my mum’s footsteps, which seemed much more realistic. Only in 1999 I went for an interview at the Surrey Institute for Art and Design in the South of England near London. That degree was gold for me. It opened my eyes to the theory and history of photography – what photography means and what are the limits of the practice. After my degree I spent 5 years buzzing around in the London photographic scene and learned the trade form the other side of the desk: working with photographers. That was the other golden time of my learning.

AP: What genre are your photos?

Action Heroes

The Pirates

JVH: I tried all sorts of themes and genres, starting from architectural photography to car photography, fashion, fine art, portraiture, still life, wedding and zoological photography. I think what describes my style nowadays is: conceptual illustrative photography. Some would call it fine art. I wouldn’t go that far. I am still dealing will all sorts (portrait, fashion, kids, car, stills…) but I found my personal approach on dealing with the visual matter. To me photography is a language and what I do is translating a subject matter into an image. The style of that image is always dependent on the content, so this changes from image to image sometimes. I don’t believe in a visual style, but in a conceptual style.

AP: How did you come up with idea to create a series of ‘Dreams of Flying” pictures?

JVH: The project started in 2001 with the idea to make a boy ride a dog. Not having a clue how to take that picture, I tried many things until I came suddenly to the solution to put both on the ground.

The key with the kids: I play with them by photographing. My camera becomes a part of the game and not the center of attention. I am more of a partner to them with funny ideas than a directing photographer. We do workshops together, not photo-shoots!

All kids are from my mum’s neighborhood. I started with my immediate neighbors and then they brought along some friends. They again brought friends along and so on.

Jan von Holleben Photography

Mystery of Monsters

The project, which span over 7 years, was never considered as a serious project until maybe 4 years into it. Dreams of Flying started as a weekend game. I love playing with kids and at some point I had introduced the camera to them and there we went! When it transpired that the game worked out, and that we accumulated a great photographic project we couldn’t stop but exhaust the idea until we had no more relevant images to take. The ideas to the project are mainly my own ideas and stories that are dear to me and that communicate key issues of a child’s understanding of and wishes for the world.

Everything is possible. You can fly, you can hide and you have all powers you want!

We are all having fun, and definitely the kids. They really enjoyed the trickery with perspective and learnt quickly how to do it. They came with their own ideas and so we were able, under my direction and vision and their dreams and ideas to work on this project for over 5 years! However after years of lying on the ground, they are not interested in it anymore. They pushed me to take them to other adventures in photography and that’s how we evolve together. That is the best part! For me it is my artistic expression and surely it’s fun to me. I get very excited when my mages materialize into reality!

AP: What is the most grandiose project you had to work on?

Jan von Holleben Photography

Dreams of Flying Revisited

JVH: I just finished my biggest commission ever for a hospital in Oxford/ UK. It is a permanent wall piece including 360 individual images that tell a story of two kids running into the world and then meeting space aliens and also on a second trip meeting friendly underwater people who they will have lots of fun with.

This installation will help the kids to take them down two really long and exhausting corridors between children’s ward and the operational theatres. It is supposed to take their minds off what’s going to happen and also to make them swiftly move from one part of the hospital to the next.
We will install it in December this year and I am super excited to see it all on the wall eventually. Sadly you’d have to be a patient to see it but we will open it once to the public and then it will only be available to see as a book or on my website

AP: What kind of equipment and techniques do you use to create your photos?

JHV: I don’t have a general camera. I like to shoot on anything that is best for whichever project I am working on. Sometimes it needs a cheap instamatic camera, other times a big complex digital. Anything goes. The three most used cameras amongst my equipment though are: A cheap Nikon Lite Touch instamatic, a Canon D5 Mark2 and the magical Fuji GSW 690 II. For lighting I either use a tiny Leica hand flash, available light or my Elinchrom kit. I do not use Photoshop to change the content or parts of my images. All images are based on an analogue photographic understanding.

Jan von Holleben Photography


AP: Would you consider yourself as an expert in photography?

JHV: I am definitely moving around in the high end of the photographic environment. That is truly exciting. On the other hand I don’t feel that I fit in there very well as a person. I just want to be in my studio or neighborhood and create my images. I hate the technology that comes with the camera nowadays. I don’t need much of it, but obviously take advantage of it. I am a photographic nerd. Nerdish is, when I spend hours on conceptualizing a single image. Nerdish to me is also always thinking about anything in photographic concept (not necessarily photographs as outcome of that).  I am also a photographic gangsta: I love doing things others wouldn’t expect and I love most: surprising my clients and collaborators. It’s an ongoing game I play. I also love to be unconventional by being very simple and easy with my productions. Some very expensive shoots can last 30 minutes and I am done. Other very cheap or self-produced shoots can take days! That’s gangsta, but works! I am a bit of a Photo-Robin-Hood. Taking time and money from the clients and putting and turning it into my own work for everyone to enjoy free from commerce! I think I have learned enough to know how I can use photography to the full extent of my needs and to work as a professional photographer with theory, history and the applied fields.

AP: What is the formula for success in your activity?

JHV: I eat a lot of müsli, drink only herbal teas and love to wear magical hoodies. All images connect with me and I take

Jan von Holleben Photography

Dreams of Flying

no images that I cannot relate to my understandings. I participate in competitions that relate to my photography and find that very important for visibility and feedback. I am losing my beliefs in exhibiting photographic work in galleries and I think that photography can be much grander in many other public places. I work together with many other artists; however they are usually no photographers. Most photographers are too serious and believe they can master all aspects of photography. Knowing what I am best in is a key to my work. I have my own formulas to create an image and I seem to be able to work my way through all commissions and personal projects with that formula.

My most exciting achievements to date are:

  • Career related: it was the release of my works: Dreams of Flying.
    When that came out, overnight hundreds of blogs wrote about it, I decided to become a photographer after all.
  • Personal: exhibiting together with Annie Leibovitz at the C/O Berlin and working with Steidl publishers on various fascinating book projects between LA, Berlin and Göttingen.

AP: Is there someone who supports you in your creativity?

JHV: My friends are most supportive. They part take and feedback on my work. It is a big family. Also many of my clients and partners support my ideas very well. I am blessed with a great support network from all sides of my practice.

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