PVC pipes. Plastic bottles. Cable ties. The stuff dreams are made of— at least in Theo Jansen’s world. The Dutch sculptor has spent a quarter century transforming mundane materials into complex creatures in The Hague, Netherlands. His anthropoid-looking sculptures—named Strandbeests (‘beach animals’ in Dutch)—use the wind to move, sometimes gracefully, sometimes like a toddler taking the first clumsy steps towards mobility.
Published by Taschen, photographer Lena Herzog’s sixth and most recent book, STRANDBEEST: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen, chronicles this work over six years of annual pilgrimages she made to the Dutch seacoast where Jansen resides.
“I’m shooting a man and his pipes,” the 45-year-old L.A. photographer says in jest. Even though her comment seems dismissive of her talent, the voluminous book reveals a seriousness of purpose in depicting the creator and his creation in all their splendor.
In addition to essays and interviews, the book portrays vivid black-and-white images of Jansen with his creations in the ‘laboratory’ on the sands of Scheveningen, one of eight districts in The Hague and also Holland’s most famous seaside resort. Photographically, Herzog organized the book in two themes: the beach and the fence, or outdoor workshop where the beests’ parts are assembled.
By its nature, the medium of photography is static. Yet in 1/125th of a second, Herzog manages to catch the beest’s dance with the elements and Jansen’s mad scientist-meets-da Vinci persona.
“I thought it about in the way I photograph flamenco dancers or bullfighters: capturing the mystical, lyrical sense of an afterimage. Like, what your mind’s eye sees after the image is gone,” explains Herzog.
Herzog’s photography books span an array of topics—from flamenco dancers to formaldehyde specimens.
As the beest was born of modern technology, it’s only fitting the eBook version of the book follow suit. According to Herzog, like the Strandbeest, it’s the first of its kind.
“Photography eBooks are sort of useless, they just open up to static PDFs. But the Strandbeest eBook is a multi-sensorial experience, incorporating beautifully shot video and photographs that actually tell a story,” Herzog says. The 190-page eBook, with note-taking tools, Jansen’s sketches, clips from Alexander Schlichter’s Strandbeest documentary and additional photos not in the hardcover book, is available on iTunes.
In Herzog’s Laurel Canyon studio, accompanied by Jack, her black-and-white cat, we discussed the process of documenting Theo Jansen’s kinetic sculptures, working with TASCHEN and what her lens will focus on next.
What surprised you most about the project?
It made an optimist out of a Russian, and I’m not the only one. You see the joy on people’s faces —young and old, alike—when they see a Strandbeest.
The photos in the book of people, including Jansen, interacting with the beest are some of my favorite. Can you expound on the optimism you feel in the presence of Strandbeest?
I am filled with hope when I see a work of art so strong. So good. The Strandbeests fill me with hope—the way listening to Bach does or seeing a great painting. The world is essentially falling apart, but that is the best part about us: art and ideas.
As you mentioned, you’re shooting a bunch a pipes. How did you make that interesting?
I don’t shoot on tripods; they never work. The last intake of breath or that last exhale is what makes a picture. It’s an intuitive thing. What coalesces in me to make a picture is all my life: things I’ve looked at, things I’ve thought about. It’s really a distillation of me— of what I think about that thing I’m shooting. Even the way I shoot is not a static way. It’s from the hip like this (she demonstrates a camera resting on her hip).
Literally, shooting from the hip.
Yes, exactly. This is when you put yourself on the line. We photographers reveal who we are through our photos.
Why did you choose to shoot in black and white?
What I shoot most is black and white. I only shoot color when I find it contributes to the subject. In “Dreams of America” for instance, color was an indispensable marker to depict patriotism.
Over six years, you had to have thousands of photos to choose from. What was your process in choosing the photos for the book?
Actually, I don’t shoot around much. I shoot tight. I chose based on what makes a good photograph.
So, was there a story angle that guided your choices?
I look for the story when I’m shooting, not when I’m choosing the photos. I shoot with several cameras and several angles. I’m constantly shifting my focal length and framing. Am I going into detail? Am I going out to a landscape? That is what allowed the book to sustain itself beyond a dozen images.
Meet the Beests
Beyond the stunning Strandbeest photography book, you can see these otherworldly objects in action in the coming year.
In September, Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts will host the first major American exhibition of Theo Jansen’s famed kinetic sculptures, followed by a nationwide tour. As a part of the U.S. Strandbeest tour, a selection of Herzog’s photographs, both of floor-to-ceiling images and intimate silver gelatin prints, will be on display.
Although not confirmed which beests will be performing in public parks or beaches in conjunction with the museum exhibit, possible species include the 42-foot-long Animaris Suspendisse (each prototype bears a Latin name) or the two-tailed Animaris Duabus Caudis.
Why was it important to include photograms of the beest in the book?
Strandbeests have a very wide range of references. One of the references is to surrealism. Surrealists were very conscious that art and technology had this extraordinary nexus. They explored it in photograms and some kinds of kinetic sculptures. Photograms are very elemental photography; so are the Strandbeests. They look sophisticated, but it’s actually basic engineering. So it seems very fitting.
Talk more about the second to final photo of the book depicting Theo Jansen with a fish?
You know how some of the early Christians used to communicate secretly with the Ichthus (fish) symbol? I saw him eating a fish one day and hit me. It’s a play on that—after all, he is the creator.
This was your first book published by TASCHEN. What was it like working with them?
For starters, getting contracts and payments on time is the ultimate respect to show an artist. From scanning to production to design to the team on press, they’re the highest professionals in the field. Plus, I was thrilled to work with art director Andy Disl; he also designed Caravaggio, my favorite TASCHEN book.
Can you talk about the eBook version of “Strandbeest”?
The eBook is unprecedented because it’s an encyclopedic collection of Strandbeest’s evolution in images, film and text. Some friends of mine described it as a wormhole they fell in that they didn’t want to get out of!
So, it’s more like a museum-in-your-pocket experience?
Yes, Theo has an immense, global ‘techie’ following that now has access to this on their tablet.
Strandbeests debuted in the States last year at Art Basal Miami. How did the national tour come about?
It was one of the very first ideas when I saw the Strandbeest online back in 2007. I knew they had to come—not just as fossils, because they were on display 15 years ago here— but they had to come as beests, in all their mobile glory.
What’s next for you?
A dozen projects! I work on each idea for five to seven years, so there’s several in incubation at all times.