Award-winning Dutch photographer Paul Kooiker likes to play with his audience. His work makes you wonder whether there are CCTV cameras set up in the corners of the gallery, or whether he’s lurking a few steps behind in an overcoat and glasses, writing notes. Looking at his images provokes a crisis of self-consciousness – you sway between observing, feeling observed, and feeling as though you are being observed observing.
“I like my audience to think, ‘Who is this photographer? What does he want me to look at? Do I like to look at it?’ They get confused about it, and ask themselves, ‘Am I allowed to look at it? Is it beautiful or not?’ All those aspects are very interesting to me.” Paul incorporates an element of art history into his images, and he is fascinated with the female nude – but by no means in a classical way. “When I see artists or photographers who work with nudity in an erotic way, I don’t often like it.
I think it’s cheap, or too horny. I don’t like that. Sexy is never enough, nudity is not enough. It’s just one aspect of an image, and it’s very flat. I don’t want to make women look ugly – I’m not trying to make them ugly in my images – but I’m also not working to make them appear very beautiful.” It doesn’t seem an easy task to maintain objectivity from personal ideas of what is attractive and what is sexy, but Paul doesn’t see it as a challenge. “I’m a man and so there’s always a certain tension there, but I’m also a very professional artist so I keep a big distance. In each work, I’m almost a different kind of photographer. Sometimes I’m like a dirty old man, and sometimes I’m a doctor, if you can imagine that. I can be five different photographers in the same series.”
“I want to make a whole body of work, not just one image. Every series has got a different fetish. There is always a type of beauty there because, as an artist, you cannot escape it.” Does he think that nudity can ever exist entirely separately from sex, or implications of sex? “I have a lot of nude collections, of medical photography, police and war photography and so I think it is possible, absolutely.” More often than not, women are at the centre of Paul’s photographic projects, but he does take the time to explore other subjects. “I made a series about swans, and one about fountains. When I photograph fountains, I have an obsession with that for a few months. Photographing women is the same. I cannot stop making nude images but I can’t say why. Part of that must be because I like to play with the archetype of the nude woman as a cliché.”
One of the most noticeable aspects of Paul’s photographs, when you look at them together, is that the women’s identities are kept secret – the faces are never revealed, but there is the curve of a shoulder, or the alabaster skin of a woman’s legs. It has the effect of making his work more seductive. “It makes it more voyeuristic, I think, because nobody looks back at you so your identity is safe. And because you don’t know the identity of who you are looking at, it could be an object instead of a woman. I could never take a photograph with a face in it because it would be very disturbing for me. The face tells a lot about that person, even the mouth. If the models look at me, it almost ruins the mystery. It’s not about the model or about the personality; it’s about the whole image.”
See more of Paul’s work on his website.