Jan von Holleben, magicien de la photolittérature

Sugar WOW
The Photographer’s Office / 2022 (English)

A n’en pas douter, les enfants apprécient le monde magique de Jan von Holleben, ses créations plastiques colorées et délirantes, ses mondes oniriques et ludiques dont ils sont les aventuriers. Chacun de ses livres invite les enfants, et aussi les adultes, à se laisser surprendre par ces images foisonnantes d’objets en tout genre, ces compositions  qui donnent vie à toutes les envies. 

Rencontre avec un magicien qui donne vie aux rêves enfantins.

To the question “What is your profession?” What do you answer ?

When I speak English, then I am a photographer. In German I am A photographer and children books illustrator. The English definition is much broader and includes many facets. In German, we are very precise. So a photographer is in fact just someone taking pictures.  Noone has any idea what you actually do. That’s when I have to start explaining : I work for books and magazines.. but also for artistic projects and exhibitions, I am curating, editing, … and most of all, I actually make children books.

How long have you been working in children’s literature?

My very first project, before I even considered myself a professional photographer, was Dreams of Flying. I simply played photography with my neighbor’s kids and they told me stories, inspired by children literature and modern heroes. I used a very simple snapchot camera and the ‘shooting from above’-technique to make those dreams come true. This was ours pare time on weekends.

Only by chance, an editor saw those images and posted them on her blog in 2005. In less than 3 months, that project was all over the world on hundreds of blog and I was bombarded with commissions and exhibitions and magazine features, won awards and had to stop being a photo director for a young cooperative and jump into full time ‘being photographer’.

I made a self published first book (out of cardboard in an edition of 500 copies) with those images, which sold out immediately and made a second. Both of those books (2006 and 2007) I always considered to be children books but for adults alike.

Since my first training was teacher for handicaped children and I was meant to become a teacher, I feel that together with photography, I came full circle. I love explaining complicated things in very simple ways. I was always good in that. Since my own high school – my teachers remember. I also have to admit, that my childhood was full of stories, adventures, literature, nature…

Dreams of Flying
The Photographer’s Office / 2006 (English)

Do you have models in photography or children’s literature ?

I would always say, that Astrid Lindgren wrote my favorite books. But also Michael Ende, Ottfried Preussler. Also the entire canon of old Disney movies. Today I am also fascinated by more international likes as Doctor Seuss, Eric Carle, Maurice Sendak, ..

In Photography ? Always the narrative based art photographers.

How many books have you produced? Can you give us some other titles?

I made about 25 books over the last 15 years. My favorite is the series of non-fiction books for Thienemann Publishers which was based on my top seller : Does that happen to everybody ? (a philosophical book on puberty). This was followed by 5 other (social)science books on the brain, world religion, internet, politics, divorce.

The books that are closest to me are the creative books I made with my most favorite German publisher Beltz ALWAYS EVERYTHING and MY WILD FURY and I am proudest of the two books that I made with art book publisher Little Steidl, the little offspring of Steidl Publishers, mastered by Nina Holland KOSMOS and most recently THE BLUEBERRY MACHINE

Tarzipan books / 2019 (no text – universal)

Who are they for?

My books are usually considered to be for anyone who reads visuals/ photographs.

The non-fiction books were primarily made in order to stimulate debates/ conversations between children and parents. And the creative books are really for the kids alone. I think that they really get them. The problem is just always: how to surpass their parents!?

At the moment, I feel that I want to work more and more for the kids only. Tricky, but ultimately I want the parents to trust me (parents are often bad photo readers) and then I can get into a dialogue with the children. Just like when I work with them in my studio. The energy is always high, we all know what we do and once we have to explain it to a parent, the magic is gone. Weird but true.

Let’s talk about the Blueberry Machine: when and how did the idea for this project come about?

I have spent years with my best friend in his home country Norway. He spent summers at his grand parents on a farm, which we visited often. It is in the middle of nowhere in my favourite part of Norway. Olav, who is the main character in the book, lives on that farm with his parents. I saw him growing up. When he was about 4 years old, I spend the summer at their farm and Olav started showing me around. He always walked the dog up and down the hills, checked their sheep and just had a good time. I didn’t speak much Norwegian, but we always had a good non verbal communication. It was on one of those walks, when I understood, that these mountains are Olav’s home and he knows them inside out. In the evenings we sat at the fire and the kids played all sorts of things. Olav was a great builder. And I remembered that I was a fascinated builder in my childhood too. So we connected and built a lot. I wanted to make a project with him.. in his world with all the ideas he and I had together.


The Blueberry Machine
Little Steidl / 2022 (English)

How did the collaboration between words and images come about?

That was only after I had made the images. And it was a fascinating process (since usually it works the other way around). I had already written a few lines to each image. But there was no story. When Nina Holland picked up the project, she had the best idea, to get Monte Packham involved. He had never written a children book before, but was a great and fun writer. We all klicked, I told him my thoughts and with a few editing changes in the sequence of the images, an idea unfolded for him, he put it all together added some magic here and there and suddenly we had a beautiful story that I totally fell in love with.

What is the purpose of this book?

To me, the book is a very classic format of a children’s book. It is the first time, that I have done something like it and I really enjoyed it. The book has a traditional story line, yet combined with the photos, that feature 50% reality and 50% a visionary tale, our story, the book can be read in various ways. Most of all, it gives the children a choice to go beyond the story line and understand the meta levels of imaginary games, fantasy and how to differentiate between them. However you can also just enjoy the story with its educational finale and learn about the best machines of all: your own two hands.  Additionally, my photography invites the creativity of kids to learn about image making… so once you are done with the story, you can learn about the individual images, how they are done and be inspired. That part of my photography is always in my work. If it is for magazines, books or clients. I want children to learn about image making. What is photography. What can photography. I want kids to become visual literate.

Where do you find the objects in the images?

Nowadays I have a huge collection of well organized boxes. The content is labelled with screws, balls, feathers, technical things, toys, buttons, hearts, gold, candy, .. all sorts. Its 15 years of keeping my eyes open and simply collecting what I find relevant or interesting. I am no fan of special effects in photography. I want to create things from the ordinary. Things that everybody can understand, remember, detect. I am very democratic in that.


Did you have difficulties finding a publisher?

Yes.. I proposed it to my ‘standard publishers’ and they struggled. But we didn’t have a real text at the time. That is in Germany a real issue. Text is mostly mandatory. I had hoped that a mainstream book publisher would pick up on it.
I had worked with Nina Holland at Little Steidl before on KOSMOS, which is a very complex Artist book box made of 6 individual books. She had always worked on books for anyone. When she saw ‘The Blueberry Machine’ images, she took some time for herself to understand that secretly she always wanted to make exclusive children books. She has an amazing collection of historical children books. When working with Little Steidl, that is a long process. So when she finally decided to open up her publishing house to a real children book, it all fell into place. Making the entire book without any compromises on material and design, production and text was the best choice after all.

Do you usually work alone or with a writer for your books?

I usually start by myself. I am very image driven and I am keen to produce work that stimulates children – and myself at the same time. I have a lot of respect for children and hence a good understanding too for what they are interested in. Meaning that I don’t want to please them – no cheap tricks (as the book or toy industry works on mostly) – I want to challenge them on their grounds. I want them to be curious about what I do and I want them to make an effort to get to the bottom of things.

Only once I have decided that the images I made are best placed in a book, I think about the need for text.

What about your next project?

I am working on 8 books at the moment as good examples for your question.

The first book is a dream come true with a new French publisher. I made the work 20 years ago and I am soo excited that the publisher believes that the images are strong enough to make a book without text. Saying that, we will have titles for the images. nothing else. Another book is the sequel to The Blueberry Machine. Since I loved working with Monte on that one so much, I think we shall try to start it off together this time. Let’s see what happens. We are both very creative and flexibel and I am happy to try it differently this time.

Book three: I have been given a carte blanche to work out a book together with an illustrator of my choice, who I found already. We are trying to balance the photography part with the illustrations part, so both get the space they need, in order to be balanced and effective. The illustrator is also a great story writer, and we are still discussing if there is a need for text. At the moment I feel that we could actually tell the story with our two image techniques. Let’s see.

Then I am on book 4 that is a non fiction book. I conceived the idea with a historian and writer and we proposed it to a publisher, who jumped on it. It is the three of us developing the idea further and further and working on it equally. We meet every 3-4 weeks and discuss all of it. That’s very exciting since we all bring our expertise to it in equal parts. It feels like being in a super team with those two. I work mostly from text to image.

Book 5, 6 and 7 are totally free photo books. I will probably publish them myself and don’t want any text in them for now. Then again: Text will be there as title and colophone and usually I give a few lines along.. but no text in a classical sense, accompanying or explaining images)

Book 8 again will be a real challenge for me, since I want to create it by myself without text but work in a clear story line structure.. or at least a message and an understanding of what it is all about. The images can carry most of that, but my challenge is, bringing them into a sequencing and adding in between images to make the jumps from one key image to another. I am very much looking forward to that.

Bottom line I remember a lesson from my university degree, which came from my tutor David Campany: more or less every image/ photo comes with text of some sort. If it is a title, a caption, a memory, a paragraph, … there is always an image text combination present. And as artist/ photographer we need to be aware of that and define the text that we want or need with the images we produce.

Can you find everything?
Self published/ 2022

Your universe is very colorful. Is black and white not for children?

I think Black and White works also for kids – still today. Many successful children books prove that. Maybe that’s a compromise in modern times, that parents can accept easier than color photography? (I am convinced that straight color photography still seems to be a threat for many parents when thinking about their kids’ books)
B/W always reduces the content of an image. It is also further removed from our modern reality – more abstract. That threat of straight color photography, that I mentioned, is something that I usually try to counter act with my studio photography, where we can focus on content rather than bringing too much reality in (background, light, atmosphere, chance, indexicality in general….). But sometimes I am sneaking in more ‘realistic’ images, just to bring my work back into the reality and the factual lives of those reading kids.

Merci Jan !!

Pour découvrir son travail  : https://www.janvonholleben.com/

L’attribut alt de cette image est vide, son nom de fichier est Capture_CC-300x159.jpg.

OpenEdition vous propose de citer ce billet de la manière suivante :
Leguen Laurence (8 avril 2023). Jan von Holleben, magicien de la photolittérature. MINIPHLIT. Consulté le 17 juillet 2024 à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/rghe

Publié par

Leguen Laurence

Docteure en littérature française,je suis l'auteure d'une thèse soutenue le 14 mai 2019, intitulée "Littératures de jeunesse et photographie, mise à jour et étude analytique d'un corpus éditorial européen et américain, de 1860 à aujourd'hui". Je fais partie du laboratoire CELLAM, de l'université de Rennes 2. Je suis également auteure de romans pour la jeunesse et commissaire d'expositions consacrées ux photographes Ergy Landau et Lily Franey. J'ai signé la postface de la réédition du livre d'Ylla : Deux petits ours, MeMo éditions.

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