Camera Poems

About this time last year I met Ilona Wagenaar, a talented and brilliant Dutch fine art photographer (and international lawyer). We clicked and, after a long lunch at Can Curune in Ibiza, she proposed I write the text for a book of photography.

The result is, Camera Poemsa stunning coffee table volume that combines her pictures and my words. It was a free, playful collaboration, completely unlike any writing I’d done before. Instead of a strict brief she gave me the images and let me use my imagination. This created space to explore and ask questions — which I then had to answer.

Ideas and narratives emerged organically from the colour, texture, repetition, reflections, and references in the photos. It was one of the most joyful projects I have ever undertaken and that shines through in the book.

For more about Ilona and her creative process, read this interview in The Heroine’s Journey. For a sample of images and text from the book, read on.

Camera Poems cover art — all photos courtesy Ilona Wagenaar


Ilona Wagenaar is, among other things, a fine art photographer, writer, lawyer, educator, connoisseur, artist’s model, and publisher. For the artist, every experience hones the vision. The more lives one leads, the broader the perspective, the deeper the insight.

Complexity cannot be faked or forced, it has to arise from the fertile earth of experience. The roots of Ilona’s work are nourished by a lifetime of diligent study and autodidaction; by ceaseless curiosity and refusing to be a spectator. From her undergraduate study of art history, to her career as a lawyer, to her parallel life as an artist and muse, Ilona has used her formidable intellect and confidence to nurture creativity instead of yielding to convention.

She was, for many years, the partner and creative collaborator of portraitist Cornelis le Mair. He painted her over and over, fascinated by her keen eyes and eloquent composure. Ilona always blurred the line of subjectivity, though. As often as she sat for portraits, she turned her camera on le Mair, his home, their shared lives and friendships, capturing the colour and flourish with great warmth.

For Ilona, everything is a potential subject. She is bold enough to welcome the challenge of photographing the lives and work of fellow artists including le Mair, Lolo Loren, and Hans Laagland. She thrives on the technical and intellectual challenge of not just reproducing but interpreting the art of fellow creators, with incisive, colorful, revealing results.

Still-lifes, landscapes and studies of the natural world take Ilona’s photography a step further into the realm of exploratory and abstract, drawing from an immemorial well of inspiration. Her lively eye and finely honed technical prowess probe the deceptive simplicity of nature to unveil its underlying complexity. Her work continuously engages with and articulates a profound truth: Art is not an object. It is a way of seeing the world.

pup 1



The contrasting focus of these two images open a dialogue about perception and experience. The wind-turbine stands rooted, motionless it seems, apart from the whirl of blades. They spin on the edge of invisibility, too swift for the camera shutter; we infer their existence because we know the tricks movement plays. Our confidence loses its footing in the next frame as our eyes contradict our mind. The bounding dog looks motionless; the static ground blurs. We confront the unreliability of our assumptions, our haphazard approach to physical evidence. Mostly, we ignore the fact the earth turns at tremendous speed. We ignore the fact the universe is mostly empty space. It is easy to pretend that perception is reality; comforting to imagine a non-existent solidity.

Movement is a gentle reminder of the wild energy of the universe. Yet it reverberates with appreciation for ordinary comforts . The joy of a pet running to its beloved guardian; the elegance of a turbine channeling the power of the wind. These pleasures have an unquantifiable energy of their own. They keep us grounded amidst the uncertainties of life on a spinning planet.

“We still continue to deceive ourselves about the motion of that which is to come. The future stands firm… but we move about in infinite space.” ~Rainer Maria Rilke

death 1


Two skulls rest cheek to cheek, grinning at a private joke. A skeleton reclines, hat pulled down to shade absent eyes. What do the dead know? What is the source of their enternal silent mirth? Mortality plays dice with humanity’s most fundamental anxiety. Instead of solemnity it slyly observes our futile evasions.

Emblems of music, art and literature mingle with chopsticks, bowls and empty brocade silk boots. Aspirations to immortality brought down to earth. Quotidian death-in-life, or vice versa. Beady eyes peer from a rigid fringe of feathers, a desiccated owl, wry and wise in death.

Desire, not life, is not the opposite of death. Consumption is a flickering candle we cling to in the face of a darkness we don’t understand. But the things we crave are faithless, indifferent. The expensive watch unrepentently marks our progress towards the grave. Gorgeous vases are as empty as soulless bodies. Flowers wilt with no thought for our delicate psyches. We turn to cameras to stop time, to books and maps for enlightenment. But somewhere, an invisible hand skillfully pours water into a dish. Another petal falls from the rose. A rocking chair creeks in a soft afternoon breeze. The skulls watch and smile.

“I want an honorable goddam skull when I’m dead, buddy. I hanker after an honorable goddam skull like Yorick’s.” ~J.D. Salinger





Eyes are the ultimate interloper. Physics instructs us that the act of observing changes the behaviour of the observed. Our eyes guilty of ceasless interference. This ineluctable relationship lies at the heart of these mirror-like images: Seer and the seen come face to face, two irreconcilable visions. One pair of pictures shows a rusty chain within concentric red circles. Questions fly like sparks struck by its deceptive simplicity. Is the chain falling into a bottomless hole or rising to an unknowable height? Are the red circles an object or a trick of light? Does the chain symbolise bondage or escape? Is it hoist or an anchor?

The second duo is an unapologetic visual pun, a playful take on the mechanics of vision. At first we see an eye. Decontextualised, the metal crosshatch suggests an art exhibit, perhaps a close-up of a sculpture or a robot. Study the image longer and the apparently concrete object dissociates into layers. The internal curves of the structure which, at first glance, seem deliberate, become ambiguous. Are we looking up at a series of non-symmetrical balconies through a grated window to the sky? Or are we at the top of something, looking into the belly of a carefully constructed beast? Is the eye staring back at us?

In both sets of images the obvious first impression melts on closer inspection, creating pervasive unease. Anxiety rises as we see reality shift and distort beneath our gaze. Beauty and ugliness are projections of the eyes. There is no such thing as an innocent observer.

“All that we can see is only a fraction of the universe.” ~Jeanette Winterson

For more of Ilona’s art, and to learn about past and future exhibitions and projects, visit her website

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The Art of Being Alone

Scribbled in the back of one of my 2009 notebooks is a quote from Jessamyn West

Writing is a solitary occupation. Family, friends and society are the natural enemies of the writer.

She might have blamed, also, colleagues, television and cookery. Or dog-walking, DVDs and chocolate. Work, sleep, love, indifference, good music, bad movies, weather, furniture, news, caffeine or the lack of it. A literal world of distraction poised like a comic-monster in the closet, waiting for the unwary writer to allow to lapse the protective guard of solitude. For born-contrary loners it’s a childish fantasy. An excuse to kick petulant feet and demand sanctuary, a light in the hall to keep the boogie men away.


I’m one of these cranks. My dreams are of open roads in unmarked cars, the world at the bottom of the sea, places untouched by the hand of man, anywhere you can’t see the end from the beginning. These spaces hold the tantalising prospect of rebirth, endless reincarnation into whatever I want to be at the moment I arrive. They hold nothing: no memory, no backstory, no construction apart from mine. The appeal of solitude has little to do with art and everything to do with the fears of the artist.

Writing is a series of selfish, arbitrary choices. Effective writing imposes order, kills img_20150331_124739573_hdrSchroedinger’s cat, insists something is here rather than there. Friends, family, crying children and cocktail parties are a writer’s enemies because we cannot control them. They are, at best, available for interpretation, after the fact. Hence the writer’s urge to scuttle to a hermitage far from forthright reality.

All knowledge is borrowing and every fact a debt. For each event is revealed to us only at the surrender of every alternate course.Cormac McCarthy

This is why writers have an irrational fear of pets, lovers, must-see TV and the daily paper. We know that to write a lucid sentence is to not-write a thousand equally valid, truthful, consequential sentences. Writers must choose one thing from an infinite number of possibilities. As anyone who recalls being a child in front of a wall of pick-a-mix sweets knows, a super-abundance of choice leads to paralysis.

Yet it is a writer’s job to be aware of everything. Not just facts, what “really” happened, what he or she said, but of all the loose threads one might pick up, hidden meanings, fantasies, improvisations, alternate endings. Writers are advised to take notes, write down their dreams, improve their imaginations, scribble down fragments of speech, lie back and absorb life like a sponge. The charge is to then make sense of it. To sift 500 tons of dirt to find that ounce of gold.

Is it surprising writers develop the same cranky relationship to daily life that forty-niners must have had with the California soil? What we need is in there, but the process of extraction is terrifyingly laborious. Every moment of reality holds both promise and distraction. Solitude offers the fleeting hope of achievement. Perhaps, within a protective cocoon, we can shake a few flakes of truth out of the last heap of experience.