Minimalism in Opulent Reality

Interview with Ron van Dongen

Ron van Dongen is up to capturing earth’s laughter in flowers. And in the process he continues to create photographic pieces that transcend the ephemeral nature of time. To be fair to him, it is not only the floral essays that he keeps himself busy penning. But, his portrayals of human form and even canine species are equally impactful. Largely monochromatic, his work embraces the subtleties of nature and features them meticulously on photographic canvas.

Ron van Dongen spent time across various time zones during different phases of his life. He was born in Judibana, Venezuela, 1961. He spent his early childhood in Warmond, The Netherlands. Perhaps, it is self-explanatory from where his intimacy with the floral world originated. Ron completed studies from the Academy of Art College in San Francisco. Ron van Dongen can truly say, ‘I know that if odour were visible as colour is, I’d see the summer garden aureoled in rainbow clouds.’

The fact that we, as kids, were allowed to (sometimes literally) get lost in the woods and beyond, profoundly influenced my life.

How did your early childhood influences at home and in your surrounding environment contribute in the making of the man? You were always fond of gardening. While photographing flowers then does it feel that you are capturing a very familiar aspect of your own life, perhaps your many friends?

The first seven years of my life I grew up with few boundaries.

Even at a very young age I was allowed to roam the Venezuelan neighbourhoods we lived in. All I remember from that time are images of my surroundings; vividly coloured flowers, exotic animals and plants, white sand beaches and of course our garden: a hibiscus hedge, palm trees, huge butterflies, the neighbour’s dogs, the watermelons growing freely next to the garbage can.

When we moved back to The Netherlands I had an immediate sense that the Dutch landscape and climate were very different: the absence of colour and exotic life forms, the grey weather and the muted colours. The occasional warm days of summer were a welcome gift and a reminder of the carefree years I experienced in the tropics.

One aspect of my life in The Netherlands remained the same: the ability to roam the neighbourhoods and forest close to my home. The fact that we, as kids, were allowed to (sometimes literally) get lost in the woods and beyond, profoundly influenced my life.

It laid a foundation of a deep empathy for the natural world and a strong desire to explore it.

A few years later (I must have been around 9 years old), when I was given the opportunity to grow/have my own a garden plot; I was always trying to grow/experiment with the plants that were better–suited to the tropics; things like tomatoes, melons, succulents, and cucumbers, etc. Clearly, my fondness for a more temperate climate and exotic specimens hadn’t faded. One day, while visiting a friend’s (heated) greenhouse, I remember it striking me as a magical place.

Years later, as a young adult in 1993, when I started a garden in San Francisco, I realized that without the Dutch winter temperatures, I could grow both non–hardy exotics as well as plant varieties I’d come to appreciate while living in The Netherlands: Tulips, Fritilarias, Narcissi, Roses, etc.

Floral Diptych, Photography by Ron van Dongen

Your photographs are reminiscent of the simplicity associated with Dutch school of graphic design. How do you establish grace in minimalism? How do you maintain balance while composing an image keeping in the mind the form, colour and beauty of your subject?

My work has been greatly influenced by Dutch design, but also by the many Golden Age painters: Rembrandt van Rijn, Frans Hals, Jan Steen, Jan van Huysum etc. Although their influence is hardly visible in most of my work found on my web site, my early photo projects were very much inspired by this school of painting.

Coincidentally, I have started a new series of floral diptychs (i.e. two separate images paired as one) where I have combined both influences in simple compositions: my goal was to juxtapose the dramatic and opulent realism of the old master painters with the contemporary and minimalist (white–on–white) images that have been a staple of my work for many years.

You prefer utilising film cameras for your work. Why this conscious choice of clinging to a past era in terms of equipment and how does it complement your artistic sensibility?

In the beginning of 2013, I finally purchased a digital camera (Hasselblad). Although I love photographing with the 4″x5″ Sinar F1, my favourite film (Polaroid 55 P/N) has been discontinued and I have discovered that using this medium format digital camera produces the same quality imagery and is more versatile in its handling.

The colour portrayals of flowers are in many ways an extension of your black & white photography of the same subject. How do you ensure symmetry and similarity irrespective of the medium?

Yes, it was a conscious decision to create a portfolio of colour still lives as an extension of the black and white photographs. I used the same techniques and philosophy for both the B&W and colour work.

Floral Diptych, Photography by Ron van Dongen

How does gardener Ron compliment and collaborate with photographer Ron? How the change of season affects the pattern of your craft?

It is not so much of collaboration as it is a mutually inclusive activity driven by impulse. Photographing plants and gardening go hand in hand. The motivation to do both (or either) is affected by the different seasons. The winters in Portland are mild but wet, and the urge to get the garden going kicks in when the first flowers (Camellias, Hellebores, Crocuses, Amaryllis, etc.) appear in early February. Documenting these early risers follows without a thought. It is an innate drive that comes and goes with the flow of gardening; this usually continues through the end of July. By then, I usually feel overwhelmed by the abundance of plant growth and the time–consuming maintenance of the garden. Come mid October, when preparing the garden for winter and planting the spring bulbs, I normally experience another photography rush, when I find the last and occasionally odd–shaped blossoms and fruits (Roses, Dahlias, Tomatoes, etc).

Succumbing to the lure of floral patterns you abandoned portrait photography. Does portraying human form still attract you and do you want to explore it further somewhere along the line?

Photographing the human form has always interested me and always will, but the 4?x5? camera made it a slow, laborious and therefore difficult process. Because the new camera is so much easier to handle, and I don’t necessarily need a tripod, I’m sure to embrace the human form and portraiture again. It will certainly make it easier to photograph fauna as well.

Tell us of the personalities from or beyond the world of art who had definitive influence on your mind?

There are too many photographers and painters whose work I admire and surely have had an influence on my work, but the biggest influence on me becoming a photographer have been two of my college professors: Lela Hersh and Roger Minick.

How would you like to summarise your journey thus far?

I have found deep satisfaction by expressing my awe and appreciation of the natural world through photography. I am truly fortunate to have found a way to make a living through that expression.

Floral Diptych, Photography by Ron van Dongen
Floral Diptych, Photography by Ron van Dongen

Ron van Dongen prefers…

Ron van Dongen’s favourite holiday pursuit is, ‘Bike vacation in The Netherlands, roaming on the beaches of Oregon Coast or visiting any tropical / temperate rainforest.’ It comes as no surprise that he would be attracted to the shades of green. Home freshly baked whole grain breads and eggplant parmesan bring feels mouth-watering to him. He loves listening to Selling England by the Pound of Genesis and Hejira by Joni Mitchell. Going through the pages of A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini and The Hours by Michael Cunningham make him acutely aware of the plights of life.

Find more of his work at http://www.ronvandongen.com/

Image Courtesy: Ron van Dongen