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Alice in Wonderland: enter a surreal new world

Alice in Wonderland: enter a surreal new world

© Alice Wielinga

November 2015

Alice Wielinga’s approach to photography is refreshingly inventive and remarkably involved. CPN writer Mark Alexander finds out how this award-winning photographer – who this year celebrated first prize at the Rencontres d’Arles international photo festival in France – creates her uniquely surreal montages...

Alice Wielinga’s work is challenging and provocative. The visual experiences she creates revolve around fantastical worlds that straddle reality and fiction as she successfully blends art with photography, or is it the other way round?

The Dutch artist’s eclectic images contain strong narratives that address political and social issues played out in fairy tale settings. They are striking and unusual, but as much as her work challenges, it also raises a number of conceptual questions. “I have a clear vision of the type of image I want to make,” she says. “It’s complex, but it is the way my brain works and it’s the way I see images.”

When you consider it takes Wielinga about a month to complete each picture, which contain up to 100 separate photographs with some requiring thousands of layers in Photoshop, you can understand the painstaking thought process needed to originate her ideas. Add to that the tenacity required to collate the range of content for the final piece as well as the skill to pull it all together, and you have a creative approach that is as intricate as it is remarkable.

© Alice Wielinga

Please click on the image above to view a film on how photographer Alice Wielinga creates stunning photo montages of Amsterdam’s canals.

“It starts with an interest in the topic,” she explains. “I start reading about it and study the art history of the geographical region to find inspiration. Then I start making sketches, sometimes very precisely. For instance, with Fijne Hanen/Gallo Fino - which is about illegal cock fighting in Cuba - I had a clear idea about what I wanted to create after visiting the first fight. Sitting in the predominantly male audience, I asked myself; who are the real cocks here? That was the feeling I wanted to express, so I made a very precise sketch and collected all the material piece by piece. The final image was photographed in pieces.”

Gathering the ideas together

While some of her ideas manifest themselves in detailed drawings that act as shopping lists for the final montage, on other occasions all she has is an idea. “In Pakistan, I didn’t know what I would see but I had a concept in my mind and I knew what kind of materials I would need,” she says. “When I got home, I started creating images out of the thousands of pictures I had taken. Some went in, some came out; so the images build up. I have a clear vision of the type of image I want to make. It’s important because the pieces I am creating should have the visual language that I am looking for.”

Although Wielinga has this meticulous approach well honed, it hasn’t always been this way. After graduating from the Academy of Art and Design St Joost, The Netherlands, Wielinga initially embarked on a career as a documentary photographer. “I worked for magazines capturing stories that I thought were important,” she explains, “but realised I was unable to tell the stories I wanted to in documentary style. That was the moment I decided to go back to the kind of photography that inspired me.”

© Alice Wielinga
© Alice Wielinga

‘Fijne Hanen/Gallo Fino’, 2012. In a makeshift studio in Cuba, Wielinga staged a work about illegal cockfights. She asked the illegal cockfighters to be her ‘models’ and created with them a scene that played with western prejudices. This time the testosterone filled audience fights each other, while the roosters watch in awe. By reversing reality, Alice raises the question ‘who are the real cocks here’?

She then studied fine art photography in New York and took inspiration from the likes of the enigmatic David LaChapelle. It was a move that appealed to her creative spirit although she quickly swapped the clinical confines of the studio for the stark realities of the field. “Most fine art photographers work in studios. I combine the world of art photography with the world of photojournalism and documentary photography. Most studio-based photographers work with medium-format cameras but you’re not going to work with one of those in a slum in Pakistan. It’s too risky and not necessary. They don’t give that much extra.”

Equipment and technique

For the majority of her work, Wielinga uses the full-frame EOS 5D Mark III with its 22.3 Megapixel sensor and 61-point autofocus system. Perhaps more importantly for the award-winning photographer, the camera’s CMOS sensor delivers bright natural colours and fine detail even when shooting handheld in low-light conditions. “I don’t have the patience for tripods,” says Wielinga. “Most of my subjects are in places where you don’t have time to set one up. In those situations, every step you take you could be hit by a bullet, so you work as fast as you can.”

She continues: “In Pakistan, I chose the 5D Mark III because it’s the camera I feel most comfortable with. I know it inside out. It’s a great camera. I feel very comfortable knowing I have a good camera that I can trust. I can print my images 2x3 metres in size and they’re sharp, so what else would I wish for?”

© Alice Wielinga
© Alice Wielinga

In the style of Palekh lacquer boxes (small, handmade papier-mâché boxes from the village of Palekh in Russia), Wielinga depicted a Tsarina. From her Russian Women series, 2012.

Travelling to some of the world’s most testing locations, the Dutch photographer admits she forms close bonds with her cameras. “I get really attached to them,” she says. “My camera becomes an extension of my hand, so it feels very strange to have a new one.”

Because of the intimate relationship Wielinga builds up with her equipment, she initially found it hard to move on from her trusty EOS 5D Mark II to the Mark III a year ago. But with increased sensor resolution, boosted frame rates and expanded cross-type AF points, she eventually made the transition. It was the start of new affair, sealed by the camera’s heightened ISO sensitivity.

“The biggest difference between EOS 5D Mark II and the Mark III is that it works better in low-light conditions,” she says. “That was the most obvious improvement. In the studio, the difference isn’t so obvious, but when you start working in the field, especially on a typical Dutch winter’s day; then you notice it. When I shot with the Mark II at around 1/60sec, it wasn’t always as sharp as I would have liked. With the Mark III, it was perfect.”

To make life even trickier, Wielinga says she restricts her use of fast apertures to ensure all the images in her composites are sharp throughout the frame. “Unlike other photographers, I don’t use bokeh. From front to back, almost everything is sharp in my images. For me, a good depth-of-field is useful. It’s important. I love it in documentary photography when the foreground is sharp and the rest goes into a blur, but for me that is useless. For me the more sharpness there is, the better the image is to work with. I prefer to shoot around f/8 to f/11 but not more than that – I travel a lot so if my sensor gets dirty, you will see everything.”

© Alice Wielinga
© Alice Wielinga

‘Epic of the Soldiers, North Korea, 2013-2014.’ Part of Alice’s ongoing award-winning project. “I decided to find out what was happening inside North Korea, behind its propaganda that masked such unfathomable despair and poverty,” Alice explains.” The first part of the project ‘North Korea, a Life between Propaganda and Reality’, was rewarded with first prize at the international photo festival Les Rencontres d’Arles, France.

Because of the restrictions Wielinga places on herself to secure a consistent sharpness across her compositions, she not surprisingly also curbs her lens choice limiting her kitbag to two medium-to-wide f/2.8 lenses. As a result, she mainly uses an EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM for creating backgrounds and leaves the portraiture work to an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM. Both are well known to landscape and portrait photographers who seek sharpness coupled with a broad range of compositional possibilities, but for Wielinga these lenses represent a simplified life.

“When I travel, I try to take as little as possible so I usually take these two lenses because it’s easy. I have everything I need,” she says. “I think differently from traditional photographers who see each frame as a picture. For me, it’s just a piece of a puzzle.”

She continues: “I also shoot a lot more frames because I see all kinds of elements that I could possibly use in the final picture. I eventually use up to 100 different photographs in each piece.”

Piecing it all together...

Wielinga usually allocates a week on location to capture the portfolio of images needed to produce the rapturous collage of iconic imagery that makes up the final collection of about 12 pieces. Back home in her studio in Amsterdam, the task of sifting through the RAW images, processing them and piecing them together is an unenviable task requiring unwavering resolve to realise the initial vision. There is some consolation in that her post-production work is light, at least initially.

“The only thing I do in Lightroom is adjust each RAW file slightly. I might make them a bit lighter or darker or add some contrast or take some away, and then I transfer them to Photoshop where all the layering happens,” she says. “Depending on the series, one composite image can take me up to a month to produce. This was especially true for my trip to Pakistan where one image contained up to 3,000 layers producing a 4GB image. Take it from me, that was a lot of work!”

With powerful collections from North Korea, Cuba, Russia, China and her home town of Amsterdam, Wielinga’s work is a diverse amalgam of abstract compilations infused with colour and meaning. Each one considered. Each one wonderfully captivating.

Biographie: Alice Wielinga

Alice Wielinga

It is perhaps telling that after graduating from the Academy of Art and Design St Joost in Breda, Wielinga went travelling to Asia, in particular South Korea, China and Vietnam. Between 2004 and 2008 she went on assignment for magazines such as ELLEgirl and VICE to places such as Las Vegas, Istanbul, Moscow and Dubai. But frustrated by photojournalism, she started using photo composites to combine photographic realities with her own imagination. The resulting hyper-real style certainly catches the eye with Wielinga winning successive photographic awards including Photographer of the Year by Dutch Fotonieuws in 2014 and most recently the first prize at the Fine Art Category of the Moscow International Foto Awards (MIFA) for her series ‘North Korea, a Life between Propaganda and Reality.’


Prinsengracht, view From Nieuwe Spiegelstraat, 2013. During the winter of 2012-2013 Alice worked as an assistant researcher on a story about the rising sea level for National Geographic. Being confronted with the dangers of global warming, Alice could not help but fantasise how this could affect Amsterdam. She used etchings from the 'Golden Century' to depict the waves of a tsunami that rolls through the canal.