Els Kavelaar

1935 - 2004

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Psychiatrist Els Kavelaar proved that photography could be used as a tool to make diagnoses. She had her clients pose in front of the camera and asked searching, personal questions. Using a motor drive, she made countless photos for psychiatric evaluation. Later she would use this photo archive as a source to make synthetic art works.

MOVED - The phototherapist Els Kavelaar
In the mid-sixties, Els Kavelaar developed the idea to use photography for making diagnoses within psychiatry. She was convinced that the democratic, objective nature of photographs could be transformed into an equally objective analysis of emotional problems and psychological deviations. The photo sessions took place on locations chosen by the patient, a tried-and-tested strategy ensuring that the subject would not be distracted by unknown factors. Moments of meaningful postures, sudden movements and emotional facial expressions were captured flawlessly by her motorized camera. Subjects spoke about experiences of great joy or deep pain, emotions Kavelaar tried to deepen by adding dramatic pauses. Precisely these kinds of moments provided valuable visual information, decisive for the diagnosis and the route that had to be taken with the patient. Due to subtle mood swings, seen on successive photographs, she was able to determine disorders that could not be detected with other methods, ranging from theatrical and evasive personality disorders to various social phobias.

In the 1970s, Kavelaar started using her psychiatric photo archive to create works of art, an ambition she had had for some time. She devised a strategy to capture the element time in her works by combining photographs into composite portraits, a process she called psychocohesion. It is easy to recognize the influence of both Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey in those synthetic modifications. Her combined images not only reflect the patient's appearance, but actually reveal much more of his or her inner self. And since she used the aesthetic possibilities of psychocohesion to the full, it comes as no surprise that her intense polyptychs sold well.

However, Kavelaar failed to foresee that this new use of the photos could meet with ethical objections. The people were photographed at vulnerable moments and had never given permission to end up on the wall as artwork. After several exhibitions, resulting in a steadily growing fame, complaints were filed against her by former patients. She received an admonition from the Dutch Association for Psychiatry and her license was temporarily withdrawn. She did not respond adequately to this new situation and took her psychiatric work underground. That turned out to be only a short-term solution. One of her patients committed suicide and the patient’s family held her responsible. Because she had illegally executed her practice, she was sentenced to inprisonment and her photo archive was seized by the police. After Kavelaar was released in 1981, she worked briefly as a personal coach and married one of her clients. She would never again be active as a psychiatrist and lost interest in art. At the age of only 69 years, she died anonymously in the inconspicuous Dutch city of Woerden.

No one appeared to be interested in the photo archive after her death. The police sold it at an auction where I became its new owner.

Els Kavelaar at one of her sessions

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