Walking to the grocery at the Ayala Center, photographer Alex Van Hagen points to the stripes and markings on the asphalt and the chipped paint on the parking-lot wall. Although they seem mundane to the average person, Alex finds visual interest that they can become potential abstract designs in a photograph.
For three decades, Alex has been synonymous with society chronicling and, lately, corporate events. Among his subjects were a striking Maricris Zobel in Louie Ysmael’s Euphoria; Mayenne Carmona and Becky Garcia in Bobong Velez’s Faces; and Ado Escudero dressed as King Kamehameha in his theme parties in Villa Escudero in the ’80s.
At 64, Alex is at a stage where he finds more fulfillment in fine-art photography. In the past five years, he has sold over 180 prints and has already established avid collectors.
Alex has a keen photographic eye and clarity of viewpoint. With his compositional instincts, he creates a refreshing view of what could have been clichés. He could do a contemplative image of a flower against its shaded silhouette; the crack along a piece of glass; the ragged finish of painted walls; the rough tree bark; and the melancholy landscapes.
Skeletal trees line the road in Zuidwolde, a village in the Dutch province of Drenthe; they underscore the brooding winter. Sunflowers tilt toward the sun in Toulouse to express the joy of spring. Steps of a New York museum cast their shadows forming a pensive study of geometry.
Alex’s book series has been a sellout. These are book leaves that have been folded and photographed at unusual angles.
“I fold every page of the book and open them to look like a fan. I photographed it from the front and the back,” he says.
Since his exhibit last year, Alex has added some subjects such as still-life studies inspired by Dutch painters; raindrops on the window; and walls and doors with shadowy images. “If you look at the old walls, you will see interesting compositions of color and texture. I focus on one part where the picture looks like a painting.”
He’s only half of the story. Alex and his older brother Han will be mounting their “Brothers in Art” exhibit on Aug. 17 at Nova Gallery, upon the invitation of businessman Charlie Cojuangco.
The corporate sponsors, undoubtedly, are people whom he covered in his society chronicling—Belo Medical Group, Fila and Moët & Chandon.
Han is one of the five etchers in The Netherlands. When he was in his teens, his teacher discovered his prodigious talent in drawing.
Trained at Royal Academy for Arts and Design in The Hague, he focused on etching, a printmaking process which uses metal sheets and acid to incise the image onto the copper or zinc plate. It is engraving by corrosion of metal. The etcher seeks to represent a close reproduction of the image, rendered in black-and-white.
For over 40 years, he has done books and his works have been exhibited at the prestigious Rijks, Den Haag and Geemente Museums.
“Etching is the finest way of drawing. To me, there’s no other way to draw something exactly as it is. It allows you to make lines finer than a hairline. Alex can produce a masterpiece in a split second. It would take me at least a month to make one,” he says.
Han’s work reveals his virtuosity in the uninhibited sweep of lines, capturing the spirit of an Ilocos scenery, the Mass and lines of an old church, or the laid-back nature of the carabao, creating the effects with the balance of light and shadow. The fineness and solidity of these contrasts show his deft and precise hand.
The viewer marvels at the refined nuanced tones which lend character to his landscapes or animal subjects. It’s very clear that there is an intimate connection between the artist’s mind and his hand.
At the exhibit, some works by Alex and Han will be placed side by side for people to compare the photographic realism of Han’s art. For instance, Alex’s bucolic black-and-white photo of a cow is juxtaposed with Han’s detailed illustration of a carabao.
Han says that bonding with his younger brother has become a major turning point in his life.
“We used to see each other, but there were other people around that we could not have a real talk,” Han recalls.
The brothers have adopted children from the Real Life Foundation, whom they have sent to school.
In 2007, Han visited the Philippines to hold an exhibit of his works. He was surprised when Alex had shown him his experiments in still life, landscapes, and play of textures.
“When Alex was young, I didn’t know he had that talent. I didn’t know that he was a professional photographer in the Philippines. I liked his photos of the tree trunks. I don’t like the ones where there are society people on it,” he says, referring to the people who mill in front of Alex’s camera.
Consequently, they travel together for inspiration. The Van Hagens have visited Paoay and Vigan where Han was taken by the scenery.
“Nature is the boss. If there are buildings, they would be less important in the image. I don’t like doing people. They are always around me and they talk too much. When you are engrossed in your drawing, you fall into silence,” he says.
One of his most powerful images is a portrait of a bull wherein the eyeball is painstakingly represented.
On his brother’s works, Han comments: “I like his way of looking and feeling toward his subjects. They’ve touched me.”
Alex rejoins: “Thanks to Han, I’ve gotten more serious with my work. He encouraged me. We’ve gotten closer.”