Helena Aguilar Mayans is a photographer from Catalonia, Spain, whose work can be considered a portal to times that have long been gone. Helena’s unique niche includes subjects such as seclusion, exploring women’s lives in the 19th and 20th centuries, and turning different media of art into photographs.
Helena stumbled upon film photography in school when she was 16 years old. Her teacher introduced her to the British photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, which became a turning point in her life. Up until that moment, Helena had viewed photography as a tool that records what is in front of you. It is through Julia Margaret Cameron’s work she learned about narrative photography.
Helena draws most of her inspiration from the 19th and the early 20th centuries, citing the Brontë sisters and the Symbolism art movement as some of her biggest inspirations. As an old soul, Helena often feels like she doesn’t fit in the modern world where everything is at a fast speed, compared to her being a slow person, who tends to navigate towards things that indulge in the manifestation of time; such as analogue photography.
HM: I think the idea of ritual in daily life is very important; to stop and to have some moments for yourself. I don’t think we have this in the occidental culture anymore, which I also think is a problem.
Loneliness and seclusion are present throughout Helena’s work. You can see them portrayed through the old and retired buildings and the timeless pieces of gowns.
Although both loneliness and seclusion have negative reputations plaguing them; I label her art as such with only good intentions. The loneliness in her work is almost magical. She captures loneliness in a manner where the audience gets to be the protagonist, and they also get to feel like the time has paused for them, and only them. They get to pamper themselves in a paused era, in which only themselves and nature are alive.
HM: It is my way of showing that women should have their own space, and they should be able to enjoy this mystery, and this kind of place [referring to the abandoned buildings in her photographs]. For me, it’s a way to also explain that women from past eras had the chance to explore and to have their moments. For me, this is a way of picturing women in their safe spaces. Even if the space looks abandoned, they are not sad. Maybe they are nostalgic, but they are not sad. They have their own space where they can be without anybody else.
Women are expected to perform. Something is always expected of us, to dress a certain way or to talk a certain way. Therefore, seeing Helena portray the women in her photographs as being in their safe spaces and being themselves, with no one else to put on a show for is healing. Helena is currently reading A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf in Catalan. The book’s subject of how we do not know the daily lives of women throughout history, and how women need a space of their own to create their imaginations have made her discover what else she wants to include in her work.
Mayans says that art directing is empowering, and she considers every process of creating to be. She also thinks that art should be honest. In her words, there are people creating art superficially for reasons such as fame, but authentic art stems from a place deep within you, and it makes you feel emotions.
Photographs from 'Silent in the House' series, inspired by an Emily Brontë poem
Helena is also well known for turning other mediums of art such as poems, novels, and paintings into photographs.
Her biggest inspirations come from the 19th and the early 20th centuries. She cites the Brontë sisters, the Symbolism art movement, the Decadent movement, and the Pre-Raphaelites as her muses.
HM: What I take from them depends [on what type of art they are]. Usually, with novels, I try to get visions. While you read, you get visions of the elements that appear strong in your head —I express that with photography. With paintings, [I take] the palette of colours, shapes, and the positions for the models. I love the work of the Belgian painter Fernand Khnopf. I like him as an inspiration for the feelings of enigma and mystery; you can never really read what is in his paintings.
Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi is another artist that Helena cities as her inspiration.
As a fan of Mayans' work, I think to myself that if I were her, every one of my works would fulfill me the most. Though, for Helena, it is the project, Dreamers of Decadence.
Dreamers of Decadence is inspired by the French phrase Déjà vu. Helena started it as her final project at university and continued it through the years, adding more depth to the body of work. Her passion to travel to abandoned places is one of the reasons why this project continues.
HM: It is a long process finding the locations, choosing the right gowns for each location, and doing mood boards. I started a trip with my best friend. We went to Italy together, and we did the first part. I felt really happy and proud of the results so I decided to continue.
Winning a contest in a village near Barcelona gave Helena the financial opportunity to pursue the second part of her series in Portugal. She then took her project to France last summer. Mayans says that every time she thinks of closing this series, she gets excited, which results in her wanting to pursue it even further — the cycle that has kept Dreamers of Decadence going on for many, long years. Helena’s dream is to turn this project into a book.
Society is opening up to the idea that women are achieving in many ways and in many fields of work. However, what a woman endured and did to achieve that very thing is not widely discussed. Helena says that there is a big process of work she does before she can take the photographs that go unseen.
HM: First I start to search for locations. It can take months because there are not many abandoned places, and it is hard to get to them. So I can search for them on google for months. Then I try to locate one. I also have to find gowns that suit the location and plan the itinerary of the trip. This started casually when I saw a picture of a place online — it was an unworldly looking winter garden with lanterns. It is all the things I love in one place, so I decided to visit it in Italy. From there, I built other projects.
Helena says that when she is finally at the location, and what she had been imagining is unfolding in front of her, it can feel like time does not exist.
When I am writing about women photographers, it is important to me that I cover more than what they photograph. We don’t often think about the efforts that went into taking a photograph, and without it, we can never truly appreciate the work. Interviewing Helena allowed me to uncover that this is a lifestyle for her, and her work is more than what meets the eyes.