Photo © Mark Holthausen, from his "Crimes of Passion" series.

Photo © Mark Holthausen, from his "Crimes of Passion" series.

In 2009, photographer Mark Holthusen commissioned me to write about an original photo series he produced in collaboration with Hasselblad. Below, the story behind his "Crimes of Passion," which you can view here.

In early 2009, venerable camera manufacturer Hasselblad selected Mark Holthusen for its prestigious Hasselblad Masters Awards, which celebrate photographers who have made outstanding contributions to their art. This prize is particularly coveted because the winners are invited to create a new body of work, based on a theme assigned by Hasselblad, for publication in the Hasselblad Masters Book. “Mark Holthusen was chosen above 1,700 other very talented photographers worldwide,” notes Christian Nøorgaard, Photographer Relations Manager for Hasselblad. “Mark was more unique, original, incisive, and progressive in his visual style. He is a true artist—a shining star.”

Mark was presented with a new Hasselblad H4D-3 and the theme of “passion,” which he soon conceptualized into a series exploring mortality and morality by way of murder and suicide. He called it “Crimes of Passion.” Notes Christian, “Normally, Mark’s photographs are dreamy and full of imagination. These photographs are the opposite—they’re real life. They show ordinary people. They could be our neighbor or someone we meet in the supermarket, on the train, or in the bus.” 

The project would take Mark into new creative territory. An award-winning commercial photographer, he is accustomed to working around the needs of his clients. With “Crimes of Passion,” there were no constraints. He had the freedom to dive into the photographic possibilities of the project as he went along. “Normally on a shoot, I’d have everything planned out in advance,” he explains. “But this time, I didn't even decide on how many images I wanted to get.” Mark was also working with a much smaller team than on an advertising shoot: Besides an intern or two, his crew consisted only of his longtime producer, Jason Santos, and a makeup artist, Aurora Bergere, who came to “Crimes of Passion” following a stint on the set of the NBC series Trauma.

Giving themselves just two days to shoot the series, the “Crimes of Passion” team decamped their home base of San Francisco for Mark’s hometown of Reno. The city, faded and grim, had long been on his mind as ripe for a potential photo project, and now he’d found the right subject. With time tight, Mark, Jason, and Aurora worked quickly and on the fly. They’d worked out a number of vignettes ahead of time—among them, a teenage daughter who has just shot her abusive father, a woman discovering that her loved one has committed suicide in his car, and a wife who has stabbed her husband to death—but decided they’d choose which stories to shoot based on the actors they found using Craigslist. It would be a risk, but that was part of the thrill. And it resulted in rewarding discoveries that even Mark could not have anticipated.

One of the Craigslist respondents was Moira Price, a professional actress who’d heard about the “Crimes of Passion” casting call from a director friend. While some might have been apprehensive about the dark subject matter, Moira—whose sibling had recently passed away—was intrigued. “Two things immediately hit me,” she recalls. “The coincidence of just losing my brother, although his death was due to natural causes, and the opportunity to portray the emotional intensity that surrounds death and dying.” 

Mark cast Moira as the woman in a state of anguish as she emerges from her home to find a man (her husband, brother, friend? Mark leaves it intentionally ambiguous) slumped in the front seat of his car. It takes a moment to realize that the man has rigged the exhaust pipe to release its toxic fumes into the automobile. We are left to wonder what led him to this sad end and whether the woman will ever be able to overcome her grief. “That was our first shot of the project,” says Jason, “and Moira was incredible. We were blown away.” 

Mark’s approach to photographing these emotional tableaux was instinctual. Instead of directing his actors’ every move, he briefed them on what he was going for and let them explore it, capturing the results in real time as though he were a documentary photographer. As a result, the images have a visceral realism that makes them impossible to deny. “He seemed to have certain ideas for what could work for his vision, but they shifted during the shoot itself,” observes Ryan Manning, who plays a father who’s been shot to death by his daughter. “Personally, I think all art evolves this way. You have an idea, and with every step you take toward that idea, something shifts as you finally take a concept and form it in the tangible world.”

Mark is presently exploring exhibition and publishing opportunities for “Crimes of Passion.” He believes the series’ stories are worth sharing on a larger scale, and that the questions they pose are worth asking. And he’s not the only one. “The photos are scary, and they set the imagination going in a creepy way,” says Christian. “Who are the victims, and who has committed the horrendous crimes?”