The rotating gallery features the work of a young emerging photographer as well as an interview with him/her, and will change every Wednesday. The gallery is based off ‘collective curatorship’, where the photographer from week 1 chooses and interviews a photographer for week 2, week 2 chooses/interviews week 3, etc. There is only one stipulation to the process: Next weeks photographer has to be someone he/she has not had direct contact with yet. Ideally, this will take the gallery on a linked tour around the Internet, and exploring and unearthing new photographers as it goes.
Ballet Tbilisi. 18*24 cm. C-print.
Elaine Stocki: I’ve read that you began as a fashion photographer. Can you speak a little bit about how you came to photography in the first place? Were there any local (i.e. Dutch or otherwise) photographers or artists working in other mediums that motivated and inspired you?
Bertien Van Manen: I sort of rolled into it. I photographed my small children with an old camera that my father in law gave me. As I had no schooling at all, there were several photographer-friends who showed me the way. One photographer, who saw my pictures, offered me a job as an assistant. I started working for fashion-magazines, earned enough money to buy equipment and after some time I got tired of the fashion world. My colleague-friend Kenneth Hope, a British fashion photographer, showed me The Americans and inspired me to do more documentary work. Joseph Koudelka is a European photographer who has inspired me, and later, Martin Parr, two different ways of looking, but both very close to their subject.
ES: Your work gives both a free, shoot from the hip photograph that has been compared to the spirit and form of both Robert Frank and Nan Goldin, as well as a quieter, more studied image, a still life, that uses the language of Dutch Vanitas painting. Do you consciously navigate through different genres in both the photographing and the editing, or is it an entirely intuitive affair? Is there a desire to resist the constraints of making an image in one particular way?
BVM: Both Robert Frank and Nan Goldin have inspired me, especially the directness and closeness to the subject they have. I have to like the people I photograph. I need to feel an attraction, a fascination. I have not much with Vanitas painting, it never occurred to me that there was a connection. But, of course, there is certainly a sort of sadness and seriousness. Perhaps the Vanitas-aspect is subconsciously there, for Dutch people all have something of Calvin in them.
Actrice Shanghai. 18*24. C-print.
ES: One of my favourite images from the body of work A Hundred Summers, A Hundred Winters is Odessa. In the photograph, a group of youngsters surround a boy playing an accordion. What I love about the image is the unguarded happiness that is expressed in the faces of the group watching the performance, while one young girl, with a more serious gaze, looks directly at you, the photographer. There is complexity in expressing both a cognizance and complicity of an outsider documenter and at the same time an ease and unselfconsciousness expressed in the faces of the others. Certainly, one might question how you achieve that so consistently throughout this body of work. Your subjects are certainly aware that you are there, however, there is no sense of inhibition. What are your thoughts on the relationship you developed with the people you photographed in this body of work?
BVM: First thing is that I often use automatic, non-professional cameras. Traveling with expensive Leicas or Nikons in Russia at that time was asking for trouble. They considered my cameras as toys, not worth stealing. And they did not feel threatened by them, they considered me as a tourist or friend, who liked to take pictures. I let the cameras linger in the house, people picked them up and more than once, coming back home in Amsterdam and having the films developed, there were images I did not remember having taken… like the little boys who had had fun a whole afternoon, while we were gone on a visit and I had left one camera on the table, taking pictures of each other bottoms…
I try to have a personal contact and I prefer to stay with the people I photograph, to live with them and become friends with them. For A hundred summers.. I had to learn Russian, nobody spoke any other language, especially on the countryside. With many people I stayed with, I am still befriended.
Odessa. 40*50. C-print.
ES: Your body of work Give Me Your Image consists of family photographs re-photographed in a formally complex arrangement of domesticity: bits of chair, draping, tables and knick-knacks complicate and charge the frame of your photograph whilst the family photograph within the frame emotionally charges the inanimate objects around it. It’s interesting to hear that you don’t necessarily feel aligned in any way to more classical still life work….can you tell me how you feel the family photographs charge the formal still life arrangement in which they exist?
BVM: The surroundings, arrangements are supporting the family portraits. They give an insight into the different European cultures and tell something about the history of Europe. I always started with the portrait. It was exciting to walk through the homes with a portrait, looking for the perfect place to put it. I tried not to think and just follow my intuition. This sometimes gave surprising results, like the lady in Rome, who started crying when I put the image of her dead son in a corner, in front of a little cabinet that he always had treasured and that was all she still had of him.
Rome Fausto Coppi. 40*50. C-print.
ES: In Give Me Your Image you speak about finding the ‘perfect’ place for the photograph. In either of your series A Hundred Summers, A Hundred Winters or East Wind West Wind was there any direction? Were you documenting, or directing, or a combination of both?
BVM: It is a combination. You always look for the perfect place, surroundings, frame, light, person, expression etc. I work with 35mm film, but I try to withhold myself as much as possible, I try not to shoot as a machinegun, but to concentrate on the one image (one reason why I prefer not to work digitally). My experience is that when I feel insecure about an image I start taking more and most of the time there comes no better image, simply because the situation is not perfect. That happens and sometimes is difficult to accept.
Paris Alice In Wonderland. 40*50. C-print.
ES: One of the most interesting aspects of your work is the way that it is critiqued in the United States. Images of the Soviet Union are consistently read as ‘depressing’… ‘exposing the awfulness of three-quarters of a century under Communist rule’… ’spiritually depleted’. In a country in which anything but democratic rule has traditionally been feared, how do you feel that the reaction to your work is different than overseas? Is there a remarkable difference?
BVM: Perhaps Americans are a bit more moralistic than Europeans? I never looked for “photogenic poverty”, I photographed what was there. What shocked me was the reaction of Ljoeda, the lady in whose house I always stayed in Moscow. She was angry because I was showing her table without a tablecloth and because I wrote about the fridge in which they had stored their administration instead of food. Some Russian people who, after seeing my pictures, realized how poor they were, they were so used to this life, they did not see it anymore. And they had to go on living in it, having for dinner nothing but carrots and cabbage and some meat every day. I could go home to Holland, where I was confronted with the abundance in the supermarkets.
Novukuznetsk. 18*24. C-print.
ES: How important is it to you, and how much do you pay attention to, the reactions to your work that must always reflect the cultural background from whence the reaction came? Does it inform and or change your work? Do you let it?
BVM: The reactions from the people I photograph are important to me, I very much take them at heart. Ljoeda with her tablecloth stands for the Bourgeois mentality that I don’t mind criticizing. But the fact that Ljoeda could be angry with me because of that, I regret, I want people to like me. I don’t think it changes my work in a direct way, many experiences influence you subconsciously. But it is important for me that, despite difficult circumstances, there is humour and relativity in my pictures.
St.Petersburg. 40*50. C-print.
ES: A North American viewer might have a different reaction to your work than someone in Holland, or Russia, or China. It’s one of the most interesting aspects of your work, because it is constantly being read by an audience that could be thought of as the ‘other’… so, the work you did in China is looked at by Europeans and North Americans who are looking at images of a country and a way of life that they have not had first hand experience with but have ideas about nonetheless. Same goes for your work in Russia…I alluded to the reactions, in print, of some American writers when looking at a way of life under a political system that is alien to them (i.e. the work you did in the Soviet Union). It’s interesting to me, and I was wondering how much you reflect on the complexities of that situation?
BVM: I don’t really think of the reactions of people while photographing. Afterwards I sometimes am angry about reactions of people who have no idea of the situation. For instance I had my first exhibition of the Russian pictures in the Stedelijk museum in Amsterdam. I overheard a man, talking to a woman about the image of the Collectif kitchen in Siberia. The man talked about laziness and chaos and carelessness, saying that the people did not even bother to repair the floor. During that time it was impossible to get anything, people had to improvise and I was admiring the women for being able to bring some coziness to the houses, they badly needed this as a protection against the dangerous outside world. They were very inventive. And if you look well at the picture you can see that there is a lot of order, considering there are 4 or 5 families cooking there. Look at the plastic bags for example, they were scarce and were washed and hung to dry and used again and again.
Belly Yru Communal Kitchen. 40*50. C-print.