Saturday, March 5, 2016

Q & A with Bertien Van Manen

Bertien Van Manen is a photographer based in Amsterdam, and the author of the recent book Beyond Maps and Atlases.

Blake Andrews: What was your path into photography?

Bertien Van Manen: I started taking pictures of my children. I published Easter and Oak Trees three years ago of the images I took then in the seventies. Some fashion photographer saw these pictures and asked me to be his assistant. I stayed in fashion for one and a half years and then started to not like it. I saw The Americans and it changed my life.

I've seen the Easter and Oak Trees book. Great pix. If my math is right you were in your thirties when you made those images? What were you doing before that?

from Easter and Oak Trees, 2013
I studied French and German literature, I translated books, and I had two small children.

So The Americans was your first exposure to fine art photography? How and where did you see the book? Did someone show it to you. Or did you find it on your own? 

The British fashion-photographer Kenneth Hope showed it to me.

Were your parents into art or photography during your childhood?

No, my mother was into literature. She read a lot. My father was an electrical engineer. They told us stories and my father sometimes took me to a concert. No art, no photography. We lived in a provincial mining town. There was nothing there. 

I'm from the middle of nowhere too. No stoplights for 50 miles around.

But in my grandparents' house there were painted portraits on the walls, of aristocratic great-grandfathers with beards and severe faces. And paintings made by my grandmother. 

When I was 12 I was sent to a nuns boarding school. We had art lessons. In the books the penises of the Roman statues were covered with a piece of paper. 

Was the paper easily removed?

Yes, but the nun was always there. During for instance Latin or Greek, that was given by a man, there was always a nun in the room. Of course we feverishly lifted the paper and I remember our big disappointment about those cold looking, stony little strange things hanging there. Was that what they made all the fuss about?

That was my art education (exaggerating a bit of course). Later they showed us the Impressionists, etc, but always very careful for Roman Catholic girls' eyes.

What the nuns didn't know, but photographers do, is that sometimes hiding body parts can be more arousing than revealing them.

In that time there was a whole different way of thinking about protecting against a forbidden world. In that way, for them it had nothing to do with "arousing”. They couldn’t allow themselves to go that far in their thinking. They just followed the rules.

Are you Catholic/religious? Were your parents?

I have been brought up very high middle class, Roman Catholic.

Are you still?

NOOOOO! Can't you tell from my work?

I can't tell anything about your religion from your work. There isn't much of a religious component, and I don't like to assume much. Why? Do you think your work says something about Catholicism? The photo in the recent book of the bright white statue comes to mind. I'd call it spiritual, maybe not religious.

from Beyond Maps and Atlases, 2015

Can't you tell I am not religious? Spiritual, yes. And the statue is something I just had to photograph when I saw it. I went onto my knees in the mud to do it. We had learned to bring sacrifices, as they called them.

Hmm. Thinking of you making that photo on your knees, that's an image loaded with Catholic baggage. Praying to the photo gods...?

I was not on my knees, but with my knees in the mud, which is perhaps the same... 

When did you leave Catholicism behind?

My husband played a role in that. His parents were Anthroposophic and he was nothing. This was a big drama in my family when I wanted to marry him. Anthroposophy is a theology  founded by Rudolf  Steiner at the beginning of the 20th century.

I don't know much about Anthroposophy but I like what I know of Steiner. He had a certain glow about him, and maybe a connection to humanity or trans-humanity which was uncommon. I wonder what kind of photos he might've made if he'd pursued that path.

I never thought of Steiner as a photographer. For me he is too much a theologist and a philosopher to be involved with such a worldly thing! Not that I am a follower of his, but some things I appreciate, such as his schools. My children went to these schools.

The Waldorf method is popular in Eugene. 

It's strange to hear you describe photography as "worldly". I know it has that element. It can be a scientific recording technique which is very tied to the physical world. But the part of photography which is most interesting for me is when it gets non-worldly, when the photograph surpasses the base level of what was in front of the camera. I'm not sure how that happens but I see it a lot in your photos.

Yes, these are two different things. I agree, my camera is just a tool that I use to express my thoughts or feelings. That's why I have the easiest little camera. You don't have to worry about technique. And this is in a time when every picture has to be super sharp. I had my images printed at the laboratory of Grieger in Düseldorff, Germany, where Struth, etc have their work done. Those people didn't believe that I wanted some of my pictures to be UNsharp.

Maybe you're a pictorialist at heart? Which other photographers do you like who shoot unsharp photos?

It is not a strict principle or a definite way of working, it happens. Not like Jacob Aue Sobol who makes all his work in very grainy tones. 

Speaking of unsharp, one of my favorite photos in the new book shows two men sitting at a table. They are very brightly lit, and there's a strange diffusion effect from mist or a filter, it's hard to tell. But the photo would not be as good if it were sharp and clear.

And that counts for more images. Even the branches in the forest, we made them 2 stops unsharp. They had no soft-focus lens, so I went to a drugstore and bought nylon stockings, of which we put two layers in front of the lens. The poor printer-woman, she had never done anything like it, but she loved it in the end. 

You added blur during production? Were the images also unsharp in the camera?

The two men were in a pub. I came from the freezing cold outside and my lens got blurred. One of the little presents the camera gives you from time to time.

from Beyond Maps and Atlases, 2015

But only if you're open to receive them.

But the picture of the forest, we did this in the darkroom. Because, being sharp it did not have the same quality. Yes, I love them, all these unexpected surprises that you discover later at home, looking at your contacts. Like the light leaked photo of the people on the mountain. You could never organize this.

You shoot film and make contacts? Do you have access to a color darkroom? Or a lab which does this for you?

I work with different photo labs and printers in Holland, the U.K. and Germany.

I wonder what Steiner would say. A light leak creates a perfect frame. Would he attribute the coincidence to mere chance? Or something else? How do you explain it to yourself? Is it pure accident? Or is it magic? Or both?

That's what makes taking photographs so exciting.

What, the surprise element?

Yes. I am seduced to think it is magic. But I think it is giving coincidence a chance. I don't know if the word coincidence is the right word here.

from Moonshine, 2014

Coincidence sounds like the right word. Photography + coincidence is a powerful combination. If you're searching for surprises, photography might be the last place you'd look. You aim a tool at a scene, and there's a rote recording. It's as surprising as accounting. But perhaps that's what makes it so surprising. It lulls you into a false sense of documentation.

Oh, but so many things can happen that you don't count on. This is why I work on film. I like to let myself be astonished about some results, if you see what I mean.  Yes, perhaps it IS magic. I am not recording. I am just letting it happen, I think. Have you ever seen an Anthroposophic painting? It makes you feel like running away.

Thus the small auto-camera. You're abdicating control. And in its place comes…what? I guess that's the surprise.

And the magic.

You mentioned your husband a moment ago. Was he involved at all with your photography? As an observer or companion or to give feedback?

My husband, Willem, was a lawyer, but very artistically talented. He gave me advice.

Did he travel with you during your photo trips?

I always travel on my own, except for people from the country where I am working.

Have you ever made photographs in the town you grew up?

Easter and Oak Trees is made in the park where my grandfather lived. We went there in the holidays. I once made a book about Roman Catholic women and went to photograph processions, etc. in my hometown, which is in the Catholic, Burgundian south of the country. But more than that I did not. I prefer to go to places I don't know.

I've read that you tried to begin a project in Instanbul but you couldn't make good photos there. Why? What was it about Instanbul that didn't work for you?

It did not click with me at the time. I tried to make portraits, they were not interesting. And during that time I saw an exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art there, about Istanbul by Magnum Photographers. The only one I really liked and who had a non cliché personal view, was Jim Goldberg with very personal pictures that had nothing to do with Istanbul. I also liked Alex Webb's images.

When you travel in order to make photographs, how do you usually find people initially? I know sometimes you travel with other photographers. How do you meet the non-photographers who become your subjects?

If, for example I want to go to Ireland, where I did not know anyone, I put a message on FB: "does anyone know someone in Ireland?" and of course I got the address of a photographer: Kate Nolan, who introduced me to Paul Gaffney, who introduced me to Martin McGagh and so on.

So you start with photographers? And are they also making photographs near and around you while you work?

This was in Ireland. Yes, we travelled and they and I took pictures. If we saw something we stopped. 

For meeting the non-photographers, it is a bit the same. If I go somewhere, I am sure to have at least one phone number. And soon it will roll as a snowball. When I went to Russia, I found the address of Ljalja Kuznetsova, whose pictures I had seen in the bookstore of  MoMA. It took me a long time to find her. I wrote my first letter in Russian, partly copied from my books. And when, after months her answer came, written in Cyrillic letters, I felt like getting a love letter.

I know you become close with the people you photograph and maintain some friendships afterward. Is your main motivation on these trips to make photographs? Or is it also the social connection? Would you ever consider making the same sort of trips without a camera? Or would that not interest you?

It would not interest me. I need both.

Spoken like a true photographer. 

But I also like to stay friends with some people. Taking pictures is a strange thing. I can go months without it. But once I start and the location is challenging, I can go on for 24 hours on end.

from Let's Sit Down Before We Go, 2012

What do you think of Jacob Holdt and his photographs?

Is he the one who takes pictures everywhere and all the time? For me personally there are limits. I prefer to respect the privacy of the other person. How far can you go? I find this a very interesting topic. You sometimes walk on the sharp of the knife.

He was a Dutch guy who traveled widely in the US in the 1970s, hitchhiking and staying for days or weeks with different families and people, and making photos of them. Very intimate and surreal. As far as sharp end of the knife, many of Holdt's photos are right there. They remind me of yours, and I think your methods are related. But he attached a social dimension to his photos which I think you would disavow. He wanted to highlight inequality and racism, and was very activist. I've read that you have left that stuff behind in your photos. 

I also have been thinking that I could change the world. I made a book about women migrant workers in Holland at the end of the seventies. And it opened some eyes.

Great! But then you lost interest in activist photography? Or do you think your current work is activist?

No, of course not. As you said, I have left that behind me. Being activist is not the word. I would say concerned or empathic. And that I still am.

I think what you are getting at is the tension between making photos and relating to people as humans. Sometimes those aims are in conflict. It's tricky. I don't know how war photographers do what they do. I couldn't. But even in non-war situations that tension is there when shooting people you care about. I know you've shot your kids a lot and I'm sure that's an issue with those photos. How to be present as a parent...and still get the shot.

My children are a good example. My son loved it, my daughter less. There you are as a mother, there goes your beautiful shot.

What about when you shot fashion photos? Did you feel any connection or empathy with your subjects?

I didn't like that world, but with the girls I had a good contact and I tried to photograph them as beautifully as I could.

Why didn't you like that world?

It is not my world.

But you are drawn all the time to worlds that aren't your world. To the unknown.

Ha ha, there you have a point. No, I mean it is a fake world. I feel irritated in it.

What music do you enjoy listening to? 

Classical music, especially J.S. Bach. Music from the seventies, Dylan, Young, the Stones, the Band, etc. But I also like to dance to dance music, disco etc, for hours.

What is your reaction to Donald Trump?

A disaster, how stupid this all is. I have no words for it. I hope Hillary will make it.

We'll see. I don't want to get my hopes up.