Bertien van Manen

This photographer is of particular interest to me since she works in the documentary tradition and (on some earlier projects) in the same geographical territory as me – namely the former USSR: “I did not focus on poverty, but the average living conditions are, of course, poorer than in the West. On the other hand I did not try to show happiness and lightheartedness where it does not exist.” Although at first look her images seem to be simple snapshots, they actually reveal much about her subject matter in ways that can only be learned from close contact. Notwithstanding this proximity, I do feel that van Manen still keeps a very tangible distance between herself and those she photographs, despite van den Heuvel’s claim that “she aims in no way for a picture story that talks objectively and from a detached point of view about the people she photographs” I would say that despite the obvious immediacy and rapport she has built up with her subjects, they remain at a cool, observed distance as an exotic Other, which is evident from the content of the images. From the series Let’s Sit Down Before We Go:

Although it could be argued that it is the form of the images which is of prior importance rather than the content: the style is family album snapshot, with oversaturated primary colours, stark flash and amateurish composition and cropping. This aspect of the work seems to have come about more as a result of expedience than foreplanning, as van Manen herself says: “Traveling with expensive Leicas or Nikons in Russia at that time was asking for trouble,” she says. “They considered my cameras as toys… and they did not feel threatened by them, they considered me as a tourist or friend, who liked to take pictures.” In that same article, the author (Jeffrey Ladd) acts as apologist for the photographer:

What might be seen at first to be “flaws” to the images — a light leak bleeding in from an edge, imperfect focusing or flash burn from the on-camera flash — give way to the perception of Manen’s impulses to grab at what she sees before her, physically hold it, or more accurately as felt in the pictures, to embrace it.

In other words, those amateurish mistakes are seen to be positive strength of the pictures, and in some way enhancing the body of work as a whole, expressive of the artist’s voice or choice: “Van Manen’s point and shoot style of photography is one of allowing imperfections in technique stand“.

There does not seem to be any underlying principle behind what van Manen has photographed – it is just a loose collection of moments and events that she chose to photograph, as such the whole works in much the same way as a family album, where the only narrative is in a sense the connection between the images as opposed to some ultimate goal that was envisioned at the outset – I think the point here is to retain the informality and immediacy without attempting to over conceptualise.

Van Manen uses book format to display her images, and this would seem quite appropriate, since the book replicates the album (in fact she calls her books albums): “An album, a family album in particular, makes little claim for aspiring to great art. Its purpose seems to be our desire to access memory, history, personal feelings (both good and bad) and perhaps even serve as proof of our existences.” Another collection of work is called Moonshine, and looks at a poor rural mining community in Kentucky (van Manen herself is from a mining community in the Netherlands). She spent four months living among this poverty stricken Appalachian community, and the grainy monochrome results are more akin to the work of Frank or early Sultan than family snapshots:

On the other hand, the text that accompanies the images is (to my mind) unfortunately not firsthand testimony from the subjects themselves, but van Manen’s subjective observations:

Mabel, one of Junior’s sisters, lives with the Boggs family – miner Red and their 10 red-haired, timid sons – in a ramshackle wooden cabin on the edge of a ravine. No water, no electricity, and the toilet a wooden hut with a hole in the ground.”

The interpretation of the images is manipulated and enforced by the impressions of the photographer; the Other is exoticised and revealed, or rather depicted, in a condescending and alienating way. This is something that I have been trying to move away from. Although the narrative appears to be empathetic and touching, it is still merely a record of how van Manen entered the lives of these people, and then withdrew once she had got the material required for another book:

In 1996 in Amsterdam I get a call from Mavis, asking me to come over. Junior has liver cancer and not much longer to live. The door of the house is open. Junior, emaciated to the bone, reacts with emotion when he sees me. He will survive for another few months.”

As such, the book is more about the photographer than the subjects themselves; a travelogue as opposed to family album. Should I consider publishing the photographs in book form? I don’t think that is a format that really fits the project aims and concept.

One thing that I have gained from looking at van Manen’s work is the idea that I can return to some of the images I took in the 1990s in Ukraine and put them together as a body of work – something I have wanted to do for a very long time!

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