|Vlada in the kitchen Kazan 1992 C Bertien van Manen|
When I visited the beautiful exhibition of Bertien van Manen I was struck again by the way she connects to often complete strangers and showed me their everyday life in an extraordinary way. I'm totally envious in the way she is capable of seeing those special moments. When I was a student I tried to photograph the way she does, but I didn't see what she saw and my photos were a mere homeopathic abstract of the genre. I clearly remember seeing her work in Naarden in 1994. Her book 'A hundred summers, a hundred winters' was displayed on the counter of the venue, but I was a poor student and didn't buy it, something I regret to this day...
Even then her work was very popular among my fellow students and my guess is that now it is the same among the current students. I will have to check that, but until then I will give a few pointers of why I think that is the case. Please feel free to comment on my blunt prejudices!
I mean, who doesn't want to travel the world with a small camera, light as a feather and have many sleep-overs in various interesting places and just take pictures!? The romantic notion of travelling and freedom is also very visible in her work, where you see beautiful long, golden sunlight combined with the sharp, short flash of her Olympus mju. It doesn't look like hard work at all! And students like that very much. I don't mean that they don't want to work hard, but it has to look like it's very easily done. That, of course, is a hard lesson to learn: how to photograph in such a way that it looks easy, but is still carefully and, sometimes, hard work?
The whole 'analogue reborn' thing is vibrantly present in the photos of Bertien and I know several students that will find that very appealing. Today it distinguishes the 'everyday digital' photographer from the 'really in to it' photographer. For short: they think it makes them a professional. It's not Instagram baby, it's the real thing!
I think this is far more important than the two pointers above: the work expresses an authentic and sincere way to connect with people. No Facebook, no Skype or other virtual, long distance way of connecting, but real, in your face. I think that is the ultimate value of what the images show us. And I think what students (and of course every human being) are craving today is exactly that: a way of connecting with other human beings in such a way that language, borders and beliefs are no longer a restriction. That you can share knowledge, joy, beauty and grief in such a way that you can catch it in a single image. We are all the same, all over the world. And who doesn't want that?
Robert Philip is a photographer and course leader at the Utrecht School of the Arts.