16 September 2021
16 September 2021 - Written by Colin Pantall
In Archive, Bertien van Manen details her journey through life in words and pictures. From convent schools and sexual assault to immersion in mining communities and her journeys across Russia and China, Archive documents the shifts in van Manen’s self and photographic practice over the last 50 years.
I always remember seeing Bertien van Manen’s East Wind West Wind for the first time; it shows pictures from her time in China and had pictures of women who stared into the camera and questioned it. Sometimes it was a put-it-away kind of look, sometimes it was a this-is-me kind of look, sometimes it was a fuck-you kind of look, sometimes it was just puzzled or confused. My favorite was the woman on the beach with the blue rubber ring. It looks like a snapshot, the harsh flash lighting her sunscreen bleached face, the blueness of the sky rippling into the rubber ring the woman is holding. But then you see her face, the furrowed brow, the eyebrows tensed into a straight line, her lipstick-red mouth half-open but seemingly unnerved by the proximity of van Manen’s lens.
There’s a closeness about the picture, an intimacy almost, but also an anxiety, a recognized awkwardness of what it means to represent something. It is almost as if that awkwardness is part of the work, that when you get close to people it’s the awkward edges that become visible, the times when somebody stops being polite and allows their skepticism to shine through, allows them to be the difficult person that they are. And the making of East Wind West Wind was difficult. It took time for van Manen to find suitable access to make her pictures; there were language barriers, photographic barriers, historical barriers.
The barriers are almost tangible in some places (the woman in blue who stares directly into the camera against a backdrop of a battleship grey functional door), but in others van Manen’s being there gives us views that are everyday but somehow unfamiliar; the woman eating a slice of watermelon over a plaster-stained red bucket, the tired travelers on the back seat of a minibus, the spreading of limbs and nodding of heads in situations where arms, legs, hands, and dress all seem to matter.
Archive covers the breadth of van Manen’s career and also serves as a biography and a catalog of her numerous books. There are her wonderful images of Dutch family life (which would get you banned on Instagram), pictures that are filled with love, affection, and an energy that comes from childhood itself, there are pictures of miners from Appalachia and Ukraine (her father was a miner and in much of her work, she sought that connection), and there are images from her harvesting of family photographs from around the world.
The images are interspersed with stories about photography, about love, about growing up. It’s direct and it’s difficult. The difficulty matters. She describes arriving at a Dutch convent school in the depths of a Second World War winter. “Lying face down on the hard spring mattress, my little bed creaks when I sin. Entering with armfuls of clean laundry, she catches me unawares, her icy gaze filled with threats of death and death. Commit a sin and he’ll come after you in the dark of night, the roar of airplanes, bombers, sirens.”
She talks about the harshness of life, of Rob Kroos getting his head stuck in a “…dog’s snarling maw, lips curled, fangs bared.” Next paragraph and Kroos is one of four boys who “…stop in front of me… Grab my arms, kick my wooden sandals out of the way and march me, barefoot, over the scalding gritty tarmac towards a clump of trees. Down, flat on my back. Knickers downin. Jamming my legs wide open, they stare, Each one in turn.” Van Manen grows up and so do her photographs. They move from classically composed photojournalism, wonderful images of Budapest subways and street scenes, to the more relaxed, more stream-of-consciousness colour worlds of One Hundred Winters and East Wind West Wind, finally winding up in the dream-like vistas of 21st century Ireland in her book Moonshine.
All photos from the book Archive by Bertien van Manen
Archive by Bertien van Manen
Published by Mack Books in July 2021
OTA bound paperback with jacket // 21.5 x 28 cm // 384 pages
Colin Pantall is a photographer, writer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His latest book, All Quiet on the Home Front, focuses on family, fatherhood and the landscape. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.