The Genteel
September 29, 2020


Vachtan Rusland. Photograph courtesy of FOAM Amsterdam.
Pjotr and his family.
Photograph courtesy of FOAM Amsterdam.

It's been over twenty years since Dutch photographer Bertien van Manen first visited the remote regions of the former Soviet Union, where she captured the photographs in her most recent collection, Let's sit down before we go (2011). The book features the intimate photographs taken by Van Manen during her extensive travels throughout Russia, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Tatarstan, Siberia, Georgia and Ukraine from 1991 - 2009.

The intimacy of van Manen's photographs is immediately clear. They portray the daily lives of the inhabitants whom she came to know personally, having lived with the people she encountered on her travels, learning their language and often forming close friendships. Her work successfully retains the sublime quality of intimacy staged by oddity. Even more compelling is that her subjects are rarely aware, let alone bothered, by the presence of the camera.

...[analog] cameras are found scattered throughout the homes of the people she stays with, and anyone is free to use them, thus blurring the line between photographer and subject...

What is most beguiling about her humanistic approach and technique is that all of her photos are taken with a simple, analogue camera, "allowing me to work spontaneously and [it's] less intimidating for the people I photograph," she explains in Let's sit down.

These cameras are found scattered throughout the homes of the people she stays with, and anyone is free to use them, thus blurring the line between photographer and subject, and confirming her natural openness to collaborative production. As a result of using the analogue camera, the wistful effect of the photograph is reinforced by a soft palette of colours, setting aside all modern application of technology often used for alteration.

Van Manen's images give a unique perspective on the mundane events in the lives of ordinary citizens - what they eat, where they sleep, how they spend their time. They prompt the viewer to reflect on their own private life juxtaposed by the nature of the images. How is it different from what we know, the formalities we have grown to understand and accept? Are they really so different? And why does van Manen find it so fascinating to display these personal moments to the average intruder? Perhaps it has something to do with the title of the collection, which refers to an old Russian custom: before leaving for a long journey, take a moment to reflect on where you come from, think about where you will be going, and most importantly, why.

Whilst reflecting upon her extensive journeys in the east, Van Manen, together with British photographer Stephen Gill, sorted through over 15,000 negatives. She was surprised to find how little had changed over the past twenty years in these remote "small-town" areas; it was as if time had stood still.

Vlada in the kitchen.
Photograph courtesy of FOAM Amsterdam.

It is likely that each image has a significant, if not sentimental, nostalgia for van Manen. For the outside viewer, it is difficult to grasp the various oddities of each photo. Questions such as, "Why is the boy sprawled across the top of the dresser?" may come to mind. It is not up to the artist to quench our curiosity, but instead to encourage us to question what makes something appear odd in the first place. She does not direct the staging of the photograph; she simply encounters it, and then follows by capturing the moment. Her keen eye for pattern, clutter and layering is a resounding result of her personal mantra: "Never take a picture of what strikes you at first."

Let's sit down before we go elaborates on her current solo exhibit at the FOAM Fotografie Museum in Amsterdam. The exhibit shows until the June 24, 2012.



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