The Genteel
April 22, 2021


Unseen Photo Fair Amsterdam

In late September, the first edition of the Unseen Photo Fair Amsterdam featured an international spectrum of undiscovered photographic talent and previously unseen works of established photographers. First-time buyer Alma Omerovic visited the fair on its final day, where professional buyer and curator Marijke van der Heijden shared a few valuable tricks of the art trade from her personal lens of experience. 

Unseen attracted approximately 22,000 visitors, buyers, art collectors and trade professionals, both local and international, over five festive days in the Dutch capital last month. More than 50 major galleries from around the world participated in the inaugural edition, featuring a strong mix of European and non-European participants. The fair was hosted at Amsterdam's Westergasfabriek, a former gasworks site that dates back to 1885. The large 19th century buildings feature exhibition spaces, bars and restaurants and are surrounded by the luscious greenery of Westerpark. 

According to FOAM (Fotographiemuseum Amsterdam), one of the fair's main organisers, Unseen exceeded the expectations of organisers, gallerists and collectors and gallery response to the fair has been "extremely positive." Gallery m97 from Shangai commented that, "Unseen is encouraging things that are not typical for an art fair," giving galleries a "chance to bring [photos] that are surprising, fresh, new and just finished."

Art should puzzle me, make me wonder what is happening; it should delight me, not in the sense of Miss Universe beauty, but with the impact of a twist; and it should teach me something, about the world, about myself.

A couple of notable exhibits were specifically directed towards new collectors. According to Unseen's website, "Unseen not only inspires the seasoned collector but also nurtures the passion of an entirely new audience," encouraging first-time buyers to take the plunge into contemporary photography. The modestly priced Unseen Collection displayed more than 80 photographic works within an outdoor glass structure facing the canal, all for under 1,000 Euros.

Another sought-after exhibit Fashion! Photographs from the Camera Work Collection tracked nine decades of fashion photography through the works of names including Paolo Roversi, Irving Penn and Helmut Newton. Camera Work is in possession of one of the world's largest collections of photographic work, and while Man Ray's experimental approach to photography reeled me in, the exhibit on the whole was not as impressive as I had hoped. Most of the work was smaller-scale with a few rare colour snapshots. 

With Amsterdam's fruitful art scene, it's not surprising that such a large number of international contributors attended, integrating creativity, innovation and mercantile spirit into the fair experience. The Stedelijk, Amsterdam's contemporary art museum founded in 1874 and boasting a collection of more than 90,000 design objects and art works, added to the festival spirit thanks to its much anticipated reopening after an eye-catching white bathtub-inspired extension.

The Genteel spoke with Marijke van der Heijden, professional collector and curator, on the craft of collecting art and the experience it takes to master the techniques. According to van der Heijden, we can expect it to take a lifetime. 

Unseen Photo Fair Amsterdam
Photograph courtesy of Alma Omerovic.

Alma Omerovic: What sort of criteria do you refer to when purchasing art? Has that changed as you've gained more experience? 

Marijke van der Heijden: I make a distinction between collecting privately and buying for a company. Similar for private and organisational [collecting] is that you have to make a choice whether purchases will have to fit or communicate with earlier purchases or not. In the private case, it is one of my aims, and at the same time I can always decide to start a new and fresh collection. For a company, I will aim more directly at a form of continuity, or at least, a shared context. 

Then the issue of criteria - that is a far from easy. I do have criteria, and when I am together with colleagues or professionals, we more or less agree upon them. But, are they like research criteria? No, they are not. Art should puzzle me, make me wonder what is happening; it should delight me, not in the sense of Miss Universe beauty, but with the impact of a twist, and it should teach me something, about the world, about myself. These three are classical principles for arts, poetry etc.: docere, delectare and movere. [It means] teach, give delight and move. 

I watch for new work by artists I know and at the same time I keep my eyes open for young/new artists. Originality stands for re-using old themes in a new way. For the artists known to me, I want to recognise them in their work. They can go for new outsides but I have to feel the connection to their former work, not necessarily in form but in spirit. 

AO: Among the emerging, young talent we have seen at Unseen, which artists were you most intrigued by and why? 

MVDH: It is never one artist that "grabs" me. I was interested in [Dutch photographer] Popel Coumou from Torch Gallery, who is relatively young (1978). Also in Johan Nieuwenhuize (1980) from Van Kranendonk [Gallery] and in Misha de Ridder (1971) from Juliètte Jongma [Gallery]. But there must be several others; there was so much to see. 

AO: This event was very special for Amsterdam, as it was the first edition of "unseen work in photography." Has it done well at targeting its audience of buyers? 

MVDH: I don't know if Unseen did a good job. I bought some small works by a young artist who I have been following for some time now. I think there were possibilities for young buyers but I wonder if they know how to look. 

You have to learn to look and see. There are aspects of art that you have to acquire, experience helps you to look for the differences that matter. It does not mean at all that you cannot enjoy art before you understand it. It means that there is something more or deeper than enjoying.

Art is made by artists, people who earn their money doing so and/or who studied at an art school. But besides that, it is important that art should be good art, not necessarily unintelligible, unclear, or just pleasing to the eye. And, not every artist is able to produce good art. 

 [Eadweard] Muybridge may have been very influential, Magnum war photographers, Eva Besnyö, Man Ray or Cindy Sherman? You simply cannot compare pears and apples.

AO: What is your opinion on the escalating trend of "street style" photography (such as the work of Scott Schuman of The Sartorialist)? Can this contemporary form of art be compared to the likes of Man Ray and other big names in the field? 

MVDH: I do not think them comparable but it [is] very hard to say exactly why not. There is, to my mind, a huge difference between Man Ray's experimental - in image as well as in technique - approach and Schuman's pseudo-casual street work. Perhaps it is simply too difficult to see the comparison because of my knowledge. Schuman is a good photographer, but is he an artist in the way Man Ray was? 

AO: Who is the most influential photographer, in your opinion?

MVDH: [Eadweard] Muybridge may have been very influential, Magnum war photographers, Eva Besnyö, Man Ray or Cindy Sherman? You simply cannot compare pears and apples. My favourite photographers at the moment are Charlotte Dumas (1977) with her animals that evoke so many thoughts and sentiments and Hiroshi Sugimoto. He is far from young (1948), but his pictures are a mystery. He made almost underwater seascapes out of fashion on real models, and a lot of other things that stay intriguing.

That is the most important criteria: art should stay intriguing, even when it feels familiar to you after many years. There should always be something that keeps you puzzled.



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