Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Bertien Van Manen's Give Me Your Image

For three years while traveling in Europe, Bertien Van Manen took photographs of photographs. The resulting work has been published in a small book by Steidl called Give Me Your Image.

What I mean by photographs of photographs is that she made small still-life style images of family photos as they are commonly displayed in households. Using color film and apparent on-camera flash, she describes the photographs and the objects surrounding them. The photographs she photographed range from the very old to the very recent.

The form of the photographs (Van Manen’s) doesn’t vary greatly throughout all of the work. For the most part, the photo that is photographed winds up in or very near the center of the picture and the remaining details of furniture or other décor fills and falls out of the rest of the frame.

I was initially seduced by this work but after repeated viewings I’ve started to find it lacking for a few reasons. First and the most obvious is that, in most of these photographs, it is the photo in the picture that is most interesting. Van Manen often fails to make a more interesting image out of what she is looking at. I may have mentioned this before but a photograph must be more interesting than what was photographed. If that element (the photograph) is removed from these images then we aren’t left with much. It is not the form of these photographs that will carry the weight when the object isn’t interesting to us anymore.

The objects themselves are interesting though. Several are old black and white images of soldiers or loved ones from different eras. Photographs like these are inherently interesting to look upon as they transport us into the past and inform us as to what things looked like. They are windows to history. I believe they are interesting to us by default. She also utilizes another tool of seduction, the use of color. Red curtains or walls that are entirely green have a tone and richness that excite the eye.

She frames the objects directly but with the camera often tilted in ways that, if one were to read into it, mimic natural abstracted human sight. If it weren’t for the artificial sense of light from the flash, these images may mirror what a person would see looking over someone’s belongings on a bookshelf. The flash negates this sense and we are just aware of the photographer’s self conscious direction of attention.

What is interesting is where the photographs in these pictures are displayed and what that implies to the viewer. Some photos are placed among other objects on a shelf and thus have the sense of a constant but perhaps often neglected companion. Others are placed in such odd places simply because that is where they can be easily and most often accessed by sight. Those images take on an immediacy that others do not. This is an interesting fact at play in some of these photographs. The problem is that we have 68 of them where the 20 most interesting and formally accomplished photographs would suffice.

The book itself has a nice trim size and is well printed but the design is problematic. The images are bled to the page edge and all that are horizontal run across the gutter. As I mentioned before, the images she is photographing fall often directly in the center of the frame so we are robbed of a clear and unobstructed view of them. There are many verticals in the book that are pared with a second vertical on the facing page that resemble one another in terms of color palette. It creates the sense of them all being of horizontal. The funny thing is that once you realize this, you also realize that the individual page ratio is not the same as the ratio for a vertical 35mm image. So 15% to 20% of each of those images has been cropped off in the design. I guess one could say that it is a blessing that these are center heavy images with little of importance near the edges.

These documents of personal histories are important. We use photography to hold onto images of loved ones. And these photos often make up the abbreviated histories of those individuals since often there is no written record. Abbreviated in that they show how the people looked on birthdays, first communions, weddings or any other “important” day when the camera is brought out. This is one aspect of why this work by Bertien Van Manen exists. Memory is a strong aspect of our lives. Our family albums are full of important and fascinating history.

Though, in my opinion, that is where the “real” art is held, in those albums. I just don’t think that Bertien has added much to that fact.

Book Available Here