I attended Unseen Amsterdam last Friday and the visited the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam on Saturday.
From the Unseen Amsterdam programme:
“Welcome to the seventh edition of Unseen Amsterdam, the leading annual event for contemporary photography showcasing artist, both emerging and established, who are pushing the boundaries of the medium.”
Perhaps I am a philistine, but I must admit to finding much of what I saw on exhibit unintelligible and frankly trope ridden. If this was meant to be artists pushing the boundaries of the medium there were certainly many pushing in the same directions. There were a number of different photographers that obscured the faces of their subjects with masks, others that photographed the backs of people’s heads, several who put things over the heads of their subjects, super unnaturally coloured photos, and the last trope, drawing random lines over the photo for no apparent reason. While the quality of the work was of a very high standard and some of it visually pleasing, a great deal of it struck me as people trying to be different by resorting to gimmicks. I found that work to be unappealing to my eye and tiresome after seeing the same tropes over and over.
If I were to make a generalised statement of my impression of Unseen it would be that it was a good art show, but not so good a photography exhibit. Yes there were photographic elements in all the work, but there seemed to be such a focus on the artistic that the fundamental beauty and nature of photography is lost. Bill Jay in Occam’s Razor wrote “I am sure you will agree the contemporary photographer is easily seduced, even obsessed, by the love of Art, which emphasizes personal glorification at the expense of artisan functionalism. The logical conclusion is a hierarchical structure even within the photographic community – fine artist at the apex of the pyramid, artisans at the base. In such an atmosphere festers neurotic insecurity and false pride, as well as an alienation from the medium’s intrinsic characteristics that have made it the most relevant social art of our age. I view with concern the empty genuflections associated with Art’s blessing.”
What I did find useful and interesting at Unseen were the different ways photos were mounted and or framed and displayed in the exhibit, and even more interesting and useful the book section of Unseen. I spent a good bit of time wandering around the book section looking at the different ways artists had their work published and collecting cards from various publishers and graphic designers. Although here also I found some trends repeating, such as the accordion book which I thought in some cases was very appropriate to the subject and in some others not so much. Nevertheless, I was able to see a much broader range of photobooks than anywhere I have ever been and certainly more than I have access to in the remote village of Dornoch in the north of Scotland.
In contrast, my visit to Nederlands Fotomuseum was brilliant. A special exhibition of the work of Cas Oorthuys was on exhibit.
One of the most renowned 20th century Dutch photographers, Oorthuys’ work was very much influenced by the avant-garde and Bauhaus movements with high and low perspectives and compositions along diagonal lines.
His wartime work, much of which had to be made covertly with 35mm cameras provided important documentation of the German occupation and the last year of the WWII.
His post war work earned him a reputation as a “reconstructionist photographer” as he documented the rebuilding of Rotterdam and Dutch industry.
He was the lead photographer in the creation and publication of travel books for over 40 countries and took commissions to capture images of all the different traditional regional dress of Holland in the time before modern influence caused much of it to disappear.
Among his last works was the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam exhibition “mensen people” in 1969 which was a collection of 120 photographs depicting people in all their behaviours and emotions but emphasised laughter and its liberating quality.
I was struck and inspired first by the the breadth of Oorthuys’ work and then by the quality in every genre in which he worked. He was able to capture the soul of individuals in his portraiture, the souls of cities and nations in the cultural, architectural and industrial work. I have in the past never allowed myself to be restricted to a particular genre and in seeing how splendidly versatile Oorthuys was, I have to ask myself why is it necessary to specialise or restrict oneself to a particular genre.
Again Bill Jay from Occam’s Razor; “The crucial question is this: What relationship does a personal life have on an individual’s photographs – and vice versa.” “The answer, …life and art should have everything to do with each other. In practice, as I view the medium of art photography, from my outsider position, art and life have very little connection.” “A photograph is the end product of someone caring about something ‘out there’. The best photographs exude this caring attitude in a manner which is not definable but which is very evident.” “If a photographer is communicating a personal passion for something, anything through pictures then the images are also revealing, incidentally, a great deal about the photographer as well as the subject. His or her attitude to life is evident.” Cas Oorthuys’ passion for his subjects was evident and his work was in no way diminished by his wide range of subject matter over time. So it is possible to be versatile and diverse in one’s practise as long as there is true interest, passion and connection with the subjects.
Jay, B. (n.d.). Occam’s Razor: An Outside-In View of Contemporary Photography (Third). Tucson, AZ: Nazraeli Press.
Note: Apologies for the quality of some of the photos as they were taken quickly with a mobile phone under less than ideal conditions and primarily as a set of visual notes for me to remember key aspects of the exhibit.