Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A Tribute to The Men Who Built…

… The Empire State Building

On October 24, 1929 - “Black Thursday” - shares on the New York Stock Exchange tumbled in value. Over four long days the financial world trembled on its foundations, only to collapse on October 29th, pulling with it into the abyss 5,000 banks and 9 millions savings accounts. America found itself in the Great Depression, the most extensive financial debacle in history.

But barely six months after the stock market crash work started on what was to be the tallest building in the world: the Empire State Building. The plans for this office building were drawn up in a time when New York City was experiencing explosive growth. In just the first three decades of the 20th century 18 million immigrants had arrived to seek their fortune in the New World. Of all resources in Manhattan, land is the scarcest. The only way to satisfy the booming demand for housing and offices was to build up rather than out. Rotterdam architect Rem Koolhaas wrote about the building of Manhattan in 1978. His authoritative book quickly acquired cult-status. The central theme in Koolhaas’ book, Delirious New York is what he called ‘the Culture of Congestion”. Koolhaas has long been fascinated by unusual solutions for nearly impossible assignments.

One difference from when the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were built, or the Colossus of Rhodes, not to mention the lighthouse at Alexandria or the pyramids at Gizeh, was that photography was available to memorize its construction as the Empire State Building rose to take its place among the Wonders of the World.

Lewis Hine took on that job. Hine was a passionate photographer who wished to record the human condition. He had done that already when he took pictures of immigrants who arrived on Ellis Island with little more than the clothes on their backs and what they could carry in hampers and bags. He also recorded the gloomy world of lightless cold water flats and filthy yards in which they had to live. His, too, are the pictures that revealed the shameful extent of child labor. These are among the photographic icons of the 20th century.
After these bleak images of life in America, Hine wanted to produce a sign of optimism in the midst of the Great Depression. Even he thought he had served up enough sadness. He wanted to do something positive. In 1930 he was commissioned to document the construction of the Empire State Building. For six months he followed where the high ironworkers walked and recorded his ode to labor as the world’s tallest skyscraper rose, floor by floor. He also recorded human resiliency and faith in a better future.

… De Rotterdam

The fall of the Lehman Brothers merchant bank on September 15, 2008 echoed in a chain reaction throughout the financial world in an international credit crisis. Merrill Lynch was taken over by Bank of America, JP Morgan merged with Chase Bank to survive, and the Dutch government took over the banks Fortis and ABN AMRO.

While the world officially entered recession in 2009, the first pile was driven on Rotterdam’s Wilhelminapier to what would be the largest building in the Netherlands: De Rotterdam. Following its design by OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture), Rem Koolhaas’s architectural firm, a vertical city of three towers 150 meters (492 feet) tall will rise on the bank of river Maas. With 160,000 sq. m. of floor space, this will be the largest building to be constructed in the Netherlands in a single project. Land is scarce in the Netherlands, so this project is being shoehorned onto a lot about the size of a football field along the river. This now vacant land was where the Holland America Line’s pier stood, from which a stream of European emigrants left for Ellis Island between 1873 and 1978. The narrowly confined strip of land presented just the sort of challenge that engages Koolhaas: conceiving an unusual solution to what appears to be an impossible task.

Rotterdam photographer Ruud Sies tracked and recorded construction from the moment the first shovel of dirt was turned. Like Hine, Sies is an optimist. He uses the medium of photography to offer the world some perspective. Sies is also no more strictly a photographer of architecture than was Hine. He is not out to portray the magnitude of the construction project, even if that was the immediate reason. His is more the appreciation for the work of craftsmen, for physical labor. Or, as Hine, himself, wrote: “Cities don’t build themselves, machines cannot make machines, unless [at the] back of them all are the brains and toil of men. We call this the Machine Age. But the more machines we use the more do we need real men to make and direct them.”

Sies’ photos show the rough and ready construction workers in what appears to be a ballet of precisely choreographed dance poses. Taut muscles, focused gaze, nerves well under control. They are a team who, like dancers or athletes after long and intensive practice, have coordinated their moves and rely on each other to be where they are needed.

© Pim Milo, 2012

Monday, June 09, 2014

In the White Room With Black Curtains

Photo © Krijn van Noordwijk, 2014

Krijn van Noordwijk (1958) and I (1947) sit opposite each other in the ‘White Room With Black Curtains’ - art director slash photographer Mart Boudestein’s studio. Heavy rock ‘n’ roll music in the background. The table is made of scaffolding. Its frame a construction of pipes and unions, its top fabricated from roughly planed planks. On it are five white china bowls: one filled with red and white grapes, one with M&Ms, one with strawberries, one with chocolate chip cookies and one with tangerines. I opt for the M&Ms.

I am here with Krijn to have my tattoo photographed. I am not sure that it’s a good idea, being now of an age where you don’t take your clothes off in public anymore. Krijn reassures me. (He is very good at reassuring people, with the help of his deep brown voice and calm grey eyes.)

Krijn is wearing black shoes and corduroy pants (of the French brand Laboureur) with an extra high waist. Black ribs, button fastenings and suspenders. A dark grey waistcoat covers his light grey Jaeger undershirt. A grey flat cap sits on his head. In this outfit he could have been one of those featured in ‘Small Trades’, the series of portraits Irving Penn made of craftsmen in 1950 and 1951. And now that I’ve dropped this distinguished name, more associations follow. Just like Penn, Krijn chooses to limit himself to simply making contact with the sitter, without becoming distracted by the incidental humdrum of the person’s daily life. In ordinary clothes, isolated, in the studio. Without using tricks or adding accessories. The result is a direct dialogue between the photographer and his model captured by a silent witness: the camera. And just like Penn Krijn’s personality evokes an atmosphere of amazement and wonderment, a infectious curiosity which seems hard to resist. (I can’t resist it either.)

I’m wearing crocodile cowboy boots, black pants and a fitted white shirt that stretches across my fat journalist belly like a corset. (I take another handful of M&Ms.) Fortunately my black jacket is wide. The dark red tie once belonged to Krijn’s father. It’s the only tie Krijn owns.

Before Krijn starts working, we need to talk. (Krijn does a lot of talking: the encounter is just as important as the photo itself. It has been known to happen that the conversation becomes so intense that he almost forgets to take the picture.)  Krijn has photographed my tattoo before. For an ad. Krijn would like to know when this was. After thinking about it, I can tell him that it was some eighteen years ago. My tattoo is just under 25 years old. I had it done when I wanted to leave advertising to do something else with my life. Something with photography and writing. In the Volkskrant newspaper of 8 December 2001 Henk Schiffmacher says: “Many people get a tattoo at vulnerable or difficult moments in their lives. […] Tattoos are often acquired in puberty or during a midlife crisis, periods of instability in people’s lives.” And this was also true for me. I had Henk tattoo the image of a roll of Kodak Professional Tri-X 400 ISO 35 mm on my upper arm. On my other arm I wanted to have a fountain pen, a Montblanc Meisterstück 149, but never got around to having it done. I don’t know why. I think I should still do it.

Krijn also made a career switch in his life. In fact, he made several, but he never felt the need to document those steps in tattoos. And considering the many different things he has done, maybe that’s better. He studied to become a painter, became an art director and then a creative director of an advertising agency. He wrote ads, directed commercials, built guitars and made (and still makes) music. He has been a photographer since 2006. Just like me he has never let go of the advertising business. This year alone, he has taken photographs for a number of advertising campaigns, directed a commercial and, as an art director, even contributed ideas for advertising campaigns. As we speak Krijn has just been on the jury of the Art Directors Club Nederland (ADCN). (The ad world seems to be a club that doesn’t let you cancel your membership.)

The first time Krijn documented my tattoo, he had just started ‘Laboratorivm’, a creative hotspot, not unlike Andy Warhol’s Factory, where art and business could flourish side by side. Here Krijn started photographing his own ideas, using the camera to shape what he had in mind. Using the camera as a kind of sketch book. And the photos from that era don’t differ essentially from the ones he makes now. His technique has grown, but the same quest is still there, the same imagery that takes its strength from simplicity.

Krijn tears the left sleeve off of my shirt and then goes at the jacket with a knife. It’s a quality jacket. The knife breaks off. (Note to Mart Boudestein: Don’t forget to add the cost of a new knife to the rent of the studio.) When the sleeves are torn, really torn, and a piece of the jacket’s shoulder has also been cut off, I’m asked to sit on a stool.

The volume of the music is turned up. Jimi Hendrix. I tell Krijn about the new love in my life. An American woman, born in Brooklyn. My kids were afraid that she might be younger than they are. (They know their father.) But, I was able to reassure them. Mical was at Woodstock. She heard and saw Hendrix play ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ live. ”What,” my daughters exclaimed in unison, ”is she that old?”  (There’s no pleasing some people.)

Mical has what she jokingly calls ‘a drunken tattoo’. The type of tattoo you wake up with the morning after without remembering how you got it. Two of my three daughters also have tattoos. Also done at Henk Schiffmacher’s Hanky Panky Tattooing. In this their taste takes after their father’s: simple. Always satisfied with the best.

Krijn also loves simplicity. One light source, with an umbrella, illuminates three quarters of my face. A white reflector screen to the right. A black background. Continuous light, no flash. Krijn considers a flash too noticeable, like the crack of gunfire.

Jimi Hendrix makes way for hip hop. (You can’t win ‘em all.) Krijn is always looking for an image formed by the personality of the sitter. The photo should contain the latter’s essence. Quietly talking he pulls me into a pose he likes. “Turn your head,” he says. “A little bit higher. I want to see your eyes. Your chin up. Make yourself tall. Be a man of the world. Your shoulder forward a bit. Great. Let your arm hang down. A little bit less of the shoulder. Let your other arm hang down, too. Turn your head a bit more towards me.”

In less than 20 minutes the job is done. “I think I’ve got it,” Krijn says. I haven’t felt uncomfortable at all, mesmerised the whole time by Krijn’s calm voice. He uploads the shots to his computer and we view them on the monitor. It will become a stately, almost classical portrait, so much is clear. It doesn’t become a true Krijn van Noordwijk until the postproduction is done. Krijn’s computer is his darkroom. This is where raw material becomes the final image. For Krijn this is just as exciting as the act of photographing itself. He moves from a semi-manufactured to a finished product. In this process he feels like a kid who’s celebrating his birthday tomorrow.

I leave the jacket and the shirt behind in the dressing room, take another handful of M&Ms and go home. One extraordinary experience richer. Tattooed with feelings and impressions in my heart, in the same way that the ink fixes the image on the skin. 

© Pim Milo, 2014

Monday, October 03, 2011

Pim Vuik

Tidal pools

At some point in the ‘80s, Dutch television broadcast a commercial for pizzas starring a young trainee pizza baker. ’This is Mario’, says the head chef, introducing him to the viewers. ‘Iglo’s new pizza specialist. He has to start at the bottom. With the base.’ With none of the humility that one might have expected from a young apprentice, Mario boldly declares: ‘Pizza basea, ees oftena cardboard’. Shocked, the chef stares into the camera. ‘I makea thata basea fantastica crostini’, announces Mario with growing self-confidence. ‘Ifa the basea isa more delicious, wholea pizza isa more delicious’. He offers the chef a bite to taste. Although the chef delivers the poker-faced verdict ‘Not bad’, admiration and envy are written all over his face.

The ambitious Mario prompts spontaneous comparisons with Pim Vuik. He too started at the bottom, working in the dark room of a photography shop, developing and printing negatives. It awoke in him a desire to take up the camera and master it. He registered at the School of Photography and Photonics in The Hague and starting applying what he learned there while still a student. By the time he had set up business as an advertising photographer, Vuik had gained experience in every part of the field, from portraits and weddings to press and travel photography; he had captured images of everything from architecture to sport. In each case, he had started at the bottom and worked his way up. One thing is clear: Pim Vuik won’t allow anyone to put him in a pigeon-hole. Literally as well as figuratively, since he prefers to make his photographs outside. Using the world as his studio.

For one of his own series as an independent artist, Vuik ventured into the vast, snow-covered plains of Spitsbergen, near the North Pole. Where snow and ice end and the sky begins, is scarcely visible with the naked eye. That monotonous vastness resembles a photographic studio surrounded by a panoramic built horizon, a studio like the inside of an eggshell, in which floor, walls and ceiling coalesce in rounded arches. Since there are no corners the studio dissolves into near-invisibility. The effect is one of disorientation. On the one hand, a white space of this kind has a certain familiarity to the photographer, while on the other hand it poses challenge. Maybe that was the root of his fascination with Spitsbergen. A place like a studio, but one of huge proportions. For Vuik, this landscape was a new test, inviting him to push back the limits of his art.

Once this is understood, it makes perfect sense that Pim Vuik has turned his attention to tidal pools. These are pools along rocky coasts, in which a quantity of seawater remains at low tide. At high tide these shallow pools are flooded, while at low tide. The water is trapped in lower-lying areas. Sometimes people build barriers, walls of brick or concrete, or piles of rocks, to stop the water flowing back into the sea, creating a natural pool. Vuik has photographed many of these pools in Australia, Scotland, Portugal, Spain, South Africa and Britain. An intriguing mixture of unspoiled nature and urbanisation, of wilderness and civilisation. Water captured from the sea, which is forcefully recaptured in storms and spring tides. The eternal struggle between humankind and water. The sea that will never be susceptible to coercion. Any more than Vuik will let himself be stuck in a pigeon hole. Vuik’s trademark is unmistakeable: he refuses to accept any limitations. After all, boundaries are there to be crossed.

So Pim Vuik is working on a non-commissioned oeuvre that has gradually grown to embrace the entire planet. ‘Not bad’ for someone who started work in the dark room of a common-or-garden photography shop.

©Pim Milo, 2011

Monday, April 18, 2011

Henze Boekhout

A Life in Bits and Pieces

Seconds First
In his book Seconds First (1993, Fragment Publishers) Henze Boekhout (1947) experimented with associative visual compositions of extremely divergent photographic material. Constructed still lifes effortlessly take their place beside documentary photos shot with a large-format camera and impromptu snapshots from a moving train. The connecting factor is the illusionist trick with flat space and three-dimensional reality, and everyday things around us leading their own life. Connoisseurs consider Seconds First to be as one of the most successful photo books. It should therefore not have been left out of Martin Parr’s and Gerry Badger’s The Photobook. That it was, is undoubtedly due to Boekhout’s modesty. He neglected to bring his book to the attention of the authors.

Yevgeny Khaldei
Khaldei came to fame with his photo of a Russian soldier planting the red Soviet flag on the Reichstag in Berlin in May 1945. Khaldei had carried the flag under his coat from Moscow, no doubt planning to take just such a photo of the conquest of Berlin as Joe Rosenthal’s iconic image Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, taken on the summit of Mount Suribachi, which was made two months earlier. A photo like Khaldei’s is of endless fascination to Henze Boekhout. Always having to be one step ahead of what you’re planning is Boekhout’s motto. He saw Khaldei’s photo for the first time in the German magazine Stern. Could such a photo be real? Yes, it could. Then he heard the story behind it. That was the essence of the thing: a reflection on the context that enables the photographer to go beyond the staging of the photo.

The dining room and kitchen offer Boekhout a view of the back gardens, roofs, terraces and a chimney. Next to that chimney is a sloping surface that was covered in snow last winter. It had the bright reflectivity of a projection screen. Boekhout placed a flash in the side window of this kitchen and lured gulls with bread. He photographed the white surface with his large-format camera, with the gulls fighting for crusts of bread in front of it. The result is an image so razor-sharp that it seems as if the gulls have been edited in afterwards. That’s how Boekhout works. Is that staged photography?

Henze Boekhout is always searching for ways to go further within the circumstances he’s presented with. In the year 2000, he got his first home computer, prompting the questions: how does it work, how can I take it further? In 2005, he purchased his first digital camera. Boekhout doesn’t want to hold on tightly to one method, but to continually take new steps. Never mind about technique – which after all should have nothing more than a supportive function – and heed the advice of Araki: “If you want to change your photographs, you need to change cameras. Changing cameras means that your photographs will change.”

In 1980 Boekhout built a 30x40 camera because he wanted to understand what it was like to make an exposure so extreme that it required a large-format camera. Not so the viewer could see every grain – that was already perfectly possible with a 6x7 camera – but for another reason: the impossibility; the resistance to creating a photo in a very physical way. He wanted to know what the essence was, how he could connect what came from himself to photography. That’s why he built that 30x40 camera – to begin photography afresh. He was influenced by the sculpture and photography of Constantin Brâncuşi; what Brâncuşi sculpted and photographed created a single whole and he worked with an extraordinary eye and feeling.

Boekhout’s content has always been oriented towards visual arts rather than photography as such, which he found less accessible. So he studied the work of Brâncuşi, for whom simplicity in art was not an end in itself, but a pursuance of the true meaning of things by the elimination of all superfluous elements. Boekhout tries to attain perfection by penetrating to the essence.

Bits and pieces
Boekhout’s oeuvre encompasses about 300 photos which he can return to, which he draws on, which contain the bits and pieces that satisfy him. For him, although a photo has value in its own right, it has to have a context; it must be able to function. He is not in search of abstraction. The image must be a place, but also a detail. That is what he means by context. People do not live their lives in the light of major events but in the detail of daily life. Boekhout’s concern is how to make that visible, how it is related to everything else. Call his oeuvre a collection of bits and pieces.

He finds the same type of observation in poetry as well: not the factuality, but the reflection. Boekhout’s photography is not a matter of flexing his muscles. Sometimes it’s just a quick glance: a little fly, a small stream, an insignificant thing. What he is concerned with is finding relationships that are just slightly different. He attempts to give meaning to things by photographing them. He is not a ‘photo-hunter’, but rather someone who handles a camera cautiously; he can easily spend a day walking through the city without taking any photos. Taking photos is the exception; nonetheless, the greatest satisfaction is in recording an image.

Le Nouvel Observateur
As Henze Boekhout doesn’t take an urgent view of things, it’s easy for his work to escape our notice. His photography is uninsistent – not out of a lack of assertiveness, but through a need for contemplation, as in the silence with which he viewed the photo supplements in a French newsmagazine in the late 1970s.

The seven photo supplements published in Le Nouvel Observateur between June 1977 and December 1979 by art director Robert Delpire struck Boekhout like a bolt of lightening. He has always kept them, because of their incomprehensibility: Robert Frank, Josef Koudelka, Guy Bourdin, Diane Arbus. Preposterous. Delpire took every liberty, working with the image associatively. The work of William Eggleston, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lewis Hine was made subordinate to Delpire’s design. For Boekhout those photo supplements in Le Nouvel Observateur were a benchmark. Even after all these years there is still something in them that he can’t quite get a grip on. Delpire broke all the rules – and by doing so created something new.

Twin Towers
Photographing architecture is no simple task. The perspective is always distorted if an ordinary camera is used, but a technical camera with an adjustable back, though usually large and heavy provides a solution. Boekhout is fortunate to have a brother who is an instrument maker who can work from a simple drawing and a short explanation. When Boekhout was invited to New York in 1989, his brother had just finished the Bookwood Wide (Bookwood being the literal English translation of the Dutch name Boekhout).

In New York Boekhout was fascinated by the Twin Towers. He couldn’t understand how structures so beautiful and so incredibly cheeky could have been built in such a city; two immense legs in a city already filled with skyscrapers. Pure beauty or abjectly ugly? Abhorrence or admiration? Bravura or megalomania? Boekhout simply could not comprehend it. On a map of the city he investigated the places from where the World Trade Center could be seen and chose a number of streets from which he could focus on the towers.

After 9/11 Boekhout couldn’t resist publishing his images as a book. In 2007 20 Towers appeared in an edition of just 25, published by Johan Deumens Gallery in Haarlem, an artist’s book now in the collections of libraries in Europe and the US. It is a box containing a leporello book and lift-out pages, with bilingual text and documentation. There are images of the WTC as one large panorama, as well as the story of the Bookwood Wide, delightfully illustrated with close-up images of the camera. It all arose out of a fascination for the Twin Towers, without answering the question of whether they were beautiful or ugly.

When Boekhout was given the assignment to photograph the city of Utrecht, he chose to view the city from such unexpected viewpoints as interiors, office buildings and balconies. He photographed the spectacle of a sports competition at night in the FC Utrecht stadium from a nearby student dormitory and a fire-prevention training session for railway staff from an adjoining office, deliberately making things more complex, in the reverse of the sort of contemporary photography that strips away just about everything. For Boekhout things don’t have to be unambiguous, but they can work as a metaphor. Layering the image – that’s what he likes.

Fighting the good fight
Boekhout’s almost childishly stubborn ‘I-do-what-I-like’ mentality is heart-warming. Genuine enthusiasm is at the core of every project. He is innovative and perceptive, and he has the desire and the willingness to reinvent himself over and over. The philosophy of simply promoting what you love, admire or react to implicitly is what Boekhout recognized in the work of Robert Delpire.

While it does seem that Boekhout’s oeuvre has no concrete subject he takes an entirely consistent view of the world around him. It is dreamy, as well as concrete and very much to-the-point. We see exactly what it is and even so the images come from an in-between land, a universe that is very close to ours. It is not an area of transition such as between two boundaries, but a world with its own merits, and that is accessible to all those who have an eye for it.

© Pim Milo, 2011 for Foam Magazine

Monday, March 07, 2011

(off topic) Bernard Verkaaik

À la recherche du temps perdu
It took thirty years before Bernard Verkaaik (1946) made the jump from commercial arts to Fine Arts. A stretch of time, but not a lost one. For more than a quarter century Bernard worked as an advertising illustrator in which period he perfected his masterful craft and morphed himself into a magic realistic painter, who in a phenomenal technique and hairline brushes put down the most photorealistic scenes in oil on panel. The more he became a master of this, and his own domain, the more his desire grew to lead a life of his own making.

Nowadays Bernard leads a life without deadlines, a life without stress and hurries. Since time seems to stand still, his concentration is focused on classic ‘country’ still lifes, filled with melancholy, which are recognisable by their photographic depiction of textures and lit by a seemingly magical light source. Timeless still lifes that speak of a typical Calvinistic Holland yet painted in France.

And always there is that forceful line of a table’s edge that splits the image in two. A fault line, just as rigid as the caesura in Bernard’s professional life. The top half gives the perspective of a three year old just capable to peek over the top of the table’s edge. The bottom half an intriguing scene of Chiaroscuro. Objective, neutral, as if he were a camera, Bernard looks deep into the being of things. Everything, no matter how unimportant it may seem, is given meaning and essence. A clay pot, stone crocks, a tea towel, mushrooms, apricots, onion, garlic, cherry blossoms, pomegranate, chestnuts or bread. Timeless gifts of the earth, which, with conscientious viewing, all hold a surprising beauty.

© Pim Milo

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Aernout Overbeeke: Ndoto, Tanzania Dream

Aernout Overbeeke: Ndoto, Tanzania Dream
In 1952, a year after Aernout Overbeeke’s birth, his family moved from Utrecht to Rotterdam, where Aernout’s father became editor-in-chief of the local edition of the daily newspaper Het Parool. When the family moved again, this time to Amsterdam in 1963, Aernout had already picked up an unmistakable Rotterdam accent, which put him at a disadvantage vis-a-vis his schoolmates. Although he would eventually acquire standard educated Dutch, he was isolated throughout his entire period at school. Instead of spending his time with his classmates and children from the neighbourhood, he spent all his free time in the Rijksmuseum and the Stedelijk Museum. In those formative years he studied art history on his own. They turned him into an obsessive viewer. Overbeeke left secondary school before completing his education and became a freelance photographer. For almost a year he was an assistant with Ed van der Elsken. Because he enjoyed seducing girls with his camera, he decided to become a fashion photographer.
At the time there was hardly any fashion industry of its own in the Netherlands, and - apart from the trend-setting monthly Avenue - there was little innovation in the fashion photography of the magazines. Overbeeke gradually came to realise that his talent could not flourish here. After the birth of his children - a son Kenzo in 1978 and a daughter Teska in 1980 - he had to change course. The time had come to earn a living.

The book European Photography, edited by Edward Booth-Clibborn, a collection of the best of applied photography, was published in 1981. It was the first in a series of four publications. Those books expressed the trend that was emerging in England at the time to stop advertising looking like advertising. This was the reason why art directors opted for feature photographers, for people who could slowly and meticulously compose their photographs with a large-format camera on 10 x 8 inch negatives. Slow photography was a response to the increasing pace of society. Large-format photographers like Barney Edwards, Denis Waugh, Kenneth Griffiths and Rolph Gobits were brought in to make ads look more like features than advertising.

This form of photography appealed to Overbeeke. He invested all his time and energy in mastering the finesses of this technique. While cameras were becoming more compact and the film emulsions more sensitive - and thus faster - Overbeeke carried a large-format camera on his back and crept under a black cloth to set up that slow, clumsy and archaic camera. The mirror image appears upside down on the matt glass. Overbeeke has proved to be a bohemian, indifferent to the progress of the 21st century.
He showed his new work - carefully composed studies in form and colour - in 1988. He presented his autonomous photographs to Paul Meijer, art director of the GO/Needham
advertising agency. Meijer was impressed and immediately gave Overbeeke a campaign for the Centraal Beheer insurance company. Henny van Varik, creative director of the Akkerman, Meijer and Van Varik agency, gave him a campaign for the Westland/Utrecht Hypotheekbank in the same year. Both campaigns won awards in the Art Directors Club of the Netherlands (ADCN) and Overbeeke’s reputation was made. The mid-1980s were an era of visual flair in advertising, and Overbeeke’s sense of aesthetics was perfectly in tune with the enthusiastic perfectionism of art directors like Béla Stamenkovits, Frans Hettinga, Gerard van der Hart and Hans Goedicke.

Goedicke praised Overbeeke for his unusual compositions, the striking angles that he dared to assume with his camera, and his striving for perfection, his creativity in finding solutions that raise the idea of the art director to a higher plane. On top of that, Overbeeke is unashamedly selfish. He only finds an advertising idea interesting if he can give it a twist of his own. ‘Nice concept,’ he says in talks with the advertising agency, ‘but l’m going to tackle it very differently.’ And if he does not get his wagy, he rejects the commission without pardon. Overbeeke will never become a real advertising photographer; after all, he is not interested in how advertising works. But he is a keen image-maker who can translate the idea of the art director into a breathtakingly perfect photograph with stopping power.

In his search for the ultimate image, Overbeeke does not limit himself to just one camera technique or just one theme. Besides taking large-format photographs (5 x 4 and 10 x 8 inches), he also makes use of medium and panorama format; besides photographing landscapes, he also photographs nature, cars, interiors and people, and makes portraits. He does so for the advertising world, but also for feature magazines (in 1988 he documented the Mississippi from source to estuary with a Linhof 6 x 17 Technorama for Avenue) and personal projects. The only limitation that he stubbornly imposes is his
refusal to go digital. As long as negative material and photographic paper are available -imported by himself if necessary - he will continue to take analog photographs.

He saw potential in a disused orphanage, bought it, and turned the building into a genuine palace, as he was later to do again, but with a castle in the south of Burgundy, where he has lived like a god in France ever since. Imagination, perfectionism and the courage to take up the challenge: those are the three qualities that make Overbeeke a celebrated photographer.

There is interest in his talent abroad too. Aernout Overbeeke travelled through Australia for the Italian furniture firm Cassina in search of locations for the pieces. They were flown in by helicopter and very precisely placed on the designated spot. The contrast between the rugged landscape and the design furniture gives the pictures a Surrealist quality. The campaign is a textbook example of Overbeeke’s extreme perfectionism and the lack of compromise with which he works. A whole month went into the making of six photographs. These were one of the last large-scale photo productions of their kind. The
year was 1991; Photoshop 1.0 had been on the market for a year. The art director who thinks up something like that today has to be satisfied with using a computer to assemble his images from the stock photos available on the internet.

In the meantime Overbeeke continued to look obsessively and to make personal photographs besides his commercial work, even when he was with a client and a dozen crew members in vans on location in California. ‘As a photographer I have a large responsibility and a lot is expected of me. As I drive through America, I see something terribly interesting and want to photograph it. In the past I would not have dared to in a
situation like that. I’m well paid for the job and cannot permit myself to let my attention wander to something else. But now I stop the caravan and say: “Just practising with my finger to see if I can still do it.”’ He does not practise with a compact camera hanging from his neck and ready to shoot, but with a 6 x 9 Alpa camera which requires opening the boot of the car and unpacking the luggage - not snapshot photography but concentrated work. It is curious, because the loner Overbeeke does not like being surrounded by people, but at a moment like that he dares to ignore the peering glances of the people waiting behind him without scruples or nervousness.

At the outset of this new century Overbeeke started on a personal project for which he photographed actors and dancers in his studio, using objects from his large collection of ethnographic objects: masks, weapons and jewellery that he has brought back from his travels in Africa, Australia, Japan and former New Guinea. This project led him to travel to
Tanzania and to document the Masai in their own biotope, driven by the desire to record for posterity a culture that is slowly but irrevocably losing its identity.

Overbeeke’s perfectionism does not stop once he has pressed the shutter. At home he has a darkroom which would make a professional lab jealous. He experiments there with developer and photographic paper. In the past his daughter Teska used to sit beside him on a stool, reading from a children’s book under the yellow lamp. By now she has become a photographer too.

The prints for Ndoto, Tanzania Dream were made by Overbeeke himself on baryta paper using a litho developer. The result is a graphic emulsion with extreme contrasts, maximal density, and a very high degree of sharpness of contour. With developer of this kind, the gamma increases with development time to a maximum and then drops again. The optimal development time is just before this maximum is reached. It is essentially a procedure intended for pure black-and-white work. If the paper is exposed beforehand, a very beautiful grey tint is produced that is just as long or short as Overbeeke wants, depending on the exposure time. It is a completely controllable process in which Overbeeke remains master of the material - just as he keeps everything under control to achieve perfection.

© Pim Milo, 2010

Monday, November 08, 2010

Aernout Overbeeke

Portraits of Cobra artists

On 8 November 1948, in the Parisian café Notre Dame, Asger Jorn, Joseph Noiret, Christian Dotremont, Constant, Corneille and Karel Appel signed the manifesto “La cause était entendue”. The Cobra movement was born.

Dotremont, Mogens Balle, Henry Heerup, Jorn, Lucebert, Jan Nieuwenhuys, Anton Rooskens, Theo Wolvecamp, Jean Michel Atlan and Jacques Doucet did not live to experience the opening of the Cobra Museum on 8 November 1995 in Amstelveen (the Netherlands). But for all the others - founders and former members of the movement - the few days of opening festivities were a warm reunion from which only Appel was missing.

Photographer Aernout Overbeeke had set up a temporary studio in the museum depot, and director Leo Duppen ushered in those Cobra painters present. There, they stood suddenly face to face with Overbeeke: a distinguished-looking man, dressed in corduroy trousers and Harris Tweed rather than torn jeans and a tee-shirt; brogues instead of trainers; and with a strikingly loud voice with the accent of leafy Aerdenhout. That is one aspect of sitting for your portrait: the man behind the camera.

One of the principal impossibilities - and therefor a major challenge - of photography is to record someone’s character in a fraction of a second.
For the painting Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995) - which fetched 2.17 million euros at a Christie’s auction in New York in May 2008 - Sue Tilley posed for Lucian Freud two or three days a week for nine whole months. Every Saturday and Sunday and any other day she did not have to work. Tilley arrived at the studio at seven in the morning, as Freud wanted to catch the early morning light. After having breakfast together, they worked on until lunchtime, after which they continued through the afternoon. Day after day, layer after layer a painter brushed time onto the canvas, slowly encapsulating the onward-ticking clock. Photography captures an moment in time; painting congeals time.

Against a white backdrop, Overbeeke had constructed a kind of tent where the Cobra artists would take their place one after another. A rather stuffy, black tent to ensure that one side of the head would remain dark. The camera was placed three meters away. That is unusually far for portrait photography. The distance makes a world of difference. Photographer and model are not in one another’s territory. There is hardly any contact. The person sitting for his portrait can stretch his legs without knocking over a tripod and without fear of the photographer tripping over them. At the same time, he is left to his own devices, which leads to contemplation.
Painters do not like to pose; they prefer to withdraw from the view of the world by hiding behind their medium. The painter in self-imposed isolation behind his easel; the photographer behind his camera.
So there they sat, ill at ease in Amstelveen, in a small black tent, alone with themselves and Overbeeke’s inquisitive eye. A slightly ironic, haughty eye, but that of someone who can observe very, very precisely.

Overbeeke wanted to get the hands in the frame. Along with the eyes, they constitute the artist’s most important tool, and they became the leitmotif running through the series of portraits. That was it: hardly any direction was given; they just took it as it came. The artist sat three metres from the photographer, coming to terms with the situation, trying to conquer his mistrust and perhaps, too, wrestling with the discomfort of the moment and perhaps also the aversion to having his portrait taken or being the centre of attention, and the photographer just let it happen.

That “laissez faire, laissez passer” is what makes these portraits so special and made the sittings in the Cobra Museum such an exciting photo session. The whole thing never took more than ten minutes. Click. Wind. Click. Wind. Click. Just the amount of time needed to recharge the flashes.

When the pictures were ready, each subject was given two prints with the request to adapt them by adding something from his own hand.

That must have been a remarkable process, adding something to your own portrait. You make yourself, as artist, complete, as it were, uniting yourself with your work, with your style of working. That demands a mature attitude in respect of who you are and what you have done with your life. Something like that requires both distance from and empathy with yourself. Cobra artist Constant had the most difficulty with the task. It took him three years to complete his photograph.

The result is a unique series of portraits. A first, in fact. Portrait photography and painting: a snapshot in time and congealed time in one.

© Pim Milo, 2010