Saturday, November 03, 2007

Han Singels

Into the farmlands

In 2000, photographer Han Singels (1942) bought a moped. He rode it through the polders, sometimes taking his fishing rod with him. But what’s bred in the bone will never come out of the flesh, and so the rod was replaced with two cameras: both 6x7. One had a 50-millimetre, the other an 80-millimetre lens. There’s nothing a photographer likes better than to use the summer months to do his own thing.

Slowly but surely, doing his own thing grew into documenting cows in the Dutch landscape. Singels worked inside a radius of forty kilometres around Amsterdam. But he also visited the large rivers and the river fore-lands. Rain was not shunned, which resulted in beautiful pictures of cattle sheltering under trees. While others would have spent their money on parts and accessories for their new moped – to make it faster, more attractive or more comfortable – Singels invested in a new bookcase: he scoured antiquarian book shops in his hunt for books about art, cows and the landscape. That resulted in a wealth of knowledge, especially about landscape painters from the Golden Age.
Jacob van Ruysdael’s landscapes are more poetic, stately and dramatic than in real life. In fact, they are largely imaginary. Ruysdael’s most famous work, The Jewish Cemetery (1655-1660), is meticulously composed. All that can be traced back to reality are the gravestones from the Jewish cemetery in Amsterdam. As a landscape photographer, Singels is unable to take these liberties since he works in analogue form. Neither is the trick of working with both a ‘wide angle’ and a ‘telephoto lens’ in one single image available to him: the painter, on the other hand, first lay on his stomach in the grass so that he could paint everything in the foreground from a low vantage point. Then, standing upright, he raised the horizon. He painted everything in the background from that perspective. This enabled him to transcend photographic reproduction.

Holy cow
There’s a lot of commotion going on in the Dutch farming industry: European regulations, milk quotas, manure management, the consequences of a changing climate, economies of scale and the attempt to find new sources of income for farmers. There is no trace of these changes in Han Singels’ photography. On the contrary, it is surprising to see that the farmlands probably look exactly like the farmlands we are accustomed to seeing in the paintings of Van Goyen, Potter and Van Ruysdael. Agricultural policy, which strives to give land back to nature, is apparently beginning to bear fruit. Livestock is also becoming more varied. In addition to Frisian, there are also Belgian Blue, Blonde and Piedmontese cows.
The Dutch man-made landscape is incredibly dull without cows. Singels’ way of photographing cattle should therefore be seen as a vindication, in the same way that the Dutch Masters used to make lively reproductions of windmills. Incidentally, a cow is a thankful subject, with its horizontal and vertical lines – pictorial elements that enable the photographer to maintain visual control. Singels uses the same compositional and stylistic devices employed in painting, which Jan van Goyen and Annibale Carracci learned from Giorgione and the Venetian painters. The secret to reproducing a landscape lies in the parallel lines transacted by a triangle.

Han Singels plays a game with geometry, without resorting to technical devices. He creates depth and sectional planes and introduces elements into the picture in order to create a sense of background space. And in doing so, he makes exciting use of vertical objects, such as trees and pylons. The image looks the same way that a landscape is perceived from a dike in the polder. Normal and matter-of-course. Modern objects like UMTS antennas and high-voltage cables are deliberately omitted, unless they can add an attractive visual aspect or accentuate the space.
Singels wasn’t attempting to emulate painting. His work remains photography, with the camera in the hands of a documentary photographer. Singels: 'I’ve taken trips to farmlands on many occasions, and on some days I returned with as few as two photographs. You go somewhere and wait for things to happen. Sometimes you have to wait an entire day. And sometimes passers-by tell you you’ve just missed a herd of cows wading across river fore-lands in the most beautiful light.’

© Pim Milo, 2007 - GUP Magazine

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Ruud Sies

It's Spring and I'm Blind
Due to their homeless status it is quite difficult to determine with any amount of certainty the precise number of homeless people in the United States. Various surveys as to the exact numbers involved have been conducted over the years. Most of them are dated, or based on outdated facts. According to the most reliable estimate, the number of people in the United States having to deal with homelessness in one year amounts to approximately 3,5 million persons. (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 2004)

Many of them live on the streets, strategically positioned at busy locations, i.e. the entrances and exits of subways or stations, at tourist attractions and in large shopping malls. By means of handwritten appeals for help they draw attention to their deplorable circumstances. In doing so they hope to change the indifference of the hurried passers-by into compassion which may subsequently be converted into a generous gift.

It is the same four-stage rocket – the Aida-formula – through which the advertising trade targets our wallets: Attention, Interest, Desire, Action.

Before Ruud Sies (1957) devoted himself once again entirely to photography he worked in advertising as an art director for over twenty years. That explains his special interest in the messages American homeless people employ to showcase themselves. During his 12-month tour of America he aimed his camera at this elementary way of advertising with a mixture of compassion and professional curiosity.

Sies took close-up photographs of the homeless in sober black and white. Only the hands holding the signs are shown. If they are not covered by gloves or mittens they turn out to be the only photographic elements in the images that reveal anything about race, age or sex. The persons themselves remain in the background. We see a segment of sidewalk, now and then some personal belongings or a dog. Due to the lack of recognizable faces everyone is anonymous. Man or woman, young or old, black or white, all those determining factors are left aside. The statistics will no doubt be able to reveal more in this respect. According to a survey conducted in 2005 – at the instigation of the US Conference of Mayors – the American homeless population consists for 43 % of men and for 17 % of single women; the remaining percentage being taken up by minors. Of these 49 % are Afro-American, 35 % Caucasian, 13 % Latin-American, 2 % are Native American and 1 % is Asian. Of the total number of homeless people 11 % are war veterans.

Through personal messages the homeless vie for attention. A basic, instinctive form of communication to which common laws of advertising nevertheless apply. Ruud Sies is not the first or only person in advertising to take a personal interest in these texts, as will be borne out by the following apocryphal anecdote about a copywriter who effectively adapted a text.

One day a blind beggar was seen to be sitting in his accustomed place in the street with the text “I’m blind” placed in full view. Passers-by hurried to their offices or home without paying much attention to him. Now and then somebody dropped some change. At a certain moment a copywriter who passed the beggar daily addressed him and asked if he might add something to the text. Permission was granted and three more words were duly added. From then on coins started pouring in. Three words made all the difference. After the copywriter’s addition the text said:
“It’s spring, and I’m blind.”

In effective communication it always boils down to catchy texts. Bill Bernbach, one of the founders of advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach, responsible for the best advertising campaign of the 20th Century ("Think Small" for Volkswagen Beetle), said: "The truth isn't the truth until people believe you, and they can't believe you if they don't know what you're saying, and they can't know what you're saying if they don't listen to you, and they won't listen to you if you're not interesting, and you won't be interesting unless you say things imaginatively, originally, freshly."

© Pim Milo

Friday, September 07, 2007

Juul Hondius

Look closely, what you see is not what you’re seeing at all
The photos of Juul Hondius (1970) have something in common with the annual World Press Photo competition. Its jury attempts to select winning entries that symbolise what has moved us the most in the past year. A photo that doesn’t so much reveal as summarise, and whose suggestive power appeals to our collective memory and our empathy. The complexities and contradictions of real life.

They are often pictures with blurred backgrounds. Blurred because a telephoto lens was used, or because of fog, smoke or dust. Sometimes the compositions resemble classic paintings, with no need for background. And human beings are always the central feature. These are the elements of a picture that Hondius most likes to work with. It’s not just a search for ambiguity, but also for the iconographic resonance of the photographed image. In New York, Guatemala, Aman, Bangkok, Tokyo and Moscow, he took portraits of anonymous travellers in buses, trams, subways, trains, planes and boats, always with a window in the background. The result was a series of pictures whose emphasis - travelling people - makes them particularly suggestive. From this vantage point, things seem to be the same everywhere: everyone is withdrawn into their own little world. Travellers can be commuters, but they can also be illegal immigrants, (political) refugees, asylum seekers. Our eyes are inadvertently conditioned to register a politically charged image. Hondius renders his subjects with particular clarity, so much so that we can effortlessly project ourselves into their situations. The picture’s artlessness leaves room for suggestions. So much so, that it is visually appealing. The expression, use of light and composition are acute and pointed.

A fundamental experiment
Using the visual rhetoric of film, photojournalism and documentary photography, Hondius encroaches on a Weltanschauung of security, harmony and unity. His mysterious choice of subject turns out to be an invigorating approach that is impossible to subsume under one common denominator. Moreover, his interest in fundamental experiments gains in strength and credibility due to the highly deliberate staging of the pictures.
When Hondius was an exchange student at Karlov University in Prague (1994-1995), he hung, as an act of provocation, portraits in the city that he had taken of Roma gypsies, carrying texts such as ‘Born guilty?’ and ‘Tolerance?’ When indignant people sullied and tore up the portraits, Hondius completed the project photographing the portraits again.

The ability to stage
Hondius’ work is difficult to place: it doesn’t fit into any genre of photography. The objects and individuals he portrays initially seem commonplace and recognisable, but their context remains ambiguous: where, when and why were these photos taken? The captions don’t leave us any the wiser either. This lack of information endows the photos with a peculiar kind of menace, as if they were part of a world that refuses to divulge its meaning and therefore remains uncontrollable. While this emphasises that photographs are only able to function in the news media because an explicit content is given to them by captions and articles, is also points out that many images have, as it were, inherent captions. By using highly coded elements from previous photography and film, they forge a seemingly natural link between visual rhetoric and written rhetoric.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Jacqueline Hassink

Born in the Netherlands, Jacqueline Hassink (1966) has mapped the economic globalization of our society in a precise, almost scientific way in a mixture of documentary photography and conceptual art.
In her first project, The Table of Power (1993-'95), Hassink photographed the boardroom tables of Europe's forty largest multinational corporations. The tables were photographed devoid of people. Participating multinationals were asked to fill in a questionnaire about these tables, and the artist supplemented these with drawings of the table settings and information about the corporations. The project therefore consisted not only of impeccable photographs of the tables in question, but also information about the enterprises, such as turnover figures and the industrial sector in which the companies operate. Hassink's photos of boardroom tables bring us into the heart of those places where nameless and faceless individuals make decisions that effect us all. They are places of prestige and consequence, all of which are reinforced by the high-quality furniture, often valuable and custom-made.

Black page

Using Fortune magazine's list of the 500 most important companies in the world, Hassink approached Europe's top 40. Only 21 of them agreed to have their boardroom tables photographed. The 19 that denied access received a double-spread, black page with a footnote explaining their refusal. The pages pose the provocative question of what they have to hide there. The book was published in passport format, symbolic of Hassink's access into the world of major industrial multinationals. Table of Power prompted Female Power Stations: Queen Bees, a project which looks at more than just corporate boardroom tables, but stays within the realm of powerful decision-making. Here Hassink's research is framed by gender. She contacted women who chair large corporate boards and proceeded to photograph their boardroom tables at work, as well as their dining tables at home. In photographic diptychs, she placed rooms where the mores of power rule next to rooms dominated by the social codes of the private domain.

Queen Bees in turn led to another project, entitled Mindscapes, in which Hassink investigates the boundaries between the private and the public domain in both Japan and the United States. She uses relatively small but extremely telling examples of personal identity in the corporate world. To convey the complexity of the subject, Mindscapes consists of six projects: 100 CEOs- 10 Rooms, Personal Coffee Cups, Cubicles, Training Center for Salary Men, The Shoe Project and VIP Fitting Rooms.


Starting 17 November 2007, Hassink will be exhibiting in the Dutch Photography Museum in Rotterdam and almost simultaneously (starting 1 December) in Huis Marseille in Amsterdam. In Rotterdam, Table of Power will be exhibited in full for the first time in the Netherlands. The exhibition will also be on display in the Cohen Amador Gallery in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, while the Jeu de Paume in Paris has also expressed interest. To commemorate all this, Chris Boot will publish The Power Book, an overview of all Hassink's work since 1993.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Bert Sissingh

The Cornerstone of Society

Like many of his generation, Bert Sissingh (1956, Rotterdam) grew up in an era when one didn't talk about the past. In post-war Dutch society, everyone was trying to pick up their lives again and contribute to the country's reconstruction. Sissingh's parents were about forty years old when their children were born. As if the age difference wasn't enough of a gap, the fact that the older generation was fearfully silent about the war made this gap nearly unbridgeable.

Sissingh works in series. His first series - The End of History - dates from 1996-99. He took the first photo for that project while a photography student at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy. We see Bert in his parent's living room. His father is reading the paper, his mother a book. No one is talking. Young Sissingh has a pile of books jammed between his hands and chin. They are nineteen volumes of The Kingdom of the Netherlands in the Second World War, a series of 29 books. Those nearly 15.000 pages make the gap between him and his parents even more palpable. The message is clear: Bert is going to have to find out about the past himself. In the next series - The Family of Man (2002-03) - that Sissingh produces following the death of his mother, we see the father posing for his son while the latter works on a sculpture. The sculpture is Ossip Zadkine's City without a Heart, a memorial to the bombardment of the Rotterdam city centre by the Germans in 1940. The memorial depicts an agonized, mutilated giant whose abstracted limbs bend and quake, suggesting the extremes of inner torment and physical pain. In the last series - Living in the Past (2006) - Bert is a father himself. He is reading to his son from one of the volumes of The Kingdom of the Netherlands in the Second World War while his wife sews Stars of David on clothing.

Apparently the war is a burden that must be passed on to the children, even for a generation that didn't experience the war itself. The photographed situations and events always have a socio-historical context. Beneath that, Sissingh's work contains layers of psychology, mythology and biblical connotations. In the first series, made while Bert's mother was still alive, we see references to the Oedipus complex: while doing the dishes, the son teasingly pulls his mother's apron strings loose. Moreover, father and son are constantly competing for the mother's favour.

When mother passed away, the father moved to a service flat in Groningen. The furniture makes the journey too, so that the fifties atmosphere that characterized the first series remains intact. The mother is sorely missed. Father and son spend most of their time in pyjamas and seem rarely leave the house anymore. Bert Sissingh's girlfriend, Sjoukje Boersma is no longer involved, apart from one exception (Zadkine's sculpture), in order to leave the intimacy between father and son undisturbed. The intimacy is tangible.

The most recent series is suffused with the spirit of the fifties: the family as cornerstone of society. They are family photos in black and white with Bert playing the leading part. Meticulously staged tableaux vivants. The woman is played by Katja Payens; Sjoukje Boersma is co-author and the photos are partly taken by Awoiska van der Molen. The mother is dead and the father is no longer participating, moving Bert a generation forward. Earnestness and irony compete for a place in the spotlight in the sometimes hilarious photos. The viewer is once again actively involved in the reconstruction of a both personal and universal life story.

© Pim Milo, 2007

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Ellen von Unwerth

Boys & Girls

In 1994, British streets and motorways were overlooked by huge billboards showing a pair of breasts bulging voluptuously over a black satin bra. The titillating image was completed by a model’s pair of eyes looking provocatively at passers-by. The headline was just as unsettling: “Hello boys.”

Lingerie shops were raided by masses of shoppers and it took fewer hours than the number of words the headline before all push-up bra’s in all of England were sold out. The more liberated of the female population were outraged by this shameless form of ‘sexploitation’, but were shocked into silence when it became apparent that the campaign for the revolutionary bra was photographed by a woman, Ellen von Unwerth. A traitor in their midst!

A woman behind the camera will have a different effect on women than a man. Whereas between a male photographer and a female model, sexual tension tends to arise, two women will more easily build a bond of trust, creating a relaxed mood in which the model surrenders herself more easily.
One can see this in the photos that Eve Arnold took of Marilyn Monroe. In the case of Von Unwerth, this principle applies even more. As a former model, she knew exactly what it is like to pose for a camera.

Von Unwerth’s working method is light-footed and casual, and so are her photos, which are regularly out of focus or blurred. Her loose approach brings about an atmosphere that allows models to relax and leaves room for spontaneity. A lot of her work comes about when the official photo session is over and she and her models playfully carry on a little in their own time.

On the face of it, Von Unwerth’s work seems a continuation of the style of the 1980s, combining fashion and eroticism in the spirit of Helmut Newton. But upon closer consideration, a different component comes to the surface: a cheeky nonchalance, which she supplements with humour and irony. Her unsettling and enticing images are more comical than vulgar, but never respectable. Playful, coy – and most of all sexy.

© Pim Milo, 2007