A Life in Bits and Pieces
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.
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.
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