Experimental Photography

Analogue applications are increasingly marginalised in a digital climate that sees images everywhere; in such a context the value of fine art photography is continuously questioned.

For centuries Dutch art has held a very specific place in the canon. It’s a recognisable style – pure, pared down and distinct from the more ostentatious styles of southern Europe. Dedicated to the recognition and celebration of contemporary Dutch photography, The Rediscovery of the World at Huis Marseille, Amsterdam, pinpoints key elements of the continuing tradition, and very distinctive style, of Dutch photographers.

In a world that is saturated with visual imagery, much of it user-generated, the question of photography’s place in fine art resurfaces and becomes ever more pertinent. When we have access to digital cameras, iPhones and the internet, and can disseminate images worldwide in a matter of seconds, how can fine art photographers differentiate themselves from all of this global noise? Curated by Nanda van den Berg, Senior Curator at Huis Marseille, the exhibition focuses on artists’ exposition of the world through the lens, and the tactile, sensual, very real nature of experiments in photography today.

For van den Berg, the works on show are worlds away from our visual culture of instagrammed culinary one-upmanship and endless “selfies.” She says: “The [photographers] selected for this exhibition use photography as an artistic medium in which they deliberately create works that become more than just fleeting images.” Although not all of the photographers are working in traditional film, it’s the focus on the photograph as a physical object, and the preoccupation with the actual processes of developing the work that bind them together, she explains: “The artists show a great deal of care and pay significant attention to the way images are printed, with several of them preferring analogue printing techniques in order to emphasise the importance of materiality.”

While the potential in digital photography for experimentation and manipulation is manifold, The Rediscovery of the World  shows more innovation and experimentation through film itself, van den Berg comments: “These photographers do not manipulate the images, so it is a comprehension of the processes of the world that is important to them. It’s expressly not their intention to fabricate anything; it’s very much about the rediscovery of the world. They are working with their art, skills and observations; moreover they are doing it in a groundbreaking way.” In doing so, the photographers are taken away from the photoshopping and manipulation to which we have all become so accustomed. In turn, van den Berg has recognised a new collaboration of the camera with nature itself: “Many of them are making photographs in a different manner – in a sort of magical way, and as a result, are recording phenomena in nature.”

While the physical attributes of camera and film are embraced, and the more commonplace elements of digital alteration are shunned, van den Berg emphasises: “For me, the exhibition’s focus is not only on photographers who are working in an analogue manner, because that’s not the case, but they are all photographers who use the camera as a medium: a device to explore the given circumstances of the world. They point the camera to the larger things and to their imagination.” It’s an attitude that she’s noted not just in Dutch photography, but in photographers working across the world: “In June, I visited Art Basel and the Venice Biennale, and I noticed similarities in the spirit, exploratory creativity and artistic production on display. It’s not so much delving into the self in making photographs or taking self portraits, but it’s more about capturing what is out there – the artists are asking: ‘How can I understand that and also how can I, through my imagination, create the very special effects that a camera can produce through a photograph?’ They are all doing this but in unique and individual ways.”

In this manner of curating film-based processes alongside digital ones, van den Berg unintentionally opens a discussion between the old and the new, and, while the exhibition is dedicated to photography – “because we are a photography museum and we wanted our re-opening to celebrate it” – the video artist Emma van der Put (b. 1988) has been specially commissioned to create four short video clips for the show that demonstrate the fluidity between forms and subject. Van de Berg says: “I found her contemplation and concentration of the wider world aligned perfectly with the other artists regardless of the media.”

The initial idea for the exhibition stemmed from van den Berg’s regular visits to various artists’ studios to familiarise herself with the practices and creative processes of photographers working in the Netherlands today. While van den Berg was familiar with established Dutch artists with a large and mature body of work (from curating multiple large-scale solo shows at Huis Marseille), she “also needed to get to know the people who were under that radar; who had a sure hand and a distinctive style.” During these studio visits, an underlying theme emerged, highlighting a very definite, almost surrealist, interrogation of the world through the medium of photography, and an experimentation of the form and its physical qualities: “All of a sudden I had this idea that there was something going on, something I could not at first put my finger on, a kind of new surrealism … [the photographers] were very playful with imagery, apparition and discovery; this is something that we haven’t really seen since the 1930s.” Van den Berg describes this common theme as “a new variation on the surrealist spirit”, and recognised its potential to “show this cutting-edge photography as a medium in its own right.” The surrealist photographs of Paul Nougé (1895-1967) (featured in the exhibition) proved to be the catalyst. Somewhere between René Magritte and Roger Ballen, Nougé darkened worlds to explore the inner realms of the subconscious by posing objects and people in a sort of fantasy funhouse: “The photographs were playing out scenarios, like the birth of an object.” Van den Berg explains that the medium was imperative to the work: “It was not about making imagery, it was about questioning reality. That is why he took up this device, which took me further [into] photography as some kind of instrument that you can use to give you the truth of our surroundings – the truth in so much as our world exists in terms of colours, light, shade and reflections.”

Van den Berg recognised a collection of artists “who are, very much in their own manner, enjoying the fact that photography is an artistic medium that has endless possibilities of continued development and experimentation,” such as Simon van Til’s (b. 1985) methods using slow exposure to create the mystical blue hues of his night photography. “It’s kind of a rebirth of photography, [like it used to be], in an exploratory and passionate way. All of the photographers that I selected for the exhibition did it in their own and very different way, but together they all celebrate the form.”

For van den Berg, the process of studio visits and keeping a continued awareness of the current practice and projects of contemporary photographers was integral to the successful selection of such a vast number of works: “Because of the studio visits, I was very much on top of what they were working on at the time. If you do the research in another way, through books and exhibitions, and make a show from that starting point, it’s different from when you go to the actual locations where the artists are working because then you automatically come across their latest project and decide that’s exactly what you need.” In this manner, van den Berg was able to persuade artists to participate by exhibiting works that might surprise their public, such as the pieces from Viviane Sassen (b. 1972), best known for her work in colour, who is “replicating a colourful scene in black and white, making it a very graphic image,” and furthering the spirit of experimentation with photography by working outside her comfort zone.

The exhibition is the largest at Huis Marseille to date and spans the museum’s new identity across two (rather than one) canal houses in Amsterdam, taking on the jumbled architecture of multiple floors, stairs and passageways to create a dozen exhibition spaces, each devoted to an individual artist. Van den Berg refers to the thematic discussion of the works under categories such as the inward and outward gaze, the quality of colour, passion and experiment. These are underlying themes that run throughout the individual artists’ works, she says, however: “The selection of participating photographers came first, because although they were different, they all create in the same vein, best described as an apparition – a way of seeing things differently through the medium of photography, and having the ability to get other people to see things in a new way by showing them how they  see it.”

As such, while the focus on the world itself and photography as an art form is perpetual, the subject matter for each photographer varies greatly. Eddo Hartmann (b. 1973), in the first room, revisits the rooms of his violent father’s abandoned home (where Hartmann spent the early years of his childhood) and uncovers the preserved furniture and children’s paraphernalia of his youth. These “strange and wild photographs of his old house” became a coping mechanism for the artist “to come to terms with his memory, and served as a way for him to understand his past. The camera was a way to explore and comprehend it.”
In rediscovering his childhood home, unchanged since his unhappy time there, Hartmann explores themes of memory and loss, while making the emotions and strains of childhood manifest by preserving them on film. He highlights how, as well as examining the nature of photography today, the exhibition “explores more general themes of who and what we are.”

As Hartmann’s work surveys the inner self and is utilised as a way to accept his past, the more conceptual pieces of Simon van Til analyse the slowly evolving beauty of nature: “The reflection of the sun on the moon and the portrait of the night, showing the larger story, the fact of the physical aspects of the world and what he records.” Van Til’s works are somewhere between portraits, landscapes and imagined pictures of the world because they are impossible to capture and create with the naked eye. Due to the slow exposure, van Til creates a narrative between the camera and the sky, and highlights the unrivalled contribution that photography makes to this narrative. Alongside van Til’s work, Juul Kraijer (b. 1970) creates surrealist scenarios and “makes beautiful and completely creative images that are only possible in her mind, and could be anywhere and don’t have a place.” Simultaneously organic and surreal, Kraijer’s work questions the natural and the staged, extending this to the real and the imagined. Through this curation, juxtaposing the wider natural world and interior imagined scenarios, “the public story and the personal narrative” are perpetually intertwined across the two galleries.

In the quieter works and still lifes of artists such as Elspeth Diederix, Popel Coumou, Hellen van Meene and Maurice Scheltens (b. 1972), a distinctly Dutch identity emerges. This measured contemplation of the real and the everyday feels familiar but takes on a new guise under the artists’ experimentations, further cementing their compulsion to redefine what it means to create. Scheltens provides a study in colour by portraying eyeshadow palettes in extreme close-up, and creates a surprising physical exploration in crafting pieces that are “incredibly sharp and refined.” His microphotography of denim creates a sort of epic landscape out of the everyday: “You actually see that colour as a reflection because it jumps from the way [the photographs] are registered.” Meanwhile, Coumou’s (b. 1978) beautiful clay sculptures are photographed in such saturated hues that they become “a feast of colour,” defying the muted tones and careful light so often associated with Dutch art, and celebrating the texture and colour of the ceramics themselves, even though they are manmade.

Van den Berg argues: “For a long time Dutch photography was characterised by techniques that captured a specific light or the way that Dutch portraiture is very strong, and this exhibition rejects that and presents a new identity.” However, despite its exploratory tone, the works are rooted in their country’s tradition and form a wonderful celebration of the tactile, experimental and organic situation of Dutch photography today. Van den Berg concludes: “It’s a Dutch exhibition, but it’s very difficult to put a finger on why it’s so Dutch.”

The Rediscovery of the World  runs from 7 September until 14 December at Huis Marseille, Amsterdam. www.huismarseille.nl.

Ruby Beesley