News — Dec 1, 2019

29 February until 9 August 2020 - update: this exhibition has been prolonged until Sept 20, 2020!

Bertien van Manen, 'Eva, Sasha and Alosha'. Shachunia, 1993
Bertien van Manen, 'Eva, Sasha and Alosha'. Shachunia, 1993

Next spring, the Stedelijk Museum pays a unique tribute to an icon of documentary photography, the Dutch photographer Bertien van Manen (The Hague, 1942). Although her work has been collected for decades by museums like the Stedelijk, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Metropolitan Museum Tokyo, this will be the first major survey of her oeuvre in the world. In close liaison with Van Manen, the exhibition will combine each of her series with the work of another photographer, fourteen in total, including Nan Goldin, Boris Mikhailov and Rineke Dijkstra. This provides a counterpoint to Van Manen’s work, granting a broader context, emphasis, contrast or counterbalance.

Bertien van Manen, 'Tao in her Dormitory - Fudan University', Shanghai, 1998
Bertien van Manen, 'Tao in her Dormitory - Fudan University', Shanghai, 1998

Bertien van Manen started her career as a fashion photographer, but Robert Frank's photo book The Americans (1958) inspired her to concentrate on her own projects, taking a spontaneous, unforced approach. She made lengthy, repeated trips to the Appalachians in the US, the former Soviet Union and China. The collection of the Stedelijk Museum holds over 80 photos from various projects, including the generous donation that Van Manen made in 2013 from her series Lets Sit Down Before We Go, Give Me Your Image and Vrouwen te Gast.

Van Manen's work is rooted in classic (social) photo reportage in serious of straightforward black and white which, up until the 1980s, was an important genre. Gradually, she evolved a personal, poetic form of colour photography that reveals her enduring, highly personal relationships with her subjects. The common thread running through the exhibition is the various series that Van Manen has produced since the 1970s, from her autobiographical work and the first series in Budapest in the 1970s, the black and white series about female migrant workers and nuns in the 1980s, the stories about Russian and Chinese people coping with changes in society in the 1990s, her series documenting other people’s family photos at the start of this century, to the sensitive (landscape) photos taken after losing her husband in 2010.

Boris Mikhailov, 'Charkov', 1998
Boris Mikhailov, 'Charkov', 1998

The exhibition is structured visually and thematically rather than chronologically and features a total of 11 series by Bertien van Manen. Her work is shown in dialogue with photographers who, like Van Manen, often find their subjects in their immediate environment, and return to them repeatedly over prolonged periods of time.
An example of one such pairing is the series A Hundred Summers, A Hundred Winters, the work that Van Manen made in the USSR in the early nineties, which is contrasted with a work from the series Case History by Ukrainian photographer Boris Mikhailov. Where Van Manen's work is empathetic and warm, Mikhailov’s sequence of staged images confronts us with the harrowing reality of the underbelly of Soviet society.

The other photographers presented with reference to the work of Bertien van Manen are Chris Killip (Douglas, Isle of Man, 1946), who documented the impact of deindustrialisation in England between 1973 and 1985; Jitka Hanzlova (Náchod, Czech Republic, 1958), who looks back with love and nostalgia at the village she left; Josef Koudelka (Boskovice, Czech Republic, 1938), who chronicled Roma communities in Europe; the abovementioned Robert Frank (Zurich, 1924, NY 2019); Nan Goldin (Washington, 1953), including an intimate and heartfelt ode to her flamboyant friend the artist Cookie Mueller; Wout Berger (Ridderkerk, 1941) with hyper-detailed images of nature; Seiichi Furuya (Izu, Japan, 1950) who spent years photographing his spouse who took her life in 1985; Guido Guidi (Cesena, Italy, 1941), who captures poetic images of his surroundings with a superb eye for light and mood; Rineke Dijkstra with one of her disarming Beach Portraits; Rahima Gambo (Abuja, Nigeria, 1986) with a painfully cheerful video of girls who resume school life after their kidnapping by Boko Haram; Newsha Tavakolian (Tehran, 1981), who tells the story of Iranian women forbidden to sing in public in silent video images; Stephen Gill (Bristol, UK, 1971), with photographs of animal behaviour, based equally on concept and fortuity; Martin McGagh (Donegal, Ireland, 1980), with a series about boys on the brink of manhood set against the backdrop of Irish suburbia.

The exhibition is counterbalanced by Imperial Courts (2017) the film installation by the Dutch photographer Dana Lixenberg (Amsterdam, 1964).

Nan Goldin, 'Cookie and Millie in the Girl's Room at the Mudd Club'. NYC 1979
Nan Goldin, 'Cookie and Millie in the Girl's Room at the Mudd Club'. NYC 1979

In 1958, the Stedelijk Museum was one of the first museums of modern art in the world that took photography seriously as a fully-fledged art medium, and now has a photo collection of international stature. Documentary photography plays a vital role in our collection.
The nature of documentary photography raises questions and sparks debate. The word ‘documentary’ is itself a complex and highly-charged concept that is tied to the great names in the history of photography, yet also carries a negative connotation when applied to photographs that don’t convey an intrinsic visual or personal vision.

Lately, one question in particular crops up time after time: what is the position of the (documentary) photographer in relation to his subject, with what right and with what intention does he record ‘the other’? What is the balance of power—who has the right to portray who? These topical questions place documentary photography, even work created years ago, within a critical framework. When it comes to ‘authorship’, Bertien van Manen plays with the concept of maker by passing her camera around and encouraging her ‘subjects’ to take photos too. She also incorporates other people’s family photos in one of her series, thus blurring the identity of the sender.
Besides highlighting the oeuvre of one of the most important photographers in the Netherlands, the survey also provides a timely opportunity to talk about these and other questions in a Sunday Seminar while the exhibition is on view.

The exhibition contains the film Bertien van Manen Photographer, a new edit of the film Siberian Diary - Days at Apanas that Michael Pilz made in 1994 in Siberia.

The presentation is part of Stedelijk Turns, an exhibition programme that examines and interprets the collection of the Stedelijk Museum from a contemporary perspective.