Bertien van Manen, Moonshine, Annet Gelink Gallery.
Until August 14, a series of striking works by Bertien van Manen will be exhibited in Annet Gelink Gallery — her first solo exhibition at the gallery. Her “Moonshine” series covers a thirty-year relationship between the photographer and an American couple and their immediate environment.
Bertien van Manen, Mabel and Allen, Cumberland, 1988, Annet Gelink Gallery.
Living in a trailer in rural Kentucky near the Appalachians, Mavis and Junior are a tangible part of a large group of poor, white Americans from red states who feel unrepresented by metropolitan politics. They’ve often enjoyed little education, they live in trailers and they generally don’t benefit from economic growth or technological progress. At the same time, they are ridiculed and mocked as being 'hillbillies', 'rednecks' or 'trailer trash’, effectively reducing them to a caricature. Other people may call them ‘moonshiners’, a reference to the people who secretly make their own spirits. It's a landscape where populist politicians like Trump could take advantage of ignorance and deep-seated discontent — while he offered them a golden future and promised to fight for them. Instead, he only made rich people richer by offering them tax benefits. Van Manen truly shows her strength here, by showing us a series of intensely human portraits, reinforced by the fact that she recorded these people over a period of 28 years (1985 - 2013), while living with them for longer periods of time. That way, she gets close to the skin and shows the people behind the caricatures.
Bertien van Manen, Justin, Amanda, Megin, Chet, Cumberland, Kentucky, 1987,
Annet Gelink Gallery.
Bertien van Manen truly needs no introduction. The 79-year-old photographer has been active for over forty years and is known for her intimate, honest and detailed portraits, in which she captures the everyday lives of normal people. Her work has been included in important museum collections, including those of the MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum, the SFMoMA, the Stedelijk, the Rijksmuseum and the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. She originally started her career as a photographer for Dutch fashion magazines, until a photographer friend showed her the famous book The Americans by Robert Frank. Van Manen is immediately captivated by the unpolished portrayal of the life of regular people in post-war America and instantly decides to change careers. She starts out by shooting in black and white, a legacy of classic social documentary photography, but gradually begins to shoot in colour, making her personal style even more apparent.
Bertien van Manen, Allen in front of window, Tennessee, 2007, Annet Gelink Gallery.
In addition to the Appalachian region in Kentucky, Van Manen also spent a lot of time in the former Soviet Union and China. Russia fascinated her immensely, partly because she had relatives there on her grandfather's side. In 1988, at the age of 46, she travels to a Ukrainian mining village with an English journalist, on behalf of a communist newspaper. Yet she is unable to capture real families from the area. When she asks for it, she is presented with an idealised, fabricated family in folklore clothing and braids, surrounded by shiny ripe regional products. She feels that this is not the raw reality of a poor, communist country and stops a car in the street with the request to take her to a working-class neighborhood. But the people, weighed down by a controlling dictatorial regime, did not yet dare to expose their true selves to her. From 1989, Gorbachev's Perestroika policy provided more opportunities to experience Russian hospitality. Because she really gets to know her subjects, she can often penetrate deeply into their lives, in order to capture their essence, making the photos unpolished, informal and personal. It is also an interesting period politically, a country in the midst of a political turnaround. This also applies to China, a country that she visited fourteen times between 1997 and 2000. In that series, she focuses on the increasing Western influence.
Van Manen is genuinely interested in people and that is reflected in the photos that she takes. Capturing a raw, honest reality is of greater importance to her than applying technical feats. She prefers small, analog and fully automatic cameras that fit into her pocket and stay unnoticed. However, the work can be quite dangerous. Van Manen: “I have photographed in war zones where I was never truly afraid, even though the bullets would literally fly by. Naively, I felt like the camera was protecting me. In the Appalachians, it was more difficult, sometimes even terrifying. You meet very raw people. To avoid the risk of being shot, you had to proceed with caution. Never show your camera, approach reluctantly. I had the advantage of being a woman so I wouldn’t appear too aggressive with that small camera. I really had to overcome some fear, especially for those huge pit bulls of theirs. But in the end I wanted to see how far I could go. I thought: they can't grind me down."
In Annet Gelink Gallery, you can view both vintage and recent prints from the series. The exhibition 'Moonshine' will be on show in Annet Gelink Gallery until 14 August.