Let’s sit down before we go: a collection of memories by Bertien van Manen

It has now been over twenty years since Dutch photographer Bertien van Manen (1942) last visited the remote regions of the former Soviet Union, from which stems her most recent collection. Let’s sit down before we go (2011), features photographs taken by Van Manen during her extensive travels throughout Russia, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Tatarstan, Siberia, Georgia, and the Ukraine throughout 1991 – 2009.
Immediately, it is clear – her photos are quite intimate. They portray the daily lives of the inhabitants with whom Van Manen came to know personally, having lived with the individuals she had encountered on her travels, while learning their language, and often becoming quite close friends. Her work successfully retains the sublime quality of intimacy staged by oddity. It makes it even more compelling that the subjects of her photos are rarely aware, or even bothered, by the presence of the camera.

What is most beguiling about her humanistic approach and technique is that all of her photos are taken with a simple, analogue camera, “allowing me to work spontaneously and less intimidating for the people I photograph”. These cameras are found scattered throughout the house, and anyone is free to use it, thus blurring the line between photographer and subject, and confirming her natural openness to collaborative production. As a result of using the analogue camera, the wistful effect of the photo is reinforced by a soft palette of colors, setting aside all modern application of technology often used for alteration.

With these images, we have a unique perspective on the mundane events in the lives of these ordinary citizens – what they eat, where they sleep, how they spend their time. This prompts the viewer to reflect on their own private life juxtaposed by the nature of the images. How is it different from what we know, the formalities we have grown to understand and accept? Are they really so different? And why does Bertien van Manen find it so fascinating to display these personal moments to the average intruder?

Perhaps it has something to do with the title of the exhibition, referring to an old Russian custom: before leaving for a long journey, take a moment to reflect on where you come from, think about where you will be going, and most importantly, why. Whilst reflecting upon her extensive journeys in the east, Van Manen, together with English photographer Stephen Gill, sorted through over 15,000 negatives. She was surprised to find how little had changed over the past twenty years in these remote ‘small-town’ areas; it was as if time had stood still.

It is likely that each image has a significant, if not sentimental, nostalgia for van Manen. For the outside viewer, it is difficult to grasp the various oddities of each photo. Questions such as, why is the boy sprawled across the top of the dresser? may come to mind. It is not up to the artist to quench our curiosity, but instead it is meant to encourage us to question what makes something appear odd in the first place.

She does not direct the staging of the photograph; she simply encounters it, and then follows by capturing the moment. Her keen eye for pattern, clutter and layering is a resounding result of her personal mantra: “Never take a picture of what strikes you at first.”

Let’s sit down before we go (2010) is Bertien van Manen’s most recent photo book, elaborating on her current solo exhibit at the FOAM Fotografie Museum in Amsterdam, featuring select images which have never previously been on show before. If you do have the opportunity to visit, it will be featured until the 24th of June, 2012.

Works Cited & Further Reading
Van Manen, Bertien. Let’s sit down before we go. Mack: London. 2011.

This article was originally published on 24 April 2012 by The Genteel.