We (Fw:) were curious how young photographers use the medium ofa book to tell their story. We made an inventory that grew into an traveling exhibition. This is the first time we showed it: at the Nederlands Fotomuseum (Dutch Photographic Museum) in Rotterdam. On the basis of forty-some publications, the exhibition Pages reveal how the younger generation of photographers in The Netherlands is reshaping this apparently traditional medium. A large proportion of the publications are characterised by the fact that they are being brought out by the photographers themselves. But commercial publishers are also swimming along with the dynamics surrounding the photo book, as can be seen from the selection of young talent in their stock lists. Also a few photo magazines are presented that function as an important platform for young Dutch photographers.
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Books? Books!
text written for the publication Fw:7 Pages which was part of the exhibition Pages

Recent years a large number of photo books have appeared. One can confidently speak of a snowball effect, in which it seems that everyone wants to make their own book. One important cause of this avalanche is the fact that today everyone can make their own book rather simply. Layout software, scanners and printers have such a low threshold in terms of user-friendliness and price that they are within everyone’s reach. Most art academies and courses in photography have made in the recent past the step over to digital workstations, including the instruction that goes with them. Partly because of this, the photo book is frequently chosen as a medium of presentation for graduation projects, in the form of a laserprinted edition, but also a printed publication of 500 copies is no longer an exception. The aspiration to distinguish oneself by means of
a publication is quite strong. Photographers want to be seen; without a book you don’t count. This development – by no means limited to academies – has also its down side. In the proliferation of publications, many also bear witness to haste, impatience and a lack of healthy self-critique. Not every story has to be told in book form, and not every portfolio (in an edition of 1000 copies) has to be released to the public in the first year of working as a photographer. These publications can also turn against the photographer. Only a properly produced publication – the real need for which has been thought through, and which is not just a way of getting one’s name out – will find its way seriously outside of the photographer’s own private circle.

The selection in Pages focuses on publications that have come out in The Netherlands in recent years, which are initiated by the photographers themselves. In such cases the urge to tell a story is apparent. This can take the form of a photographic portrait, a novel in pictures, or the rearrangement of found images. But a collection of texts can also be a form for bringing that story before the public. No distinction was made in the selection between books that were self-published and those which reached the market through a publisher. Nor did the design of the publication play any role.

The exact criteria that were employed in making the selection are not easy to pin down. The process involved a mix of criteria. Attempts to reduce it to ‘self-published books,’ or ‘books by a new generation of photographers,’ or ‘books with the photographer as their subject,’ all failed, because they always made a formal and uninteresting factor, like age or method of publishing, the key. Furthermore, a concept like ‘new generation’ is difficult to define. It doesn’t have so much to do with age – but then, what does it have to do with? Unofficially, we defined this generation for a long time as the ‘Foam-3H-generation’. That proved to be a reasonably good catch-all. In large part because the selection wich is made by the Fotomuseum Amsterdam (Foam) for the presentations on its third floor does not put the accent on age. It is an experimental place, where you often find photographers who are not yet signed on with an agency or gallery, so that they have a strong need for the podium that Foam in this case offers. A self-published book is a perfect answer to this need, too, since the authors of such books can not call on existing channels for distribution, and face the threat of being overlooked. For us, it very quickly became clear that it is precisely such books that need to be brought in from the cold and be seen.
At that point we encountered a problem. How could we find these books? Using our own network, and through specialised book stores and reviews, it proved fairly simple to put together a core. Then the work began, for which patience, recommendations by third parties and sheer chance appeared to be important. The chance discoveries immediately emphasised the impossibility of the search. If you just stumble across something by accident, that also means there is apparently more to be found, but it is difficult to determine how much, or where. Alas, we are certain that there are gems which we have missed.
      Other publications which we can not show are those which are still in progress. We spoke with various photographers who were in the midst of the process of making a publication. Because we thought that these publications – when finished – could have found a place in our selection, we have included the names of the photographers in this publication. [1]

We did not intend Pages to be an exhibition of the ’best-designed photo books’. There are already such exhibitions. In assembling these selections, the design of the book, and thus the designer, generally plays an express role. The author and the subject are of secondary importance. The content is generally used only to categorise the book. Of course, a well-made book is an ideal form for what it represents, but, no matter how well written, you don’t often find a book with traditional, modest design there.
      Our selection focuses on precisely the opposite: the story is front and centre, and the design is irrelevant. This does not imply that all the books we selected were eyesores; as said above, sometimes quality of content and design go hand in hand. The book Mist by Niels Stomps is a good example of that, but also On the Game by Rob Philip, Kerkdorp/Polderdorp by Andrea Stultiëns, and many other titles that we included in our selection are exceptionally well designed. Sometimes we had personal reservations when, for instance, a misplaced hard cover had been wrapped around a booklet, but in general it was very easy to get beyond this first, superficial glance. It is precisely the absence of design that characterises the power of many of these books. There is something urgent and personal, sometimes even something naïve about them. Something that says this was a story that the book’s maker didn’t want to entrust to somebody else, but wanted to do it all themselve. This gives some books precisely a ‘Johan van der Keuken immediacy’; [2] there is nothing between the subject of the photograph and the viewer. No camouflage of design, no innovation; just the story – in a book put together with care and respect.

What strikes one about the publications selected is the position of the photographer with regard to the subject. There is generally a direct (and strongly personal) link with that which is photographed. Because of the clear bond of trust between photographer and subject, whether that is a person or a place, this often produces unique and very valuable insights. Take, for instance, Staphorst, by Karine Versluis. Because the photographer grew up in the town, she can provide a view from the inside. That is almost impossible for an outsider – and certainly one with a camera.

These ’back garden’ publications look at their subjects from various perspectives, sometimes very personal, sometimes with more detachmen. For instance, Oma Toos by Jaap Scheeren and Deddi by Chantal Spieard are both portraits of a family member, but their approach to their subjects is entirely different. Deddi shows a body that is slowly taken over by illness. It is the body of the photographer’s father. As a viewer, you almost have the feeling that you are out of place as a party in this story, in which a, generally abstract, illness takes on a personal face.
      For Oma Toos Jaap Scheeren opts for a beautiful mixture of the observation of an outsider and an insider’s way of working. Scheeren constructed scenes based on the letters that his grandmother sent to the family. In this way he permitted his own Grandma Toos to be a character in a world that he devised and created.
      Family Tree by Ringel Goslinga goes another step further: a project in which the photographer surveys his immediate surroundings, family and friends. The project is carried out in such a systematic manner that it feels like an objective index. But as you leaf through the book you quickly lose sight of this detached reference, and the photographer himself seems to take a step back; for each person you begin to ask yourself what kind of people these are, the self-evident link there was between the subjects and the photographer slowly disappears, and it increasingly becomes a game between the subjects and the viewer.

In addition to these books, in which in each case the subject is outside the photographer, there are also a large group of books in which the photographer’s gaze – and thus the photographer – is the real subject. The books by Paulien Oltheten are a good example of this. Her gaze and manner of observing and recording are central in both Het eerste wat ik zag and Theorie van de straat. This yields a refreshing entity that will influence the gaze of the reader and reset all parameters of observation back to zero.
      Other examples of books of this sort include Cast (part 4) by Raymond Taudin Chabot, Het Zwarte Gat by Jaap Scheeren and Anouk Kruithof, and The Stories of Mr Wood by Vanessa van Dam and Martine Stig. In all of these cases there is no existing story documented, but rather a new story written.

      In closing
In Dutch Eyes Rik Suermondt lists four substantive themes which, according to him, can be identified in post-war Dutch photo books. These are ’the changing landscape, business, youth culture, and the disruptive effects of international power politics and wars on the lives of the ordinary people in far-away lands.’ [3] When you hold this list up beside the selection of Pages, it is obvious that ’the changing landscape’ and ’youth culture’ are richly represented. ‘Business’ is not represented at all, but that can be explained by the fact that books which were produced on commission were excluded from our selection.
The absence which is more striking is ‘international solidarity,’ certainly in the context in which Suermondt places it. He is referring to books like Een staat in wording by Cas Oorthuys or Why Mister? Why? by Geert van Kesteren – publications in which the photographer emphatically takes a point of view on an international political question. We did not encounter publications of this sort, but that does not say that this is not one of the concerns of the ‘new generation’ of photographers. This engagement is certainly there (think for instance of Rob Hornstra), and in the future will certainly also be expressed in book form.

– Hans Gremmen

Publications by Géraldine Jeanjean, Kim Bouvy, Wil van Iersel, Wytske van Keulen, Monique Scuric, Petra Stavast, Melanie Bonajo and Kinga Kielczynska are expected to appear in the course of 2008.
A friend once gave me the modest little book that Johan van der Keuken made in 1955, Wij zijn 17. It grew to become one of my favourite books. At the age of 17 Van der Keuken photographed his friends at Amsterdam’s Montessori Lyceum. Using simple resources, he made a little book. As you look at it – or perhaps better, read it – the story enters directly. The idea that you have to read a photo book rather than look at it has been stuck in my mind ever since. With many of the books we have selected here, that is also the case. This is also the reason that we have designed the exhibition as a reading room, not as a display window or cabinet of books to look at. We wanted to make a ’slow’ exhibition. You have to take the time to take everything in. If you just flip through things everywhere, then the exhibition could probably be a disappointment.
’The Photobook after the Second World War’, by Rik Suermondt and Mirelle Thijsen, in Dutch Eyes, Waanders, 2007.