Ideas Series: Tradition makes a good photograph even better

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has now put up the exhibition ‘Modern Times’ which tries to come to terms with the role and position of photography in the modern age.

The twentieth century has finally become history. It turned out to be the age of photography. It saw an enormous growth of the medium which completely overtook other media. If we leave out ‘art’ for a moment and look at functionality alone, the diffusion of photography has never been greater, as well as its number of practitioners. This must have had a huge impact on art as well as on photography itself. But it also affected the ways societies communicate, going decisively from ‘verbal’ to visual. All this resulted in a huge production of fleeting images: an ongoing stream of ‘slapdash’ photographic notes, a prefiguration of the digital era we are living in now. A lot of the twentieth century photographs are superficial and quickly to be forgotten. A few of them however remain and are strong and expressive.

How to decide which are the ones that truly stand out and have to be kept forever? In the first room of the exhibition we explore the rise and development of the private domain in photography; we see charming photographs of daily life, snapshots of picnics and trips and of leisure activities. By contrast there are also more thoughtful and introspective forms of photography. A huge dark portrait of a man overshadows them all. It is the photographer Gerard Fieret who paints a startling picture of himself. Because of his war past he was a tormented man, a paranoid constantly struggling with life, struggling with women. In this self-portrait (one of many) he directs the light which comes from above. Parts of his face are covered by dark shadows which make up all the more drama.

Anyone who has studied art and photo history in the town of Leiden knew Fieret. He was a regular visitor to the Print Room at the University of Leiden where he looked at the masters of printmaking, drawing and photography. Later in life we saw the same old bearded man in The Hague on his bike with two buckets of pigeon food, living the life of a vagrant. He kept his huge photographs full of stains, copyright stamps and pigeon shit in an old freezer in his backyard. Only after he died in 2009 we came to see the true extent of his oeuvre and what a – contradictio in terminis – truly original eclectic he was. He picked up the photobooks by well-known photographers and we see echoes of their work everywhere, but with a totally different outcome. It is these appropriations of the work of former masters that constitute and form the longer tradition in art history.

The Rijksmuseum excels in painting and genres from the Dutch Golden Age, whether these are still lifes, sober portraits of Amsterdam’s rich bankers and merchants and their wives, reflective self-portraits of Rembrandt (another master of light) and history pieces of huge paintings which point out the sea battles between the Dutch and the British. These are artefacts – some of them masterpieces – which somehow survived many centuries and are appreciated until this day. The works of art were made literally just around the corner, in the growing and prospering city which then was a vibrant centre. The production of ‘art’ in that period consisted of handsome and custom made paintings, huge amounts of prints, pieces of sculpture, silver objects, cloth and jewellery. Art was an absolute necessity: a set of ways of expressing power and ambition, and all sorts of ideas and thoughts about society, but also about the self. Burghers were in command, they were crucial in this vital world full of international business and art. One can only imagine what would have been pictured if photography had been around…But then, each age gets the medium it needs. What painting was to the 17th century, photography was to the 20th…and the similarities and ‘links’ are striking.

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With new articles exploring diverse perspectives, our Ideas series examines how photography is produced, shared and understood today.

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