JOHAN VAN DER KEUKEN: “On Photography as the Art of Anxiety” (2001)

On Photography as the Art of Anxiety – Introduction to The Lucid Eye

By Alain Bergala

In the year 2000, a man collected the photos he had taken in the course of the last 46 years. This man is internationally known today as one of the greatest documentary film-makers of his time. It was however an early desire to take photographs which formed his destiny as an image-maker. He published his first album of photos at the age of 17. It was almost by default that he decided to enrol at the IDHEC (Institute des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques) in Paris, in 1956, and he consoled himself for this decision to learn the art of cinema by saying that film is a kind of image too.
And yet this desire to become a photographer, which he has never given up though he has never ceased to give it second place to a certain extent, has never gained the same recognition from the world at large as his desire to be a film-maker.

There are doubtless some fairly straightforward public-image considerations behind this state of affairs. Public opinion, and the bodies which form it and legitimize it, do not like people to devote themselves to more than one thing at a time: if someone is considered to be a film-maker, the public will never regard his photographic activities as anything more than a hobby. This is why the photographs of Wim Wenders or Abbas Kiarostami, of which they have also published several collections, have always been perceived as “film-makers’ snapshots”. In fact, there is some justification for this point of view: the subjects and landscapes found in their photographs have much the same aesthetic slant as that manifested in their films, so that the photos do seem to some extent to have been ‘derived’ from their cinematographic work.

It is nevertheless clear that Van der Keuken’s photographic work could not in any way be reduced to a minor derivative of his film-making work in another medium. Of course, it was the same person who was making the films and taking the photographs in parallel (or alternately), but that does not mean that it was necessarily the same “creator” who had his eye behind the viewfinder of the film camera and that of the photographic camera. The creative path of Van der Keuken the photographer has its own logic and timing, and is quite separate from that of Van der Keuken the film-maker. If he was a man who realized quite early on that it was impossible to achieve some kind of mental synchronization of the cinematographic and photographic acts, he was also a man who chose to have two parallel artistic lives, of which he found himself the astonished subject at each new change of direction.

I have already mentioned the superficial reasons for this resistance to regarding the totality of Johan Van der Keuken’s photos as an oeuvre – but what were the deeper reasons? Doubtless the following: while anyone who knew his film-making work well would immediately recognize his hand, his style, in any close-up or film clip shot and edited by him, it is much more difficult to assign the ensemble of his photographic work to a particular style or “authorship”.

Johan Van der KeukenYvonne, 1956

Anyone going through the various sections of this book might legitimately ask himself how one can recognize a Van der Keuken photo. What is the common link that allows us to conclude that the sunny snapshots of holidays in the South, the Indian superimpositions, the quasi-abstractions of the two-dimensional geometric images, the shots of Paris in the 50s, the violence of the primary colours in his photos of New York and the gentle tints of the Spanish fields of spring flowers in the year 2000 are all derived from the vision of the same man? It is practically impossible if we think of the presence of the photographer in his pictures in terms of the classical idea of “vision”. On the basis of the evidence, we must conclude that there is no Van der Keuken vision as there is a Doisneau or a Cartier Bresson vision, i.e. visible marks of a singular, permanent personal approach to the perception of the real world. We are dealing with something quite different here. Van der Keuken’s photos do not reflect a classical view of the world, even though he was clearly tempted in this direction during his stay in Paris at the end of the 50s, when his photographic approach seems to have been strongly marked by that of the great French school of photography of that period; nor did he swing permanently to a radically different conception of the modern photographic act like that of Robert Frank or William Klein – though we know that their photos of New York had an enormous effect on him at the time. Inspection of his photos yields no evidence of the same approach to the world that we can immediately recognize in his way of making a film shot.

It would however be an enormous error to think that Van der Keuken is a photographer without any real identity, swayed by all the various photographic fashions which have reigned over the past 50 years. We should not conclude from the impermanence of his style that he is simply a stylistic opportunist. On the contrary, as in the work of Pessoa (whose name does not arise here by chance), the conviction of the true fidelity to himself resides not in a frozen rigidity of style but in a multiplicity of forms and styles which is the only way to take account of the impermanence of an anxious perception of the world and of his place in it.

In each section of this book (corresponding to each new burst of photographic creativity in Van der Keuken’s life), it is his link with the world which demands the search for a new vision, a new scale of perception, a new line of questioning. For that is precisely what he uses photography for: to chart what point he has reached in his perception of the world – not just his sensory perception, but at a much deeper, more secret level his philosophical and metaphysical links with others and with the things around him. While their photos have allowed many creative workers in this field to record their vision of the world, to lay down a visual stylistic signature, they have served Van der Keuken mainly as a tool of investigation: what stage has he reached today, this month or this year, in his ties with the world? And his consciousness of this link is never superficial and always multiple: characterizing a perception which is at the same time emotional, political and metaphysical. While photography is generally regarded as an art devoted purely to the surface of things, it never constituted for him a tangible response to his anxieties, a reassuring anchor stabilizing his relationship to the world and offering him the comfort of a permanence which is that of his “personal vision” on the things of this world. In fact, the very idea of a “personal vision” implies that there is no problem about the solidity and consistency of the dual identity which forms the basis for classical photography: that of the world on the one hand and the observer on the other. Describing a photographic vision as “personal” involves the assumption that a stable, objective world exists and offers itself equally to all ordinary observers, and that this qualification designates not so much a vision of the world, with all the inevitable distortion this may involve for me, as a discrete particular coloration of the common way of looking at things, granted as a friendly gift to this or that photographer, an eye for easily tamed peculiarities which soon becomes as familiar to us as the inflection of a well known voice, or as a little tune which we love to hear again but which never knocks us off our perch. The fact that this simile arose in my mind while writing about Van der Keuken is doubtless due, unconsciously, to my memory of his voice, so gentle, so even and melodious, which immediately gives the person he is talking to the feeling of being in the protective zone of his intimacy and good will, a voice recognizable among thousands which never reveals anything of his anguish, his revolts, his irritation, as if it was the role of the pictures and film sequences he made to take charge of the anger and tensions, to trace the chiaroscuro of emotion or distress, the lines of rupture, and never that of the voice which at all times was given the task of maintaining the intimate, fraternal ties with his fellow man or spectator – even though in some of his films he pretends like Godard to engage in a dialogue with his own inner voice. Since the photo is by definition silent, doomed to the non-dialectic dullness of its own surface, it has to enclose, all on its own, silently, within its own poor rectangle all the tension which can be manifested in the cinema by the interplay of moving images and sounds.

Johan Van der KeukenGeorgette, 1956

Nothing in Van der Keuken’s photographic work ever tries to absorb his permanent anxiety, to freeze his ceaseless meditation on the themes which preoccupy him, to offer any hope of one day attaining the serenity of even a temporary stability. The collection of these photos, taken by the same man between the ages of 15 and 60, finally separated from the stills from his films, provides for the first time striking evidence in book form of this permanent ontological anxiety, the spiral track of which is reflected in his successive photographic projects.

What is this doubt, this anxiety, about? About the fragility of any scale or scheme of perception. About the reality of reality. About the very link between the photographer and the world, and more particularly between him and the people whose picture he is taking. In short, about everything which normally forms the basis for the possibility of the act of capturing the world in a photographic image.

It must be said that this triple question is also at the heart of Johan Van der Keuken’s film-making activities – but in his films it takes more externalized, more dialectic, more objectivized forms and pathways, in line with the nature of the cinematographic medium which always speaks a little louder and of necessity more clearly – while a more secret, more intimately metaphysical and also more self-analytical way seems to be reserved for photography. The same man, perfectly aware that one cannot investigate the world in the same way with a telescope or a microscope, will nevertheless ask the same questions – leading in the final analysis to the question of his relationship with the world – with the aid of both instruments; but the film helps him to elucidate this question in dialogue with others while photography helps him to explore his own internal geography, at the heart of doubt and impermanence.

In practice, when Johan Van der Keuken took a photograph this had less to do with the famous instant of decision than with a state of indecision. It was his way of living with vertigo – and in the same fraction of a second of escaping from it by holding on to the reality of the frame he had created and of the fragment of the world which he had trapped in that frame for a moment. Each of his pictures basically bears the trace of this vertigo which is calmed for a moment by the taking of the picture, yet not overcome permanently, just as one will automatically hold on to something which one believes to be a firm support when one feels dizzy, even though that object seems to whirl round like everything else. In this connection, I am suddenly reminded of the “h” that the young (27-year-old) Joan Van der Keuken [Translator’s note: In Dutch, the name Joan (pronounced “Yo-an” and derived from Johan) is a boy’s name rather than a girl’s; the feminine equivalent is Jeanne] added in the middle of his first name which he must have considered to be too soft-sounding, consonantless, as if to provide it with a visual pivot at the time when the choice of the cinema as a career was becoming more and more definite. This decision would seem to point to the same anxiety about sliding into the billows of impermanence and uncertainty, without a fixed aim.

One of the major paradoxes in Van der Keuken’s photos is that this doubt has never taken the path which it did at a certain moment in the work of e.g. Robert Frank or Bernard Plossu: an apparent giving up of part of their mastery of the photographic act, a partial surrender of the photographic gesture itself to a feeling of the impermanence of the world and its forms. Van der Keuken does not give up the mastery of the form, even when his doubt concerning his ties with the world is strongest. Like an astronomer who has his doubts about the validity of the representation of the universe he is working on, but who still continues with simple faith to maintain his telescope with the utmost care as the last spar offering him a safe hold in the midst of the seas of doubt which assail him. Van der Keuken deals with form in a similar way in his work: doubts may only be entertained within the unshakeable rigour of a form which is firmly maintained – but without pride or arrogance. His craft never reveals an intoxication with mastery: he simply complies with the minimal, modest requirements of his working morality of “sustaining” his images, as Godard put it, which is the diametrical opposite of the ostentatious marks of authority.

When Johan Van der Keuken looks at the world through the viewfinder of his camera, he never puts aside his questions about the dual gap, between himself and others, and between himself and the world.

“Behind the window”, the title of one of his earliest works from 1956, already points in this direction. This window is the feeling present in many of these photos, even those in which the photographer seems to be closest to his subject (e.g. “Nosh asleep under the summery shadow of a tree”), that you can only take a photo from behind a screen, that you can never touch your subject’s body, share its warmth, throw off restraint with it; that you have to maintain yourself in a state of vigilance, keep your distance, in order to take a photo. The intimacy, the shared proximity which links the photographer to his model is of minor importance here: any body recorded in a photographic image, even the closest, becomes a foreign body, and he had to get rid of any feeling of fusion in order to take its picture, behind the imaginary window which always separated Van der Keuken from those he loved at the moment when he took their photo. We seem almost to have an inverse law in operation here: the closest body becomes the most foreign in this operation which distances it from the observer, while the camera paradoxically brings the most distant, the most foreign, bodies – seen e.g. in a street in India or Amsterdam – much closer. Van der Keuken has an obsession with windows in his photos, as if they enabled him to give form to the paradox of vision, this ontological inability to touch the essence of the thing seen.

Pessoa was able to put into words this feeling that the essence of things cannot be experienced in art, this condition of exile, of perceiving things through a window: ‘…when I say, “This is real”, even of a feeling, I see it despite myself in some exterior space, I perceive it with a sense which is somehow outside myself, foreign to myself’.’

Van der Keuken’s fascination with sleeping figures is related to this constant self-questioning about the reality of reality. This awful reality, of whose existence he has such difficulty convincing himself in his role as photographer, never exists so much, in his eyes, as when we are asleep, precisely because that is when we have parted company with our consciousness and are thus truly subject to the rule of unconsciousness: “Life”, he wrote, “is a dream or a voyage, or a dream of a voyage across a world which, of course, definitely exists outside us. We sleep because the world exists outside us (…)”. Consciousness, and in particular that of the photographer stalking his prey in a state of hyper-vigilance – just the opposite of the state of sleep, that is – is what distances us most surely from the reality of the world. Filming a sleeper makes us more crucially aware of this state of exile. “You are lying cosily in bed next to your beloved”, writes Van der Keuken, “you are enjoying this privilege and you know it, even when you are asleep”. The opposite of this state of sleeping in the shared warmth of the other is that of the same Van der Keuken taking a photo of the woman he loves while she is asleep: he is no longer asleep, no longer lying next to this familiar body, he has gone behind the window where the warmth of that body can no longer pass, where that body enclosed in itself has become an enigma again, where the man looking through the viewfinder has once again become a stranger, lonely and isolated, in this world whose intimacy he had thought he shared. In this sense, there is something of Bergman in Van der Keuken’s photographs though there is not the slightest trace of Bergman in his films. Ingmar Bergman is without a doubt he who has best, most obsessively, filmed this sudden strangeness of the body of the other to which we felt so close just a moment ago, and which we are now viewing with all the precautions and distance which must necessarily be involved in any act of vision.
This awareness of the sudden retreat implied by the act of photography is one of the things which becomes most blatantly evident in the collected photographic works of Van der Keuken. It becomes even more visible when the very subject of the photos has the air of complicity in a denial of this gap, when the photographer takes as his subject the woman he loves, children, the most intimate circle in his emotional life. But who are these strangers, what am I to them, what is the tie that binds me to them? Does he resist this link with the world, with human beings, when he looks through the eye-piece of his camera? Is he not dealing here with a purely imaginary scenario, a mental construction, which has nothing to do with the reality of solitude? Witness is borne to this very early on in his work by those photos where he feels the need to include himself in the picture, behind his subject, as if to assure himself of the reality of this shared presence, to escape a little from the inevitable expulsion of himself, by himself, from the circle of the other at the moment when he takes the photo.

Yvonne, 1956

This feeling of distance, this awareness of the behaviour of the person who is taking the photographs, is already evident in the photos he took as a very young man, which flatly contradict the collective nature of the title he chose for them: “We are 17”. This “we”, which refers to the claim that the very young Jo(h)an is a member of the community he is photographing, is immediately destroyed when one of the pair constituted by himself and the event (namely himself, already isolated by his calling) separates himself from the group to take a picture of it. Choice entails exclusion. The Van der Keuken who photographs his contemporaries instantaneously becomes ten or twenty years older than them, and is already marked, in anticipation, by the melancholy of the moment when this present will be a long irrecoverable past. The very nature of this initial project tells us volumes about the destiny of Van der Keuken the photographer: we see him seizing the very moment when he is supposed to be living the elusive instant of adolescence, where one is not yet well aware what one is going to become – and seizing it already from outside, with the gravity and maturity of the artist which he has ipso facto become by the simple fact of carrying out a project to a good end. And this project defines him, sets the first limits on him, while his contemporaries are still happy to be the sketches of what they might one day become or what they only dream of becoming.

Pessoa has explored the other aspect of this slight detachment from the world which I see in the photographic work of Johan van der Keuken, even when it seems to be seeking the reality of the world most:

Being real means not being inside myself.
I have no idea about the reality of the person inside me.
I know the world exists, but I don’t know if I do.
I am more certain of the existence of my white house than of the internal existence of the master of the white house.”

Being present in the world, in the white house, in other words being the photographer at the moment he takes a picture of the white house, means being absent from your own self. This is one of the major contradictions revealed by Van der Keuken, in the slight detachment between him and the moving picture of the world, between the awareness of the act of photography and the innocent expanse of the world, a minute shift of which his photos manifest, without pathos, the little metaphysical drama.

The film-maker Van der Keuken always regarded the choice of frames for his images as an arbitrary act by which he felt that he was in some way wronging the world, that “unsewn robe of reality” which was so dear to André Bazin. Van der Keuken was often torn between his taste for sustaining images (without which the camera-man might just as well pack up his bags and would never be able to grasp any aspect of his art) and the feeling that the act of cutting off part of reality and giving it meaning against its own will embodies a harmful arrogance. He sometimes used the term “excision” to describe what was in his eyes the ontologically aggressive nature of the act of framing – essential as it is to the film-maker. The term speaks volumes about the reticence of Van der Keuken the film-maker – which is not simply a moral scruple but above all a regret for depriving the world of a dimension of innocence which can only reside in the enjoyment of its own limitless expanse. Framing the body of reality removes an essential part of it, making it impossible for it to enjoy its own infinity, on which meaning floats, undefined, alongside happiness. Van der Keuken the film-maker invented his “unframed” pictures, which have since become famous. In this technique, he thwarts the arbitrary nature and the vanity of choosing one frame for the picture rather than another, revealing the world as it presents itself innocently to the gaze of the observer from all directions at the same time. Van der Keuken’s deframing technique is a relativization made visible of the act of framing, which reveals the fragility of the arbitrariness of this act and the humility of his decision faced with the sovereignty of the world, rather than a new act of framing which would simply re-affirm, at the same level, the feeling of authority with which the film-maker imposes his will on the visible world.

The nature of photography would seem to make deframing almost impossible. The photographic act seems to condemn the photographer to impale reality within a unique frame, to proudly impose meaning on this fragment of the world by this arbitrary sectioning. It would seem to be impossible for the photographer, even the one which is most sensitive to the innocent continuity of the world, to diminish the arrogance of his act. 0zu, a film-maker greatly admired by Van der Keuken, relativized the power of the formal affirmation of the frame by stacking the points of view to create a picture made up of cube after cube, where none of the points of view seems to be subject to the authority of the film-maker. The world may well be enclosed in frame upon frame, but not one of these frames suggests the arrogance of a central figure organizing the view on the basis of his “personal” view of things. The impersonalization of the frames and the stacking of the planes, redefining space as a pile of cubes, in the work of Ozu transforms this reconstruction of the world into an enormous respect for it. The strategies Van der Keuken followed as a photographer often aim at the ideal of a similar upsetting of established views.

How can you frame photos without doing violence to the world? Van der Keuken has tried ceaselessly as a photographer to avoid the unique, ineluctable pseudo-fatality of the act of framing. He has tried to use all imaginable (and technically feasible) strategies to erase any hint of over-affirmation (“I see that!”) from the finished picture. To replace the instant of decision in the act of photography by a state of indecision.

One way Van der Keuken did this was by replacing the single, decisive frame of a photo by a “trial and error” frame, in a series of attacks on the same theme, none of which pretends to be the absolutely right one. If the “right” image does not exist in the face of the multiplicity of all the possible approaches to this little bit of the world, you have to choose not to choose between all those various images, none of which can do full justice to this corner of the rue de Seillans in Paris, which caught the photographer’s eye and inspired him to make this, one of the first cubist gestures in the early days of cubism. This multiple series of treatments of the same theme dedramatizes the act of choice involved in any framing operation. Each frame chosen becomes one of the possibilities without claiming to be the last word, the single, proud, right frame, the instant of decision. It will be recognized one day that the questions Godard and Van der Keuken asked, the ideas they researched, over a period of more than 40 years often ran parallel, even though the former managed to build up the public image of an artist who was a bit of a seer, a bit of a thunderer, as opposed to the more and more secret nature of his films, while the latter has always rejected such showmanship, displaying a generous modesty quite in character with his work. Godard, in his film work, also had a time when he shared this desire to break totally with the classical tradition which teaches that for every shot there is one single good angle and one single good distance. This occurred in the middle of Je vous salue Marie [Hail Mary] at the moment when the creative film-maker shuts himself up alone with Marie, his creature and model, in the room where she has undergone so much suffering. At this point, in order to underline Marie’s hazardous existence, Godard completely suspends his assertive role as editor and shows a whole sequence of shots taken from different angles, none of which is picked out as the right one to the exclusion of all the others, while time seems to stand still.

New York, 1997

Another strategy attempted by Van der Keuken in his resistance to the definitive image consists in leafing through a succession of different times within the same frame. While the frame is unique in this case, it contains a disorderly host of images from different times, overflowing, overlapping, swirling, until the whole frame implodes, loses much of its power to impose order on the world and becomes a mere vessel for a swarm of random, elusive, incompletely controllable images.

Van der Keuken has also been regularly tempted to impose a slight vibration on his representation of sensed reality. He has done this in different ways, e.g. by a shift between two axes (as in View almost seen through a curtain from 1986 or the Path from Tuscany, 1988), a simple change in perspective which nibbles away at the reality of the world (as in Shadows of a doubt from 1991) or a minute delay between the two shots as in On the boat between Patmos and Arki from 1981. The subject who observes this shift can no longer say “I photograph, therefore I am (at the centre of the universe)”, but is seized by the vertigo of the relativity of the world and our perception of it. It is in these tiny, unimportant intervals, too tenuous to have any significant influence on reality, that Van der Keuken is seized by the most metaphysical doubt. And indeed, contrary to what had been long believed, the photo is the ideal instrument for portraying doubt, the impermanence of being, the vertiginous restlessness which seizes us in the face of the reality of the reality to which it is supposed to bear witness. It is this same mystery that Merleau-Ponty writes of in L’oeil et l’esprit, (The eye and the spirit), which describes the impressions gained from a pole, a steeple and a water tower during a trip in 1982: “The enigma is the connection between them – it’s the fact that I see the things each in its place precisely because they eclipse one another – it’s the fact that I see them as rivals because each one is in its own place.”

In his last photo of his sister Joke, taken on 8th August 1997, infinitely poignant in its very simplicity (a woman asleep in a beautiful light), Van der Keuken shows a very slight shift in the visual image – and yet one which represents a veritable abyss in our perception of the world: the almost invisible difference between two states of the body, the elusive mystery of the moment, impossible to tie down exactly, which marks the transition between life and death.

Where rhetoric establishes a ready-coded, clearly legible connection between two realities, two images, two motifs, Van der Keuken follows exactly the opposite path in his work of creating a photographic link (within a single photo or between several photos): he sets up a reciprocating motion in the interval where reality loses its consistency and its legibility to become enigmatic, unstable, punctured again.
Another way in which Van der Keuken sometimes gives expression to his stubborn resistance to the definitive photographic cliché is when, looking at an old photo (which he may have taken years before), he rediscovers new worlds which time has gradually revealed within the world impaled and framed in the picture. This revelation is much like one of Godard’s slow-motions from the 70s or 80s. As if the reality contained in the photo continued to “work”, like the wood in a door- or window-frame can work, Van der Keuken also continues to work, submitting the original argument for which the frame was cut and squared to renewed cross-examination. What the subsequent cuttings, reframings and enlargements can reveal is new leakage lines in the illusion of rhetorical capture of the world which the original image, neatly enclosed in its frame and its unique scale of perception, might present. Reframing, for Van der Keuken, does not lead to closer definition of the sense, pointing the finger more accurately at the real meaning, but on the contrary imploding the initial reading, made too statically and with too much reliance on the benefit of the doubt, opening up vertiginous new cracks in our perception. A slight biographical hint in this direction is provided by his love of the film Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock’s intellectual puzzle where what seems to be reality is continually shown to be trompe-l’oeil, where meaning is on a permanent see-saw, where the final revelation is continually postponed.

Even the inevitable differences which are ontologically involved in the dialogue between the photographer and his subject tend to blur in Van der Keuken’s photos. He never ceases to subject these differences, which so often form the basis on which the act of photography becomes possible at all – myself and the other; the family and outsiders; intimate and public; near and far – to vacillation, or to fit them into a vertiginous trompe-l’oeil.

Van der Keuken is a great traveller, always going off to India or Africa like those who believe firmly that since other people exist they have to go and see them to know that they exist themselves, in relation with the other or in isolation. On closer inspection, however, Van der Keuken’s “travel photos” (but you know the expression sounds wrong even when you first consider it) do not say “I have seen these people” so much as “at this moment, I just happened miraculously to be there with them”. Travelling, for him, is providing (photographic) evidence of his presence at a particular spot, and that he shared, somewhat precariously, this presence with those who were there in their own right. Even though it is true that not all people share the same feeling of “being at home” (which doesn’t mean the same thing to a Westerner from a rich country as it does do a poor person from the Third World), it is this nudity in the face of the mystery of the world and of existence which Van der Keuken’s photo – equally free from any form of touristic arrogance and of any good altruistic sentiment – show so well.

What Van der Keuken’s travel photos manifest is the astonishment at the random act of fate which caused on this very day, in La Paz or India (or even – why not? – in a street in Amsterdam) a man, the man with the camera obscura, to cross the path of, to see, other men who are just as enigmatic as he is in their presence and their relationship with the world. What surprises Van der Keuken’s camera is nothing more or less than the little miracle of this meeting between people on the move towards an insignificant personal goal, where nothing, absolutely nothing, had predestined their paths to cross at that particular spot at that particular point in time.

Even when Van der Keuken inserts his body in the scene, within the rectangle of the photo, it is rarely because he wants to make sure he is there, to derive from the picture some evidence of his perennial presence in the world. I have always been stirred by Bonnard’s self-portraits, from the latter part of his life, where he seems to be so firmly anchored in the reality of his little house at Le Cannot and in the secure link with Marthe, his constant companion. And yet, at the moment when his canvases seem to manifest an unequalled fullness in his relationship with his wife, his countryside, the world around him, the vegetation and the light of the Midi, when he seems to have achieved absolute peace, his self-portraits show him more and more as an extra-terrestrial, a phantom, a being corroded with irreality, literally emptied of all familiar humanity. There is something equally ghostly, equally disconcerting, in Van der Keuken’s photographic self-portraits, a striking difference between the calm, friendly picture which those who know him may have of him (that of a kind of wise, smiling leader, completely at peace with himself) and this anguished, deformed, unstable image, capable of unimaginable metamorphoses, which he fiercely dragged out of himself with the aid of his camera. His Me, fear from 1986 shows a grotesquely grimacing figure quite unrecognizable as himself, with the kind of hideously distorted face you might put on in front of a mirror to show the idiot or monster hiding beneath the surface.

Completely opposed to this centrifugal destabilization of the representation, his photos have however always contained one component which looks strangely like the focus of the world, the umbilical cord of reality, and that is his female figures. Every woman in Van der Keuken’s photographic work seems to be something like a pivot of the world, a fixed point, a centre radiating warmth – even though the photographer knows, as we have seen, that he cannot enjoy this warmth and the security of this centre to the full if he wants to take a picture of it. During the initial years of his career as a photographer, Van der Keuken approached women as a man in a sail-boat cruises past an island in search of a landing-place, a peaceful spot to rest after a troubled voyage, to echo Pessoa’s words.

I was very stirred, during the big exhibition of Van der Keuken’s photographic work in Paris in 1998, Le corps et la ville (The body and the city) by the photo of a woman which greeted the visitor arriving at the top floor of the lnstitut Néerlandais, after having passed through the long labyrinthine display of photos in the basement. This large-scale picture showed a young woman, clad only in a yellow tee-shirt, with her shapely thighs spread wide open at the same height as the eye of the observer, inviting him to look at her sex which is presented right at the centre of the picture simultaneously exposed by her posture and hidden in shadow and behind her pubic hair. The aggressivity of this image seemed to me to be out of tune with Van der Keuken’s habitual discretion in relation to those who come to view his photos. It was not until later that I understood that this crude, violent image may have been Van der Keuken’s first attempt at a “cri de photo”, that having passed the age of 60 years he was finally surmounting the boundaries of gentleness and respectability set by himself, to proclaim in a loud voice (a voice which we hardly recognized, but which he knew he had in him, like the Johan of his distorted self-portraits) the major, permanent contradiction in his work between seeing (in which the observer is sacrificed to the distance between himself and the object of his inspection, to the sadness of doubt and of the anxiety which is linked to the indispensable fixity of his gaze) and not seeing (finally overcoming the gap, regaining the penumbra of sleep in the shared warmth of the other, reintegrating himself with the continuous matrix of the world).


I finished writing the above at Nice on 3rd January 2001. I knew that Johan was very ill, and that he wanted to see what I had written. I lost the race between the my speed of writing and the acceleration of his illness by a few days. He had expressed the wish that I should include some mention of the film of his that had been shown at the festival of Sarajevo, since he wanted to include in this book a few stills taken from that film, showing the moment when the two sisters are standing still under the fire of the snipers, while the protagonist says “ my life is worse than a film”. I was unable to comply with this wish, doubtless because I wanted to retain a living relationship with him rather than feeling obliged to respect his “dying wish”. I hope he will forgive this refusal on my part. I must nevertheless confess that I was absolutely fascinated, while viewing this film, by this improbable tableau vivant, derived from Millet’s Angelus, in which the snipers’ bullets had replaced the church bells calling the faithful to prayer, at the cross-roads between painting, cinema, theatre and photography. This final eyecatcher clearly shows that something quite miraculous must have happened to this man with two strings to his bow while he was making the last of his “little” films: quite unexpectedly, after having spent his whole life experiencing just how difficult it is to touch the essence of things, he reached an extraordinary “point of reality”. There, miraculously, just for once, he received an immense, enigmatic recompense for all his pains: he really did touch reality.

Translation: Babette Cillekens/Vertaalcentrum VU

ASX CHANNEL: Johan van der Keuken

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(© Alain Bergala, 2001. All rights reserved. All images © copyright the photographer and/or publisher)

Posted in Essays, Other and tagged , .