Bertien van Manen – Gluckauf

Coal mining is a very peculiar enterprise. The 19th and 20th Centuries committed untold heaves of labor to its extraction. It fuels communities, yet its extraction suggests a disemboweling of the land where these communities settle. The prospect of coal mining is one of capital and capitalism. The very human clay that mines these enterprises is subordinate to a system of labor that discludes the majority of the wealth that the resource provides. It is managed by large companies that pay the most negligible salary they can muster to the individual worker. Unlike the extraction of gas and oil, coal extraction on a small scale is non-specialized, and its historic character and relative ease of extraction make it a universal type of work.


Coal extraction often emphasizes the sheer quantity produced, its byproducts, and how whole communities are affected by its corporate extraction. It creates jobs, but those jobs create disease, untimely death, and economic despair when a coal mining community shutters the mines when another piece of coal cannot possibly removed. It is the same system in America, Russia, Belgium, The Netherlands, Japan, China, South Africa, Poland, and Columbia, among many other countries. As an activity, coal mining began nearly 500 years ago, and its extraction provides a counterweight to the need for the voracious, if stable, source of energy. At its root, and arguably, coal mining is less about the energy it provides than the uncounted energy used in its extraction.



Visiting a coal mining town is fascinating. Though they vary from place to place, one can observe the town orchestrated around coal production. Stores, pubs, and homes are situated close to the mines. You can see large conveyor belts, and steel-girded frames dot the horizon line, and slag heaps, some overgrown, others uncovered, are filled with coal byproduct that slips underfoot and tarnishes any pair of sneakers or the trousers of anyone who is not paying attention to what is underfoot as they traverse their parabolic mound shapes. The towns where coal extraction assumes a central function are not often significant. Large-scale urban environments are often without coal mining at their center. Mining coordinates and routines people’s lives and the civic environment around them, including roads and infrastructure. Mining towns are not usually circular; the mines exist on the periphery but not so far away as to make walking to work difficult. Shuttles sometimes bring workers to and from work. And underneath all the goings-on lies a vast network of coal mining tunnels, hidden and complex like the busy labyrinths of ants.


I live in a coal mining town. I have become accustomed to the slag heaps, depressions in the ground, and the obtuse vernacular architecture of its coal mining apparatus. However, where I live, there are fewer and fewer miners. One mine has recently closed down, and I was able to watch over a period of two months as they tore down its offices and crushed its large steel structures like grey licorice into unrecognizable hollow fruit to be carted away and sold for scrap. This is the same metal sarcophagi that carried untold footsteps, and that had been filmed in a layer of cheap and old tobacco smoke so thick it collected on the windows of walkways, left brown and cracking in the summer’s sun. The monstrous steel and concrete behemoths here have been reduced to rubble and carted unceremoniously away. The scars on the land remain invisible as they rest under the surface, keloiding and unable to close. Mining towns are places of labor, and now the labor, like so many other coal mining provinces, is in a hurry to understand what happens next. Where does the energy go when the mining economy and tunneling stop?



Bertien van Manen is a photographic hero. She has spent the better part of four decades investigating the lives of ordinary people. She has made vast voyages to meet people in communities worldwide and has returned with a truer record of the 20th Century than August Sander could provide. Her images are devoid of artifice. They do not rely on large camera stoicism and male bravado. Though masterful, her camerawork relies less on executing perfection than the humbling countenance of the people she visits, observes, and shares a camaraderie with. Though her work is not only left to the provenance of coal and its human byproduct, many of her projects are interested in mining communities, whether the mines are open pits or closed-circuited. Her work is personal. You can feel the access granted to her is not granted from a dispassionate shrug but rather a welcoming urge. The portraits she makes are warm and suggest empathy. Her human subjects are given a pertinent strength of character, and she dwells less on the poverty line of image-making than she does, dwelling on understanding the people and the environment as worthy of attention, exchange, and care. It is clear in the photographs.


Gluckauf is a special book. It summarizes Bertien’s travels to communities in which mining is a factor. The book takes a broad look at mining as a  topic instead of focusing on one particular locality, which is usually the rigor in her other books. It recreates through her travels, a subject that is immensely pertinent in the 21st Century, when mining towns, without external economic infrastructure outside of the corporations that hollow the earth, face new challenges as labor shifts from manual to technological. Her work is a time capsule of something believed to have been immortal-the need for coal-subsidized energy. Other suggestions pervade the work about ecology, but at its root, the book is about people. It is about the conditions in which towns like the one from which I type find a future outside of all that incessant digging. It is also about gender, which is vital in her work. Though it is not the only concern, Bertien passionately explores the life of women miners and the female denizens of such places. A brilliant text in the book by Bertien spells out how we misattribute mining as a sole male pursuit. She fills in the gaps by discussing women in the mines, child labor, and the relative misconception that men do all the digging. From 19th-century pit-brow women to 20th-century female miners, this discrepancy is rectified through her analysis.



Gluckauf is not the first to take up the challenging discussions formed around mining. There is a larger discussion about coal mining itself as seen through the pre-war photobooks of E.O. Hoppe and Paul Wolff, toward the turn of the post-industrial age found in photobooks by Chargesheimer, Yves Auquier, Antrazit, Koji Onaka, Milton Rogovin, Werner Mantz, Janine Wiedel, Seiichi Motohashi, amongst many others. Furthermore, recent books by Witho Worms, Lisa Barnard, Stephen Shore, Bernd & Hilla Becher, Laurenz Berges, Stephen Vanfleteren, Robin Hinsch, Joachim Brohm, Michael Kerstgens, Shelby Lee Adams, and Chris Killip, among other contemporary photographers, also bear remark. Bertien’s book is different because she is not obsessed with her subject’s “tough life” condition, though it is a factor. Instead, she seeks out the human qualities of those in the mining towns, what happens on the home front, how children and families operate, and how people also unwind without portraying everyone with no teeth and beer in hand. I think this is important as many books from the second half of the 20th century dwell on the anxiety found amongst these communities. In Bertien’s case, the emphasis is on the tough reality and the human qualities of the people who can be divested from their work. Though she does not strip labor from the people she observes, she suggests that they are more than their economy, environment, or labor. This emphasizes their humanity to a great and delicate degree.


The book is designed by Hans Gremmen of FW: Books, whose incessant observations, culling of archive material, and general vision of producing a book of such magnitude are well-suited to the project. Using blowups of red grease pencil marks on contact sheets and using multiple papers to demarcate photographic objects like prints and contact sheets, Gremmen is an essential component of why this book is a success. It stands apart from van Manen’s earlier work and emphasizes the physical value of her archive. The design of the book is as luring as van Manen’s photographs, and the two have made a beautiful object and, in doing so, produced one of my favorite titles of the year. The history of the subject is vast and is one that is often examined. Still, as we head into open water with the notion of manual labor becoming something that is changing, evolving, or threatened, Gluckauf presents a keen investigation into the human element behind all the excavating and removal of resources. It is an essential book as it summarizes what is at the cost of such enterprises and evolves van Manen’s career even one step further. Highest Recommendation.



Original Specifications



Bertien van Manen — Gluckauf

FW: Books

168 p / 24 x 29 cm / hardcover / colour / ISBN 978-90-832858-4-9 / texts: Bertien van Manen, Marcia Luyten


Bertien van Manen grew up in Heerlen, the center of the eastern part of the former Dutch coal mining region, where her father worked as an engineer for the State Mines. This publication brings together photographs Bertien van Manen made in different mining towns: Wakefield and New Sharlston, Yorkshire (UK, 1970s), Most (CZ, 1980s), the Appalachian Mountains (US, 1980-1990s), and Apanas, Siberia (RU, 1990s).


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