Bertien van Manen, by Colin Pantall

The article was first published at Colin Pantall’s personal blog. With his permission we re-publish this article on our website as a tribute to Bertien van Manen, who should have been known more by all of us.
by Colin Pantall
Bertien van Manen who passed a way over the weekend is a name that often slips people by. It slips me by, but with her passing I realised how much I love her work, how it sticks in my mind, how it has influenced me.

She was a wonderful photographer with a familiar and intimate style that made everything personal, almost familial in style. She did things that so many people try to do, but don’t quite manage to get there.

She was especially prolific in photobooks where her directness and her willingness to meet with new people, new situations, and reveal the awkwardness of it all made for unique photography.

I did a review of her recent Archive book where I tried to express what made her work so special, because it was special.

‘I always remember seeing Bertien van Manen’s East Wind West Wind for the first time; it shows pictures from her time in China and had pictures of women who stared into the camera and questioned it. Sometimes it was a put-it-away kind of look, sometimes it was a this-is-me kind of look, sometimes it was a fuck-you kind of look, sometimes it was just puzzled or confused. My favorite was the woman on the beach with the blue rubber ring. It looks like a snapshot, the harsh flash lighting her sunscreen bleached face, the blueness of the sky rippling into the rubber ring the woman is holding. But then you see her face, the furrowed brow, the eyebrows tensed into a straight line, her lipstick-red mouth half-open but seemingly unnerved by the proximity of van Manen’s lens.

There’s a closeness about the picture, an intimacy almost, but also an anxiety, a recognized awkwardness of what it means to represent something. It is almost as if that awkwardness is part of the work, that when you get close to people it’s the awkward edges that become visible, the times when somebody stops being polite and allows their skepticism to shine through, allows them to be the difficult person that they are. And the making of East Wind West Wind was difficult. It took time for van Manen to find suitable access to make her pictures; there were language barriers, photographic barriers, historical barriers.’

Read more here.

I loved her family book, Easter and Oak Trees, a book made from contact prints and prints of old family photographs. They feature pictures of her husband. He died a few years before the book was made, so the book is a homage to him in parts. It’s a beautiful book, a real celebration of life.

This is from short interview with Bertien van Manen on Easter and Oak Trees from 2013.



“There was an exhibition at Unseen in Amsterdam and my son suggested I should show the pictures he remembered of the family from the 1970s. My daughter also suggested this, that we had these beautiful pictures from our childhood and they should be shown. So following the suggestions of my children,  I showed them first at Unseen.

At the time when I was making the pictures we went on holidays. My parents had this big house with oak trees and we’d go there at easter and look for eggs. The children would play in the garden and let their imaginations run wild. It was a really beautiful time and I would photograph it – but the pictures were just for ourselves.

The only thing I had were the old contact sheets, and all the pictures in the book come from high resolution 1600dpi scans of the contact sheets. That’s why they have this bad quality  – it shows that the pictures are part of an archive. Before making the book, I had never done anything with the negatives. We didn’t have aphoto-album and most of the time, we didn’t even print the pictures. The children remember me taking pictures. They remembered that I took pictures and printed a few that we put on the wall.



I get very emotional when I see them because of my husband Willem who died of cancer 4 years ago. The book is for him. He was a great father, not so much when they were babies, but when they were older. In one series he is playing football with his son, in another he is doing the tango with his daughter.

I dedicated it to him but also to my 2 children.


I marked them because I looked at them or printed them – but I gave most of the prints away – the blue dots are from more recently, when I went through the archive and wa deciding what was interesting. The designer saw them and liked the idea but I’m a bit fed up with the blue dots. They annoy me.

There is a lot going on in the pictures. The more you look, the more you see in the relationships, the body, the clothes they wear.

There is a picture of a boy with his father. He likes to be with us but when he is with his father he is naughty so his father is strict with him. You can see how happy he is to be with us in all the other pictures, but then his father comes and puts his hand on his back and his expression changes.

Look how free this was – they are naked and  drinking and smoking pretend cigarettes made from herbs from the kitchen.. We were so free in those times – it was so nice and natural – it is not nostalgia, it is just a different time when there wasn’t the hysteria about nakedness. Now if you put up a picture of a naked child on Facebook it would get taken down in no time, but not then. People weren’t as frustrated about walking around naked.

They take me to a place where my parents lived, and bring me back to a time when I felt happy and life was filled with fun.

The will be exhibited in small frames, with pictures printed from the scans . They are in small frames like polaroids, with the pictures lifted from the surface. They are like little gifts (kleinood) to the world.”