Bertien van Manen – Let’s sit down before we go

Photographs ©Bertien van Manen

This is a nice book to own. I was contemplating leaving it at that but I’m not sure we really sure we need book reviews in the form of Tweets just yet. I first saw Bertien’s work on LightBox back in January and then checked out the show at Yancey Richardson. I’ve had the book for a few weeks now and have browsed through it several times. I’ve been more cognizant of the photobook viewing experience recently and think it’d be interesting for people to share their routines. Do you pour a scotch, pick out music, then grab a chair to slowly browse the book? Do you have a shelf filled with photobooks in your bathroom? Are there certain books you look at every month?

I’ve been grabbing Bertien’s book at random times. One time, I browsed through it five minutes before running out the door to catch the subway to work. I quickly flipped through it, stopping instinctively at only a few images. Most of the time I grab a few books from the shelf and browse through in one sitting. There are never enough though. Sometime after browsing a few books, I’ll head to Tumblr or Flickr, hoping to get a fix. It normally makes my head hurt. The experience becomes disorienting and jarring, so I generally try to stay away from the internet after viewing a bunch of photography books.

I liked Bertien’s photographs when I saw them in Chelsea and I like them even more after owning the book.

Between 1991 and 2009 van Manen travelled across Asia and Eastern Europe with a small, analogue camera, learning the local language and engaging with the people who would become the subject of this collection. Let’s sit down before we go is a portrait of the places van Manen visited and the people she met, stayed with and became friends with during her travels across Russia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Siberia, Tatarstan and Uzbekistan. Across nearly two decades, with the exception of big cities, little about the scenery in van Manen’s photographs has changed. The relative sameness of Russia’s appearance binds the images together, leaving us no indication of the time lapse from one photograph to another.

The title, Let’s sit down before we go represents an old Russian tradition, the practice of taking a moment, stopping to think before embarking on a journey, to consider where we will be travelling to and why.

One thing I find interesting is that there’s no text or introduction, so if you didn’t bother to do some online research you’d probably really have no idea what’s going on. I think this excerpt from Ladd’s LightBox article might explain why there was not text.

When van Manen speaks of her books, she uses the word “album” frequently. An album, a family album in particular, makes little claim for aspiring to great art. Its purpose seems to be our desire to access memory, history, personal feelings (both good and bad) and perhaps even serve as proof of our existences. There is a shorthand of language in the gestures, faces that can be universal even if we do not know who is in the picture. Her work seems familiar because it is art that slyly poses as photographs that could sit alongside our own memories in such an album. It is such that we can feel the gift of the company Bertien van Manen keeps.

And today, most of our family albums are now Facebook Galleries. I don’t think this is a big deal, but might change how we view the term album. I like Ladd’s definition and naturally music albums come to mind as well. For photographers who don’t have big aspirations to create books, but just enjoy documenting their life, perhaps the album concept is a good way for them to organize their work. Another example are photographers who put up monthly or seasonal edits on their websites.

The other day as I was walking to the laundromat, I started thinking about perspective. I’ve been thinking about it frequently the last few months. Bertien’s perspective resonates with me. Not only where she physically positions herself when making photographs but also her approach and perspective toward photography.

“Traveling with expensive Leicas or Nikons in Russia at that time was asking for trouble,” she says. “They considered my cameras as toys… and they did not feel threatened by them, they considered me as a tourist or friend, who liked to take pictures.”

So, could she have made the same photographs if she had a Leica and told them she was working on a serious documentary project? Something to think about for sure. How do people view documentary photographers when everyone has a camera and many consider themselves photographers? There’s clearly evidence that there’s a certain level of paranoia of people making photographs in the public. The big question as always is “why are you making those photographs?” The most simple question, but also the hardest to answer at times. Ask yourself right now.

I don’t want to speculate but from the photographs that Bertien has created in this book, I get the impression that she really wanted to remember the people she encountered on the journey. These photographs she’s created feel like they’re stuck in a strange time warp. At times I forgot that they were made in the last 20 years and maybe that doesn’t matter all that much, but I kind of think it’s important. In our hyper-connected, visually saturated world, there are still many places where the technology doesn’t dominate life and people still take a moment to sit down before for they set off for a new journey.

I think one of the reason’s I like Bertien’s book so much is that she was perfectly fine with being the tourist and the friend as well as the exceptional photographer.

Bertien van Manen – Lets sit down before we go

Edited by Stephen Gill

104 pages
96 colour plates
23.8 cm x 20 cm
Colour printed linen hardcover

Publication date: October 2011

Published by MACK

  • Gilles Marcil


  • Michael

    Good post Bryan, thanks.