Stuart Forster visits the exhibition ‘Shadows’ at the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam, the attraction known in English as the Dutch Photography Museum.
A photograph by Koen Wessing features as the centrepiece of Shadows, an installation by the Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar, which is being shown until 12 May 2019 at the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
Disclosure: Stuart Forster was invited to the Nederlands Fotomuseum during a press trip organised by Rotterdam Marketing. Neither Rotterdam Marketing nor the Nederlands Fotomuseum reviewed or approved this article.
The installation features an image showing two grieving Nicaraguan women. Wessing photographed them at Esteli in 1978 after they learnt of the murder of their father, a farmer. The Dutch photographer captured the events that unfolded after he met with local men carrying the farmer’s corpse.
The installation is the second part of a trilogy, Trinity of Life, based around iconic photographs. The first, The Sound of Silence, featuring an image by Kevin Carter, was exhibited at the Nederlands Fotomuseum in 2013.
Jaar was also invited to create an exhibition showing Wessing’s work photographed following the coup d’etat that took place in Chile during 1973. Led by General Pinochet, the coup deposed Salvador Allende, Chile’s President.
Part of the Trinity of Life
“This show is part of the trilogy Trinity of Life,” explained Martijn van den Broek, the Head of Collections at the Nederlands Fotomuseum.
“When Alfredo was here we discussed with him what the next part of the trilogy would be. He was totally unsure about it, because he wanted to make three works around one photograph. And he also said that the photograph, or the installation, had to have something to do with light. That was a prerequisite,” added Van den Broek.
“He was sure that he wanted three continents — Africa, South America and Asia — to be the subject of those three works. He had one about Africa and that’s the one we showed and now he has two left and he wasn’t sure what was going to happen.
He asked us if we knew the Dutch photographer, Koen Wessing. Coincidentally, just one year before, we had acquired his archive. Koen Wessing died in 2011. Alfredo wanted to choose one work, the main work of the Shadows show. I think you’ll have to look at it yourself because I think that’s the way Alfredo wants it,” added Van den Broek, who is an art historian.
A historic photography book
“I’ll show you a little bit more about this exhibition, which we could make because we have the archive of Koen Wessing and Alfredo Jaar was the curator of the exhibition,” said the museum’s Head of Collections, pointing towards a thin book displayed behind glass.
“It was given away. Now sometimes it sells for a thousand euros. It’s a very strange what happened in the market. It was in a book by Martin Parr. It was one of the first international photo books where there was no text in the book,” explained Van den Broek.
In cooperation with Alfredo Jaar, the Nederlands Fotomuseum has printed new copies of the book.
“We have printed all threads of the book and put them on the wall. In fact, it’s almost in between a work by Koen Wessing and a work by Alfredo Jaar. This whole exhibition was created by Alfredo Jaar, especially the minute detailing of how it was supposed to be shown. We had not 25, not 20 centimetres, but 26 centimetres in between every photograph. So, it was very precisely detailed.
The idea is to show this book and to give it a bit more power because if you see the book in real it is, in fact, newspaper printing; all the blacks are totally run through and the whites are sometimes very bad. What we did is we scanned the original negatives and worked them according to our vintage prints, which we also have in this collection.
We show exactly as Koen Wessing showed it. You see that we have one text: Chile, September 1973, Koen Wessing. And for the rest, he doesn’t explain anything,” added Van den Broek.
“He said the images should talk for themselves and he made the book quite rapidly after the coup by Pinochet where Allende was, we think, murdered. Pinochet took over Chile and Koen was very angry about that. He went to Chile right after the coup happen. What we have here is a small exhibition about this project.
Koen went there for 10 days after the coup and came back with only 11 rolls of film. These are all the all this vintage contact prints,” said Van den Broek gesturing to black and white contact prints displayed in a glass cabinet in the centre of the otherwise subtly lit room.
It emphasises just how sparingly Wessing photographed. Maybe many of the photographers of the digital age could learn from Wessing’s approach?
Wessing’s approach to photography
“When Koen started, he worked with a plate camera. He was a press photographer. He only got two to cassettes with, in total, four negatives inside. When he went for a job, he was not allowed to make four photographs because on the way back he would never be sure if he would be something like an accident or something special. So, he was only allowed to make three photographs for a job.
Later on, when he started using 35mm film. His boss said to him, ‘You’re not allowed to use a whole roll of film for a subject.’ So he was in the tradition of looking first and only making a photograph when you see something happens. It is not necessary to make 10 photographs of a scene. Just the one that you need. What you see here, I think was very selective in how he photographed,” explained Van den Broek.
For the first time, some of Wessing’s colour slides have also been selected for display on light boxes. Each of the images has a relationship to the vintage prints that are displayed and form part of the Nederlands Fotomuseum’s collection. A dummy book, which Wessing made and presented to one of the Netherlands’ prime ministers, is also on display.
Shadows will be displayed at the Nederlands Fotomuseum until 12 May 2019.
The Nederlands Fotomuseum is at Wilhelminakade 332 in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. The museum’s growing collection encompasses approximately six million images. The collection includes the archives of 165 Dutch photographers.
The museum hosts temporary exhibitions. Shadows by Alfredo Jaar and Robert F. Kennedy Funeral Train – The People’s View by Rein Jelle Terpstra will be exhibited until 12 May 2019. In parallel, images selected from the museum’s collection, selected by the photographer Bertien van Manen, will be shown until 8 December 2019.