Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Bert Teunissen - Domestic Landscapes?

Bert Teunissen and his mega-project Domestic Landscapes (on his website and published by Aperture) seems to be all the rage right now (and good on 'im for it), but his work really doesn't do it for me.

He examines domestic environment - which are apparently dissapearing - along with those who inhabit them. But I don't find the photographs terribly interesting or convincing - especially when you line up the hundreds he has taken. Individually, or two or three at a time, possibly. The style is particularly off-putting - rather than reflecting the work of the Dutch Old Masters (as someone like Elger Esser successfully does), they seem much more closely related to the somewhat forced style of early colour news magazines. The use of colour in particular seems fairly incidental - rather like Robert Polidori's interiors. In fact these resemble many of Polidori's interiors in style, but with people dropped in and the use of colour is essentially cosmetic.

"Over the past decade, Dutch photographer Bert Teunissen has documented hundreds of old European homes. These are rudimentary yet cultured settings aglow with a warm, timeless atmosphere; spaces in which a primary interior feature is that of natural light. Old World details crowd the frame of each image: ornate wallpaper, ancestral portraits, home-cured hams hung from exposed beams, and decorative dishware proudly displayed on mantels. The homes pictured here were built before the World Wars, before electricity was a standard feature, a time when sunlight played a pivotal role in the conception of architecture. Teunissen renders these last vestiges of old Europe with a palette and sensitivity to light that recall Dutch masters like Vermeer and Rembrandt." (Aperture)

Overall he seems to have produced what is effectively a typology of lonely old men and women of Europe (thanks SG) - a sort of conceptual nostalgia. And that's where I think the problem lies for me - this is a very conceptual work - and yet it is a topic which would work far better without being bound by a theory - swap concept for context and focus on the subjects and it might have worked better - a lot better.

The other problem with the concept, that apparently informs and guides this work, is that it embraces a whole lot more things and ideas than the work shows in its limited range - so the pictures generally tend to fall short when compared to the words. By comparison, reading John Berger's "Into Their Labours" trilogy (Pig Earth,
Once In Europa and Lilac and Flag) conveys similar ideas with far more rigour and vision and much greater reflection on the "european peasant" and the migration from countryside to city (among several other themes).

"Some photographers think the idea is enough. I told a good story in my Getty talk, a beautiful story, to the point: Ducasse says to his friend Mallarmé — I think this is a true story — he says, “You know, I’ve got a lot of good ideas for poems, but the poems are never very good.” Mallarmé says, “Of course, you don’t make poems out of ideas, you make poems out of words.” Really good, huh? Really true. So, photographers who aren’t so good think that you make photographs out of ideas. And they generally get only about halfway to the photograph and think that they’re done." John Szarkowski
In looking at these pictures, I compare them to the work of something like The Day-to-Day Life of ALbert Hastings, or the (horribly titled) For every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness - both of which seem to embody an honest affection for the subjects of their work rather than the pinned butterfly collection of Domestic Landscapes. There's a bigger gap than we might generally think between detachment or a lack of sentimentality - and unemotional distance. And that, ultimately, is what comes across to me in this work - that cool distance.


gravitas et nugalis said...

re: ideas/concept - try getting a Guggenheim grant - or any other grant/funding - without one.

and speaking of ideas, wasn't the idea on this project to picture the architecture, not the inhabitants thereof?

I don't see a "typology of lonely old men and women". In fact, I see "rudimentary yet cultured settings aglow with a warm, timeless atmosphere ..." which I like very much.

Luis said...

They certainly don't glamorize or deify the subjects, and have something in common with traditional depictions of peasants, like the Potato Eaters, minus the hunger, oddly like some of Ivan Albright's work, Dutch 17th century genre painting, the early work of Davidson, Misrach, if one can consider their subjects cosmopolitan peasants of sorts, all recontextualized within the deadpan style.

It's the way I would expect Tina Barney to shoot the same subjects (albeit done with natural light , much less dramatic tension, and more emphasis on environment).

They're hardly incendiary, but
nevertheless interesting.

--- Luis

Doug Rickard said...

Certainly, the photographs as a whole could contain more intensity/tension but the main area of weakness for me is in the sheer repitition...

No project can contain such a massive scale of repetition and also contain exceptional gravity for the viewer.

Personally, I think that disciplined editing for Bert and a mix in of non human photographs into the project (interiors without subjects, exteriors witout subjects) would elevate the whole, significantly...

Matt Niebuhr said...

I for one believe it's work like like Tenunissen's work (I admire his both his work and personal approach)which will grow old gracefully - in fact as time passes and the culture changes these places and the inhabitants - I believe we will be more interested in seeing these sorts of pictures for what they record.
The problem with most photographer's is that they are too concerned about making sure you can recognize their work - rather than just doing their work and letting it develop.

I always try to consider patience when reviewing and writing my opinions - I try to imagine what I think might be worth looking at 50 or 100 years from now. It's my opinion that Tuenissen's work is more about trying to be truthful to what he sees - for the long view.


doonster said...

While the style is consistent I come away with mixed feelings. The work from The Netherlands appears the strongest: a feeling of warmth and connection to the subjects. More intimate portraits of life.

From the rest I get both the typology of the lonely (often coupled with graceless poverty) and the rudimentary yet cultured depending on the image. Yet there is no attempt to draw the comparisons. For the most part the non-Dutch people seem to regard Teunissen with, at the least, suspicion. Outside of his native coutry, there is definitely the feeling of complete detachment from the subject, as if he doesn't really understand what is in front of him.