IS EVERYTHING TRUE?
An introduction by Dr. Ger Jacobs
A lonely man in an empty pub in Manchester waiting for the gates of the football stadium to open, a shivering child from Chitungwiza (Zimbabwe) warming himself by a wood fire, two tourists dressed in summer clothes sitting all by themselves on a bench against the paintless and abandoned station of the Hungarian town of Rákosrendező, a fish merchant at the market in Helmond (Netherlands) looking surprised at the camera, a shepherd on the border between Kuwait and Iraq keeping a close eye on his herd and a wiry man from Mumbai (India) ironing piles full of laundry. Just a few pictures that painter and photographer Hans van den Berkmortel made during his travels around the world.
But “just a few pictures”, have they been made “just like that”? Van den Berkmortel is an artist and “doing something just like that” doesn’t fit that profile. Consciously or unconsciously, every genuine artist adds meaning to his work. So shouldn’t the same go for him? In full spontaneity he’s used his camera to capture images that grabbed him. Those images, taken wherever on the planet, almost always show people in their own environment. If they were removed from it to portray them, they’d probably lose all of their idiosyncrasy. With photographer Van den Berkmortel, it’s imperative that person and environment form an integrated whole. It’s not the world’s richest he shoots, but rather the ordinary men and women who, in their own little world, often have to work hard to make a living. And when we look at their children, that’s what we see emanating from their eyes, their clothes and their stance. None of them are celebrities but people with no name. Their environment is known, because the photographer mentions it with the title of the picture as additional information for the public. In brief, Van den Berkmortel never takes pictures “just like that”.
At the same time we must realize that the genre of ordinary people in their daily environment isn’t new. It is one of the oldest themes in photography and until today probably the most common one. Is the Helmond-born photographer joining the long line of peers that once started in the 19th century with Niepce and Daguerre? Is he walking a beaten path and does he, after 150 years, have something to contribute still?
Perhaps the title of his book unveils a little glimpse. “Everything is true”, he says indeed. Many a viewer will take that title as a benchmark on his journey through the photographic world of Van den Berkmortel. The introducer will do the same, he reverses the title and poses himself the question: Is everything true?
The French photographer Gustave Le Gray (1820-1884) achieved fame thanks to his phototechnical innovations as well as his role as inspiring teacher. Initially he was a painter but he quickly discovered that the new medium of photography not only suited him better, but above all offered him more opportunities. It allowed him to combine his lust for chemical experimenting with his extraordinary imaginative power.
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London is in possession of Le Gray’s photo titled Brig upon the water from 1856 (pic. 1). While at the forefront a piece of the harbor is visible, a sailboat with its sails down lies in the distance. The frail silhouette on the barely rippling water creates a sharp contrast against a mighty sky of clouds. The light protrudes from behind a cloud and falls on the water just behind the boat. De photo shows, mostly by its threatening cloud bank over the seemingly calm water, a mighty spectacle. It was the painter inside the photographer who was able to correctly assess the significance of such a scene. He managed to portray the often used, romantic theme in painting of the vanity of mankind versus the grandeur of nature, and the spacious infinity, in a photograph. Essentially it tells about the temporary versus the eternal.
Close to the town of Mochos, Crete, Hans van den Berkmortel’s eye caught a similar theme (pic. 2). Three lonesome horseback riders are riding along the guardrail of a coastal road. They’re looking at the sea and watch how the water slowly intertwines with the sky to form an immense blue space. They won’t realize themselves which part they’re playing in this whole, at best they’ll be standing in awe of this natural phenomenon. But the assessor of the picture is overwhelmed by another mood. The difference in magnitude between the small strip with the riders and the magnificent blue space is so immense, that admiration quickly changes to wonder and perhaps even to a certain reverence. Should man ever think that he will be in control of nature, the mysterious blue space tells the opposite. While in Le Gray’s picture nature poses a threat to man, Van den Berkmortel captures nature as a mysterious and awesome phenomenon that is unfathomable, in which man plays a part that is as small as it is nameless.
Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851) and Nicéphore Niepce (1765-1833) together took the first successful photograph in 1826. After Niepce’s death, Daguerre elaborated the process and improved the technique. Partly for that purpose he photographed in 1838, from a roof top window, the Boulevard du Temple in Paris (pic. 3). At first sight the avenue seems completely abandoned, but appearances are deceptive. There was traffic in fact, but due to the exposure time of approximately 10 minutes, the fast horse carriages appear invisible. When closely watched, a spot on the road reveals their presence. Luckily for the photographer, not everything was moving. In the curve of the pedestrian area next to the road, a man is having his shoes polished, the client and the polisher stood sufficiently still to be captured. We don’t know who they are, but they are in any case the first people ever to be seen in a photo. That’s what has made the photo a period piece in the history of photography. It is a document with two nameless, yet world famous people.
One does not necessarily have to have a name to be of significance in one way or another. That idea struck me in the photo titled Small Talk, Santa Lucia (pic. 4) by Hans van den Berkmortel. On a quay curve near a far corner of the Neapolitan fisherman’s harbor of Santa Lucia, a lonely fisherman has gotten company from an interested passerby. Heavily gesticulating, a behavior that Italians are famous for, they come to talk with one another. Are they talking about the weather, about the fishing, about the harbor, about the sea or just about daily affairs? We don’t know. It’s not even important: it’s just a chat, small talk between two nameless Neapolitans.
There are remarkable parallels between the pictures by Daguerre and Van den Berkmortel. The floodlight not only turns the figures into anonymous silhouettes, but also creates an atmosphere of pleasant tranquility. While the Boulevard du Temple bathes in the morning light, the early light on the Bay of Naples puts a fine shimmering on the surface of the lapping water. Both photos depict nameless people who have a different function within the scene. In the one by Van den Berkmortel, as the ships’ counterparts, they bring balance to the composition. In the one by Daguerre their presence is purely based on coincidence.
The British photographer William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) is known as the inventor of the printing-out process in photography, which made it possible to make multiple prints out of one negative. Until then each photograph was a unique example. Besides this important technical invention he was also one of the pioneers in the photography of life in the city and life in the countryside. To him that was a big difference, not only in terms of subject but also photographical possibility: When we try to take a picture in the city, of that ever moving crowd, it never works well for in a split second the situation is different and makes the photograph fail. However, when in the countryside we rearrange a group of people in an artistic manner and have them practice for a while to not move for a few minutes, we can easily make beautiful images.
The working method is clearly visible by looking at the photo titled The ladder (pic. 5) that Fox Talbot took in 1844. A farm hand puts up a ladder against the opening on the second floor of a classic English barn. Another one stands in the opening and checks if the ladder is steady. Under supervision of the landlord the work can begin. Probably the hay must be carried upstairs to continue to dry. Fox Talbot has staged his photo as if it were a scene from a play. The plants covering the walls on either side of the central door represent the coulisses, while the three figures are positioned in a classic triangular composition. The ladder represents the connection between the base of the triangle and its top. It’s a photo like a painting from the High Renaissance. There’s no question whatsoever here of spontaneity or coincidence of any kind.
In the Czech fortress town of Český Krumlov Hans van den Berkmortel saw a scene with a ladder too (pic. 6). He didn’t have to rearrange anything, since the owner of the dated fashion shop had done it already for him. Against the façade, straight next to the shopping window there’s a fashionably dressed mannequin that’s flanked by three torsos with dresses mounted on a standard. Apparently, this scene made the photographer think of modern fashion shows that are concluded on the catwalk with a complete overview. That’s why the photo of motionless models was humorously titled Line Up. But there’s more to experience than just humor. One could easily consider the ladder, standing against the electricity box in the dilapidated wall, as a metaphor for the advancement in society with modern clothes. That idea is also being enforced by the ascending height (from right to left) of the torsos and the mannequin. The ladder terminates the sequence as a final result.
The tapered ladder in itself however, with its ascending series of rungs, is again a lineup of elements that want to “advance” more and more.
In Fox Talbot’s arrangement the ladder clearly fulfilled a compositional function, in that of Van den Berkmortel it becomes a double metaphor. But the humor remains, for while with the English photographer not moving required practice, in Český Krumlov it took no such effort. The searching eye of the photographer, combined with coincidence, were sufficient right there to create a surprising image in a comical atmosphere. Ladder here isn’t a symbol but a metaphor.
The Belgian photographer Léonard Misonne (1870-1943) was among the first pioneers who took the atmosphere as starting point for his photos. His way of working was probably the result of his admiration for the impressionist art of painting. The deliberately blurred, impressionistic approach, inspired by the painters’ rapid brush strokes, earned him the nickname of the Corot of the photo in his time. Around the turn of the century his work used to be very popular with the urban middle class. The unrestrained urban expansions and the increasing flow of traffic nourished the desire of the pastoral atmosphere of the unspoiled countryside. Nowadays his work isn’t seldom classified as “outdated, conservative and sentimental”. Both ideas return in the photo Underneath the setting sun (pic. 7) from 1900.
At nightfall the shepherd returns with the herd and his dog from the vast, silent moor. Behind the silhouette of the man the soft light falls on the wooly backs of the sheep. The clouds against the final evening light form a reflection of sheep. The total scene breathes an atmosphere of calm and simplicity. A Romantic painter too, could have done it like that.
How different is the atmosphere depicted in the photo titled Who’s the black sheep? (pic. 8) by Hans van den Berkmortel. Somewhere in the border zone between Kuwait and Iraq, an Arab shepherd keeps watch over his sheep. The animals search for the arid stalks in the lean grass clumps that emerge randomly above the desert sand. The herd has spread to both sides of a dirt road and the shepherd keeps a close eye on his animals. Over their backs he peers at the horizon. The border zone between the two states is a troubled area infested by roaming gangs. All these circumstances give the photo an ambivalent atmosphere. It’s the calm of the grazing animals against the tension of the attentive shepherd in a region where poverty and scarcity rules over man and animal. Who’s the black sheep? That’s how the photographer called this scene; the title illustrates the content of this remarkable photo but it also tells something about his social engagement.
The Danish photographer and journalist Jacob Riis (1849-1914) moved to New York in 1870 where he demonstrated his social engagement with disturbing photo-reportages about the city’s slums. Initially he lived there under the same poor circumstances as the other inhabitants in the slums. In 1873 he found a job with the Evening Sun where he wrote blazing articles and illustrated them with his photos. In 1888 he published his famous book titled How the Other Half Lives. This work definitely represented his breakthrough as a pioneer of the socially engaged, American documentary photojournalism.
In the photo titled Lower East Side Laundry (pic. 9) a mother is having a meal with two children. Above their heads in the little dark room clothes of all sorts and sizes hang drying on washing lines. There are pots of various dimensions on the wood stove for heating the water used for the next pile of laundry. It is a sad scene, in which everything revolves around “keeping one’s head above water”. Despite the miserable circumstances the brave woman has found a way to earn some money. At first glance the photographer has portrayed the bitter poverty and the acceptance of this fate. But at the same time he shows these hut-dwellers’ courage to live. In all quietness, among the chaos of the drying laundry on the clothesline and the next pile in the corner, there’s time for a meal with the family.
In Dhobi Bat, one of the many poor neighborhoods of Mumbai (India), a man has also found a way to “keep his head above water”, but in the photo titled Iron Man (pic. 10) by Hans van den Berkmortel there’s no question of hidden heroism. Of engagement however, there is. In a humid and warm chamber, illuminated by a single fluorescent tube, he’s ironing in his shirt. Large piles of laundry lie waiting their turn. The man is literally and figuratively buried in his work. He appears out of focus, which emphasizes the feverishness of his work. On the other hand, the sharp representation of the full piles pose somewhat of a threat. They appear to just grow past the primitive ironing board of the man, toiling in the twilight. There’s no end to his labor, day in and day out. Underneath the sinister light he doesn’t know anymore either, whether it’s day or night. The Iron Man resembles a ghost rather than a man and he’s certainly not made of iron.
The Hungarian photographer Brassaï (1899-1984), pseudonym for Guyla Halász, lived in Paris from 1924, where he wrote articles for German magazines that he illustrated with his photos. Around the 1930s he considered portraying the Parisian nightlife. At nightfall he roamed, sometimes with a couple of friends but most of the time alone, through the abandoned streets and alleys of the city. Those nocturnal strolls brought him a wealth of photos. Out of these, the author Paul Morand (1888-1976) composed in 1932 the iconic photo book titled Paris de Nuit. One of the most impressive photographs was the one of an elderly prostitute (pic. 11) who’s out on the street waiting for her clients.
She stands lonely in a decayed and abandoned neighborhood underneath the bright light of a gas lamp. It’s just been lit as in the background the ladder of the lamplighter is leaning against the next one. The woman doesn’t pay any attention to the man, with her bag under her arm and a cigarette in her mouth she’s looking around annoyed. Far away from all the glitter and glamour of the Parisian entertainment district she’s trying to make a living here. The photographer has portrayed a sad image of a hopeless life.
In the small town of Stavelot in Belgium, Hans van den Berkmortel saw an old woman in a black and red dress sitting on a bench in front of her house (pic. 12). Suspiciously she’s staring ahead. Is she angry at the photographer or is this the facial expression that fits her and her life? She’s alone, even though somebody behind her lifts the curtain to see what’s happening. Is she being watched or does she have to be watched? Perhaps she’s just waiting for the mailman who comes to collect the letters from the mailbox at 3:30 PM or for someone from the municipal waste collection services who will empty the trash can and, as he goes, take the empty plastic bottle with him. It’s possible too, that she’s waiting for one of numerous bicycle races in the area of Liege to pass. Whatever it is, she’s longing for contact. Even though by looking at her facial expression, it seems that she’s living in her own world, her posture reveals the opposite. The prostitute Bassaï photographed and the Lady in Red by Hans van den Berkmortel show women who are longing for contact, but are no longer capable of supporting it. Life has made them numb and now they’re symbols of decline and isolation. Neither gas light nor day light can change that.
Andor (“André”) Kertész (1894-1985), Hungarian native and later on naturalized American, started his career as a war photographer during the First World War. During the interbellum he lived in Paris where among other things, he was close friends with his colleagues Brassaï, Nadar and Man Ray. There he became widely known with his photos of objects, such as the one with the glasses and pipe of Piet Mondriaan. He didn’t care so much about the significance of the objects, as much as he did about the game of light and shadow. This way he managed to elevate the most trivial things to nearly abstract photography. The extract of a staircase in the Montmartre district (pic. 13), he makes into a graphic piece of art with an exciting, diagonal black and white composition. The amazing contrast between the straight banister and the playful, staggered shadow on the stairs inexplicably captivates the spectator.
In the photo titled Taxi (pic. 14) by Hans van den Berkmortel, it takes a while to find a taxi. It is barely visible as a yellow flash between the aluminum slats of the window blinds. But just as the banister in Kertész’s work, they only present the opportunity for taking the photo. The photographer was rather interested in the game of light and shadow on the slats, formed by the adhesive letters on the window.
Both pictures show the essence of photography. The word is composed of two Greek words: φωτὸς [fotòs] meaning light and γράφω [gràfo] meaning to write. Photography literally means “to write by means of light”. Both photographers have been doing this, Kertész quite explicitly as a zigzag writing pattern on the Parisian staircase and Van den Berkmortel in a whimsical manner, in which he saw that the adhesive letters on the window were converted to shadow signs projected on the blinds of an American diner in New York. The photographer from Helmond took his photo casually, whereas the Hungarian Parisian waited patiently for the right moment.
During a period of more than 10 years, Hans van den Berkmortel has made hundreds of impressive images from around the world. The large differences in place and time have led to a collection that on one hand demonstrate a charming and pleasant variety, as diverse as the world itself. On the other hand it’s also a disorganized whole, lacking any form of grip for the viewer. How can we bring order to a book without violating its diversity and spontaneity? We can instantly discard the well-known rational methods of chronology and theme. Instead, we must seek order in the irrational plane. What would be more evident with photos than to use light as organizing method, for with photography as well as with life, light is a prerequisite. Through the day and night rhythm the light determines the order of life for everyone, anywhere in the world. That idea underlied the way in which Hans van den Berkmortel’s photo collection is organized. That is how the book has become a photographic journey with the familiar rhythm of one twenty-four hour day as our guide line, starting with the early morning and finishing with the night. The beginning and the end of the light is an ancient symbol of life; a ruthless truth that no one can ignore.
Every photographer since the 1930s is in some way indebted to the pioneers of their profession. Nicéphore Niepce and his pupils, with their primitive means, have pointed directions, outlined possibilities and introduced ideas. They’ve never drawn any boundaries, because in their own era, virtually since the beginning, a turbulent evolution in photography was occurring. That baggage allowed their followers of the 20th century with convenient and advanced cameras to deliver razor sharp shots, revealing scenes, touching images and spectacular panoramas. The technical development has never stood still and the possibilities of the photographers of today seem endless. Yet their foundation has stayed the same. As well as those from the pioneers, their photos, regardless of the genre they practice, represent a reflection of their time, whether they’re portraits, landscapes, objects or genre photos. Van den Berkmortel’s work is no exception to this rule. But there’s a second, far more important element that determines the essence of photography, i.e. the person operating the camera. That’s where photographers distinguish themselves. It’s he (or she) who elevates photography with his background, his character and his creative talents beyond the ordinary snapshooter. Photography then becomes an art form, and the same applies to Hans van den Berkmortel’s work.
His photos exhibit a serious and socially engaged way of watching the world around him. Nowhere he’s a cold observer. One moment he demonstrates sincere involvement with his subject and the next time he looks with a certain humor at the people he meets. Furthermore, he never loses sight of color and composition. He knows like no one else that these visual resources don’t determine the final result, but can make a significant contribution. From his heart he tries to touch the spectator emotionally, that’s his goal.
But how about the truthfulness of his photos? Like he says in the title of his book, Everything is true. He travels around the world and shows it to us through images that he’s captured spontaneously and candidly with his camera. He presents them with virtually no editing. If the truth is the opposite of the lie, then Van den Berkmortel’s photos are all true, for he doesn’t manipulate or cheat anywhere. But if we must define the truth as the reality of the world, then we must add nuance to his title because of the relative nature of the term “reality”. An absolute reality is inexistent because its definition is given by people. The photos he shows are therefore not a reflection of the world, but of his world: the true world of Hans van den Berkmortel. That’s why, without hesitation, he can title his book as: Everything is true.