Archive is my introduction to and only photobook from Bertien van Manen, so far, and as far as I know/recall. Where has she been all my life? smh. Anyway. The book collects selections from projects undertaken over roughly 40 years and across three continents. In black & white and color, the work has looks almost effortless in a way. I would give the book a wholehearted recommendation, but it failed in being a book in a way that I’ve never seen before and hope to never see again…
As it’s freshest in my mind, let me get my complaint out of the way first: the glue on the binding either melted or never solidified. So, as I flipped through the book over several wonderful hours, the first page came unstuck from its spot against the front cover and migrated to the middle of the spine. I kept hearing strange, loud creaks and pops and had to carefully peel the book apart and painstakingly re-mount the cover. Despite my best efforts, I didn’t get it quite right. I hope other copies don’t suffer from this issue, as it’s otherwise a great book.
I was too busy trying to get the book back together to bother photographing the glue failure and I’m not going to dismantle it again, but maybe you can see that something is a bit off.
I’m tempted to see this rather severe and worrying failure as a symptom of Peak Photobook, and if so, I’m glad I got out when I did…* I should probably reach out to Mack and ask if this is a feature, rather than a bug, but I probably won’t bother, as I’m not sure I can describe the issue properly. And, anyway, with some care, I can now flip through the book very gently and it seems to work like a book should, without the loud creaks and snaps as the book body pops away from, then re-sticks to random spots on the cover… smh. Ok. That’s enough. I’ll say nothing more about the book’s shoddy construction.
Archive is a great and relatively inexpensive survey of van Manen’s oeuvre. The book opens with 67 pages of full bleed images culled from her archive before going through a roughly chronological survey the artist’s long-term projects: Home, 1970-1980; Budapest, 1975; The Netherlands, 1975-1979, 1985; Romania, 1990; The Appalachian Mountains, 1985-2013; Soviet Union, 1991-2009; Home, 1995; China, 1997-2001; Sofia, Amsterdam, Toulouse, Belgrade, Rome, Barcelona, 2002-2005; Ireland, 2013-2015. Roughly half of the images, the first 15-20 years worth, were made with black & white film. Van Manen switched to color during her time in the Appalachians, sometime between 1985 and 1990, and her move to color feels entirely natural. Likewise her writings about the projects and excerpts from her journals that appear at the beginning of some sections. These add some context to the photographs and are totally worth a read, while also not being essential to the photographs.
Van Manen seems to have the ability to just slip in to a community, become part of the group, move about naturally and largely unnoticed, or that’s the feeling I get from her pictures. Shocked expressions are few and far between, as are posed pictures, and her rare selfies are rarely obvious. The cover image, for example… Look closely: she didn’t take that with the camera she’s holding, and I think she may have a shutter release in one hand for the camera that took the picture. In another, she’s seated, looking off to one side, bored. The only indication that it’s a self portrait is the long snake of shutter release cable. If I wasn’t so afraid of further damaging the book,** (apologies: I said I would never speak of it again…) I’d claim that I hope to study her work and learn something. Alas, and we both know I would never likely do any such thing…
Hans Gremmen put Archive together. If Gremmen is to blame for the edit and sequencing, he should be applauded, as the book is great. Hripsimé Visser contributed a biographical essay, “Portrait of a woman,” in which the author claims that the cover photograph is the selfie that it seems to be, rather than the put on I claim above. You be the judge: look at the front cover and examine the orientation of the camera lens vs the frame of the image and sprocket holes. Could it be a straight mirror selfie? :shrugs: Anyway. Visser’s text, and probably van Mannen’s too, were translated by Ina Rilke.***
I wish I could trust the book not to fall apart again. Van Manen’s work is worth studying, for sure. Her general technique—framing, lighting, the arrangement of various elements within the frame—and her ability to mix in and get the shots she gets, and even her writing are right up my alley. I’m a fan.
Overall, I rate Archive a solid 4.1 stars. That said, I can’t honestly recommend it. I hope my copy is the only fail like it did, but I suspect others fail too. It can’t be a one-off.
Heed my warning and if you want to see some van Manen work firsthand, seek out other van Manen books. Mack put out 6 and most are available, though some are quite expensive… a quick hunt through bookfinder, though, and a signed copy of Moonshine is on its way to me for relatively cheap. Hopefully it will hold together better than my copy of Archive has. smh.
* I bought only a handful of photobooks in 2022, vs the literal hundreds I bought in 2016-2021, and I should really sit down and really write something about my defection, rather than wasting precious review time.
** Why? I never thought of photobooks as investment vehicles, though a few in my over-large collection clearly are…
*** I only include this last bit because Mack fail to mention them, and both Visser and Rilke played important roles in the execution of the book.