Monday, May 9, 2016

Machiel Botman: Gazing Within
Minor White once said, “All photographs are self-portraits.” When one considers the medium from a fine art rather than utilitarian perspective, it’s hard to argue against this assertion. Despite its mechanical nature, photography not only reveals what’s in front of the camera, it inescapably alludes to the personalities of those behind it. At one extreme are photographers who make self-reflective imagery in a calculated and direct manner, using themselves as subject (Francesca Woodman is a famous example). In contrast are photographers who reveal themselves more obliquely (as White did), through choice of subject matter, visual style and use of symbolism. Prominent among the latter category is Dutch photographer Machiel Botman, whose entire body of work, begun in the late 1970s, can be seen as an uninterrupted visual diary of self-exploration. Yet he’s no soul-baring exhibitionist; Botman is akin to writers who express more between the lines than in the lines themselves. And his autobiographical impulse is subordinate to his desire simply to make sense of his life and the lives of those around him. It’s an unhurried, unstressed process for Botman, who was born in Vogelenzang, the Netherlands, in 1955.

Machiel Botman, self-portrait

What sparked your interest in photography?
To be honest, I don't know. Cameras and using them were part of life for as long as I can remember. We (my brother and I) grew up in a forest, and there were many things around us worth photographing: tree huts, dogs, cats, birds, friends, each other—and all the tools a child uses. The cameras came into the house because our father (who did not live with us) brought cameras that people turned in to his insurance company. So we could try them out. Some worked, others not.

When did you realize this was the medium you wanted to devote yourself to?
Perhaps around the age of 22, 23, when I photographed my girlfriend, Jel. Then, because I photographed someone I loved, I simply loved photography too. I began to develop film and print the negatives. I think it was the total quiet in that darkroom, for days and weeks nonstop, that won me over.

White Cat, 1965

The photo White Cat,” taken in 1965, is pretty accomplished for a 10-year-old: the composition is nicely balanced, it shows good timing in capturing the cat’s graceful pose, and it has nice contrast and textures. Is this image representative of your early work?
No, in the sense of photographic quality, this is an exceptional image and it was simply being lucky. Apart from what you say, it is how that little plastic lens of the Kodak Instamatic dealt with the white cat in the snow. Total magic and it reminds me of early Japanese photography, not very sharp, not very subtle in the grays, but with such feeling to it all. There are many more childhood photographs and some are beautiful, but this image of the cat says it all for me.

Even at this early stage, you managed to evoke a very personal response to your subject matter. Was this a conscious approach, or did it evolve naturally?
It came in a natural way, but it is not easy to put into words what that means. What may be personal to me can be something else to you. I think it is about many things, from just thinking about photography, to how one photographs, even in terms of the equipment, to how one develops and prints. In the beginning I thought more about photography than I did later on. Like: Should I use a telephoto lens for a portrait? Answer: no, because I want to be very close to the person I photograph; otherwise it has no meaning. True, you can make beautiful portraits with telephoto lenses, but when you remain far [away] from the person, you have no contact and there is no reason for the photograph, except perhaps an aesthetic reason. And that's not enough, it never is. Of course, this is all subjective blah blah, but it is my way: A small camera and one lens is really what I use 95% of the time. (Olympus OM1 with a 40mm and a Pentax LX with a 50mm). I like small cameras because they do not intimidate. It means I can get much closer to what really matters, the personal worlds within photography. 

Ijke's Hand, 1999

Another side of the answer is the subject choice itself. I only work with people who mean something to me, often in a strong way. So there are no models and I do not ask people to pose. They know I photograph them, but it doesn't matter. It is almost unimportant, I'm playing. Maybe that sounds crazy, but that's how it is. And even with objects or landscapes the better images come from playing rather than thinking things out. All I do is get close. I identify with something Robert Frank once said when asked about using family [members] in his images: “That's the soup I cook."

How long did it take you to develop a personal vision?
Not so long and very long. Some great images happened right away. But to understand it all, and mostly myself, that took a long time, and still does. At first people in the field asked me: "Beautiful image, but what is it about?" I had no answer, at least not an honest one. The real reason for people to ask that question was that my context wasn't yet clear. Some great images jumped out, but there were no other images making clear where it all came from and where I was going to. That part has only slowly changed. I just took my time, I worked for years on the same books. I made many book dummies to show myself things. Probably this made me realize things about photographing.

Tree House, 2008

What was the biggest challenge in doing so?
To just stick to what I believed in. Mine is intuitive photography. In my case that means to be a snail.

Which photographers and/or other artists have influenced you?
Masahisa Fukase, Sanne Sannes, Dave Heath, Daido Moriyama, Johan Van der Keuken, Daniel Seymour, Gerard Petrus Fieret. The painter Constant Nieuwenhuys. Neil Young.

Is there a specific Dutch photographic tradition or movement that helped shape your creative perspective?
I'm not sure there is, but I do feel that Holland is very lucky to have (had) some photographers: In particular Johan van der Keuken and Gerard Fieret. Two opposites. Johan succeeded in making connections between very personal worlds and larger worlds: political, etc. Beautiful thinker. Fieret was the opposite: all intuition. Mostly images of girls and women he liked. Beautiful stuff, raw, modest and without a single pretense.

People take photographs for all sorts of reasons. Your bio states that for you, it’s a way to understand life. Can you specify how the process works for you?
The understanding of life comes after the images are taken, when they have come to rest. Many times to take a photograph is a violent action—you slice an instant from its past and future. To let that become meaningful you need time. To understand what you are really looking at. To understand how that image can become important within who you are. Maybe it connects to what you have done before. Maybe it shows you something you never realized.

Shoulder, Magda, 2008

Is all of your work autobiographical? Is it important to know the people that you photograph?
Yes almost all of it. From early on I had the rather fatalistic idea that if I couldn't do it with those who mattered to me, then I couldn't do it at all. Well, I am still in the first stage, trying to do it with those who matter to me. It is about my idea of what is real or not. All very subjective, but I am still quite convinced. For instance, it is not so difficult for a photographer to do a portrait of someone which suggests there is something highly personal between them. To many photographers that is their idea of a great portrait. But to me, if there is not that something highly personal between them, that is a lie. I have to say this is just about me. If I would take a photograph of a person that suggests we have a lot going on between us, then this image would always bother me if that was not true.

What kind of exploration does photography represent for you? Spiritual, intellectual, social?
Not intellectual. Spiritual is a big word. But I have learned tremendously from this profession. I have found things in my images that I never knew were there when I took them. I have understood things by putting certain images together, by sequencing them. It's always about things between the lines, or things that are difficult to give a name. I guess that could mean spiritual. Catherine Duncan (a friend and writer for Paul Strand) once looked at my work, she was over 90 years old and said: “Well now, of course we are not going to be spoon-fed.” And then, with a wicked smile in her eyes, said, "But then, how could we if we want to enter anything remotely spiritual."

I am not a social photographer, but I have learned a lot from social photographers. Philip Jones Griffiths' book Vietnam Inc. was a revelation to me. The images of course, but also how he put it together. It was one of my first photo books. Years later, when the whole world had turned plastic and uncaring, he made Agent Orange. He had never let go of Vietnam and what happened there. And again he made a special book. But not many people wanted to see pictures of unborn, mis-formed children in bottles.

Lea, 2002

Do you have an overall conception in mind when you go out to photograph, or is it more of a searching process?
The latter. I am the photographer without a plan. I just react.

Put another way, do you look for images, or do they look for you?
They find me, for sure.

Do you feel that the further you get from a literal interpretation of a particular subject, the closer you get to revealing or capturing some kind of truth about it, whether literal or symbolic?
Yes. I think precise information or linear information often takes us further from that truth. Sometimes it becomes so terribly difficult to imagine anything today. And it is in our imagination that we can reveal something, or find a certain truth.

Ijke Flowers, 1993

For me, the images are all about dualities. They are strange yet familiar, inviting yet distant, transparent yet oblique. Do they strike you in this manner?
Yes, for some reason they are never very singular. Some have really confused me, because I slowly began to see things that were conflicting with what I had seen before. There is the image “IJke Flowers” from 1993. I use it on the cover of my book Heartbeat. The instant of photographing my five-year old son IJke with the flowers lasted just seconds. There was no plan, it just happened like a short silence in a storm. When I saw it I knew it was the cover image I had wanted to find for more than two years. That book I began after my mother had passed away, and in a sense it is about that too. But it is also about my boy, who was born not long before, about my relationships, my people. At first that image is a young boy holding out white flowers to the photographer, to you. However, because of the light and the absence of focus in the majority of the image, something ghostly enters. Something like death. Something not very easy.

We should talk again in a few years, when I have had (and you too) some time with the image of “Horse and Church,” from the book One Tree. I know it has many layers to it, but I can't yet put it into words. It is basically a mistake; my camera was not fully transporting the film. And I kind of willingly refused to deal with it. But after that it is only about the image we see. A sleeping horse? I am not sure.

Horse and Church, 2008

What I ultimately take away from your work is a profound sense of innocence. You seem to evoke a kind of primeval emotional state.
I think I never grew up. I simply do not accept many grownup reasonings, and I do accept very much the unfinished child. Him or her I can relate with, without any problem.

Do you consider yourself a romantic?
No, to the contrary.

Do you feel that photo books are the best way to disseminate your work?
Yes, but not only. Simply, a table can be great too. Let's say shows are smaller moments in time; they have an end to them when we take the pictures of the wall. Therefore the afterlife of a show is relatively short. It’s so different with a book. We keep coming back to it, so the ideas in a book meet a changing person. Or, the viewer can change how the book affects him or her. In exhibitions there is something terribly distant about standing in front of a framed image. To hold a book in your hands feels more like real life to me. It is a strange medium, the photo book. To me, it gets most interesting when the books have nothing explanatory and when it is the object you hold in your hands that somehow gives away its identity. You know, like when you first pick up a new book and leaf through it from the back to the front. And you simply know you are going to love this book. Now that is very photo book! It’s difficult to pick up a novel and do some fragmented reading from back to front . . . well, for me it is.

Elswout, Haarlem, 1999

How important is the darkroom to expressing your particular vision? It looks as if much of the darkness in the images is enhanced during printing.
I know my prints have a lot of contrast, but to me that is normal. I like a beautiful print, but I don’t have to get the total nuances the medium can give me. That is not my holy goal. I want secrets, emptiness, mistakes and all the stuff that makes life so interesting.

I like how you open up unusual visual perspectives through sequential imagery.
I find photography beautiful when it shows small steps in life. When I photograph someone it is always quite quickly. I don't like to put through through endlessly being stared at though a camera before taking the picture. It means it is over before we know it. But then, when the camera is just in my hands and not in front of my eyes, I always shoot some more. Many times that's when things really happen and when the person becomes alive. Then it is often nice to show two or three images in sequence.

What are the most important qualities a creative photographer must possess?
I think it is all about imagination. I don't know if having a certain kind of imagination is a quality. But I like it best when a photographer's imagination surprises me, when it really works. Then I see an identity of the one who made the piece. We are at a strange point in photography: Digital printing is taking over. So many photographers let labs print their images. Of course, they give directions for the printing, but it is not the same as when one always does his or her own prints. That brings you much closer to the photographer also having an identity in the printing. That's about touching stuff, struggling, being a human being. We are losing that, and that means we are also losing the knowledge. Scary stuff. All of this to say that I prefer a photographer to make his or her prints, to see the specific quality in that.

Julia, 2007

(All images copyright Machiel Botman. He is represented by the Gitterman Gallery in New York and the Mica Gallery in Milan. His books include Heartbeat (Volute, 1994),Rainchild (Schaden and Le Point du Jour, 2004) and One Tree (Nazraeli Press, 2011). His work is included in numerous institutional collections, including the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, the Tokyo Museum of Photography and the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem. To see more of his imagery, visit