Bertien van Manen, a Roving Photographer of Daily Life, Dies at 89

Bertien van Manen, a Roving Photographer of Daily Life, Dies at 89

Bertien van Manen, a Dutch photographer who used point-and-shoot cameras to capture intimate images of daily life in China’s big cities and remote villages, the dismal apartments and alleyways of post-Soviet Russia and coal miners in Kentucky, died on May 26 in Amsterdam. She was 89.

Her studio manager, Iris Bergman, confirmed the death, at a rehabilitation facility.

Ms. van Manen was working as a fashion photographer in 1975 when a friend gave her a copy of “The Americans,” the groundbreaking collection of photos that the photographer Robert Frank took on a road trip across the United States in the 1950s.

“He wasn’t at all in the business of making beautiful photographs, yet that’s what they are,” Ms. van Manen told Aperture Magazine. “The coincidental, the inadvertent — I thought his photographs were magnificent.”

Ms. van Manen eventually traded the high-end cameras she used in fancy fashion studios for a 35-mm Olympus mju II, which retailed for less than $100 and was used primarily by consumers to capture vacations, birthday parties, graduations and the like.

The camera’s size and simplicity allowed her to disappear in plain sight. “People felt less threatened by them,” she told Aperture. “You’re with a guest who also takes photos, rather than with a photographer who’s your guest.”

The cheap cameras produced images that were sometimes grainy and overexposed — imperfections that Ms. van Manen didn’t correct in the dark room. To her, they were stylistic metaphors for the messiness of life.

“There is a kind of offhand intimacy to her work,” said Susan Kismaric, the former curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where Ms. van Manen’s work has been exhibited. “She cultivated that very deliberately.”

In addition to MoMA, Ms. van Manen’s photographs were shown at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, the Fotomuseum Winterthur in Switzerland and at art galleries around the world, including Yancey Richardson in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan.

She published 10 collections of her work.

“A Hundred Summers, a Hundred Winters” (1994) captured post-Soviet life in the “most inaccessible of places — the homes of ordinary people — in order to show us how millions of Russians live and sleep, what they eat, what they look like in their everyday life, in their flats, at their tables, in their beds,” the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski wrote in the introduction.

In “East Wind West Wind” (2001), Ms. van Manen documented life in China’s discos, all-night theaters, airport restaurants and rural villages, among other places she traveled to on several trips to the country. “Let’s Sit Down Before We Go” (2011) collects photos she took from 1991 to 2009 in Russia, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Tatarstan and Georgia.

Her only major work set in the United States was “Moonshine” (2014). Ms. van Manen, the daughter of a coal-mining engineer, rented a pickup truck in 1985 and traveled alone through Tennessee, West Virginia and Kentucky in search of female coal miners.

“I’d never visited the Appalachians before and was struck by the beautiful mountains,” she wrote in The Guardian. “But I wasn’t ready for the human chaos. Sometimes, the miners had little houses, but more often they were squeezed into caravans, mobile homes or whatever they could build in the woods.”

In Cumberland, Ky., she met a coal miner named Mavis and her husband, Junior. They shared a trailer, Ms. van Manen wrote in The Guardian, “with Mavis’s son Cris and Junior’s collection of 23 rifles.”

She lived with them for four months, then returned several more times.

One photo is of a neighbor with a child on his lap who is pointing a gun. Others show Junior’s granddaughter applying eyeliner, his sister siting in a rocking chair with her eyes closed and Mavis holding her dog.

“For some reason,” Ms. van Manen wrote in The Guardian, “I was quickly welcomed. The locals have a reputation for aggression and hard-drinking, but I liked them. The rest of us put on masks and try to be good, but they are just the way they are.”

Bertien Henket was born on Feb. 15, 1935, in The Hague. Her father, Nicolaus Henket, was an electrical engineer who worked for coal mines. Her mother, Erica (Bauduin) Henket, managed the household.

While studying French at the University of Leiden, she worked as a model.

“I lost interest in that and thought, I’ll turn things around,” she told Aperture. “I’m going to get behind the camera instead of being in front of it.”

At a party, she met the fashion and advertising photographer Theo Noort, who hired her as his assistant. She later began shooting photos for Dutch women’s magazines.

Among fashion photographers then, few were women.

“The models appreciated working with a woman instead of all those guys,” Ms. van Manen told Aperture. “They felt freer and less like objects of desire. So I had an astonishing amount of work.”

She found the work “hollow,” though.

When a friend gave her Mr. Frank’s book, she found it “so dynamic and so personal, I thought — this is the way I want to take photographs,” she told ArtReview in 2005.

She married Willem van Manen in 1961. He died in 2008.

Ms. van Manen is survived by her daughter, Willemijn van Manen; her son, Joris van Manen; and a grandson.

Ms. Kismaric, the former curator at MoMA, said Ms. van Manen’s style has largely been abandoned in the world of artistic photography.

“A lot of the work now is very premeditated, quite intellectual and less reliant on the photographic capability of the camera,” she said. “Bertien was very interested in making clear to the viewer what it felt like to be in that place at that moment.”

Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

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