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Bertien van Manen, Photographer of the Intimate, Dies at 89

The renowned Dutch documentary photographer peacefully passed away in the presence of her family in Amsterdam on May 26, 2024.

Bertien van Manen started her career in 1975, at 40 years of age, as a fashion photographer. Inspired by Robert Frank’s The Americans, depicting a raw side of the United States, she turned to documentary photography. She travelled the world, taking photos of people she met and often befriended.

Fluent in Russian, she was one of the first documentary photographers to enter the former Soviet Union after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Her photographs of Russian people, made during five years travelling the former Soviet Union, are documented in the books Hundred Summers Hundred Winters (1994) and Let’s sit down before we go (2011). Van Manen travelled and documented much of the world, including Eastern Europe, the Western Sahara and the Appalachians. Her travels trough China are captured in the book East Wind West Wind (2001).

Vasilevski Mokh, Russia, 1991 © Bertien van Manen
Vasilevski Mokh, Russia, 1991 © Bertien van Manen
Pushkin Street 55, Odessa, 1991 © Bertien van Manen
Pushkin Street 55, Odessa, 1991 © Bertien van Manen

Van Manen enjoyed a Dutch privileged upbringing in Heerlen, where her father was an engineer in the State coal mines. She felt closely connected to the coal miners, whose homes and families she found to be warm and friendly. Later, she documented mine workers in different places, including Sheffield, Siberia and the Appalachians. She often stayed in close contact with her subjects, sending them photographs and exchanging letters.

Bertien van Manen is known for her intimate yet “raw” photography, showing people as they are, without any retouching or amending any apparent irregularities in her photos, and often with a lot of poetry. She used a snapshot camera, to allow closer contact and to be able to look her subjects in the eyes while photographing. Van Manen has been a pioneer and an example for many.

Kazan, Vlada, 1992 © Bertien van Manen
Kazan, Vlada, 1992 © Bertien van Manen
Chisinau, Moldova. A Hundred summers a Hundred Winters, 1992 © Bertien van Manen
Chisinau, Moldova. A Hundred summers a Hundred Winters, 1992 © Bertien van Manen
Novokuznetsk, Siberia, 1991 © Bertien van Manen
Novokuznetsk, Siberia, 1991 © Bertien van Manen

For her most recent series, Beyond Maps and Atlases (2016), van Manen made several visits to Ireland in the wake of her husband’s death. Images of mist-shrouded fields and shadowy rural nightscapes speak to the feeling of profound absence created by the death of a loved one. Imbued with both a strong sense of place and a feeling of mysticism, van Manen was guided by Irish writers such as Seamus Heaney and John McGahern. Continuing her investigations into notions of belonging, van Manen’s photographs reach beyond the surface to uncover the hidden depths and enigmatic quality of life in Ireland.  

Helen and Camy, Cumberland, Kentucky, 1987 © Bertien van Manen
Helen and Camy, Cumberland, Kentucky, 1987 © Bertien van Manen
Amanda on porch, Cumberland 1987 © Bertien Van Manen
Amanda on porch, Cumberland 1987 © Bertien Van Manen

Bertien van Manen has left an important legacy of photographic works, exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and the Fotomuseum Winterthur, among others. Bertien van Manen’s rimages are found in major public collections.

More information on Bertien van Manen’s work on her website.

Eva, Sasha and Alosha. Shachunia, 1993 © Bertien van Manen
Eva, Sasha and Alosha. Shachunia, 1993 © Bertien van Manen

Read More: Intimacy: What Is it?

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