November 24: Constitution

24November 24: It is a brave photographer who photographs other photographers. None of us enjoy being in front of the lens instead of behind it and it becomes a double game of ‘constituting oneself’ as Roland Barthes would put it, while the one taking the picture is busy constructing you. But isn’t that the condition of being portrayed; an effort not to be betrayed by the camera?

Koos Breukel (2009) Sally Mann, published in Art-Press, November 2009, Issue 361, p.17

These hands are those of Sally Mann, who in America, along with Nicholas Nixon, has restored interest in the family photograph by taking it to the level of high art beyond exclusively personal interest.

These hands present themselves to us through shallow focus as being at an intimate distance from us. They are held in a gesture that reads as a self-comforting clasp, but at the same time, the upturned palms enjoin us to make gentle confessional conversation. We cannot help but remark the state of these hands; the roughened, reddened skin, and those apparently nicotine-stained fingers, the strange silveriness of the fingernails!

A photographer, one who has worked long hours in the chemical darkroom, is familiar with those hands. Immersed in developers and toners the fingernails become stained brown. Mann has worked with the wet collodion and albumen printing process since the late 1990s and this is a still more hands-on process which leaves traces of silver under the nails. Just like Julia Margaret Cameron who, unable to afford assistants did all the mucky work of the wet collodion process herself, staining her fingers and dresses with silver nitrate sensitizer, Mann is marked by the process she uses. I’ve known one photographer to be permanently tattooed with a grey-silver streak on the ball of the thumb after cutting themselves in coating the glass plates, which are usually large and cumbersome, suitable for contact printing.

Sally Mann (2006/7) Self Portrait in the wet collodion process.

It is the labour of photography that comes through in Breukel’s portrait of Sally Mann. Photography is the medium we may now think of as being as breezy as the picking up of a mobile phone, with maybe the only added effort being to apply a filter to the resultant image to get antique effects then uploading it to Instagram. Not so for our photographic forebears, and for those of higher commitment to the medium.

Mann’s approach to her subject matter has always been shaped by her motherhood, and that has brought suffering which we may also read in these proffered hands. The effects on her husband Larry Mann of his muscular dystrophy  was the subject of her seventh book, Proud Flesh, published in 2009; a six year examination of a man at his most vulnerable moments that she was working on at the time Breukel photographed her hands.

Birth, life, illness and death are important themes in the portraits of Koos Breukel. His several series of photographs of seriously ill friends follow them until just before their death. In the case of writer Michael Matthews who died in 1996 (to him was dedicated the book Hyde), Breukel’s photographs concentrate on the ravages that AIDS inflicted on the skin. In 1995, responding to a request from Matthews for portraits Breukel discovered that the HIV-positive poet and performer saw these photographic sessions as his ‘last performance’ before his death. Using a black studio backdrop and broad source light to the right of the camera to emphasise the dry cracked skin and skeletal form Breukel recorded a series of images.  The pictures present a play in one act that convey Matthew’s horror in no longer being able to recognise himself.

Breukel’s early photo reportage Best Friend (1998) might serve as Breukel’s manifesto: unflinchingly he recorded the decline of his friend and fellow photographer Eric Hamelink, up to the moment of his death of a brain tumour. The final shot of Eric (right, in this exhibition view), unrecognisably bloated by medication conveys his subject’s stoic desperation.


Breukel was not a stranger to suffering; in 1992 he’d had a serious car accident. This decided his use of the portrait as an intimate revelation of personal suffering, as an emblem of mortality. Teaching at the Rietveld Academy allowed this new direction: “I abandoned all form of ambition and pretension. I got back to basics, to the moment when you see a photo appear for the first time in a developing bath and feel the magic of what photography is all about”.

Around 1993, he moved into an old garage in South Amsterdam and there combined working and living space, living in his studio with a darkroom off the kitchen, developing tanks in the bathroom and the dining table next to the studio tripod. All visitors were potential models: students from the Rietveld Academy, friends, relatives and colleagues. Though he has moved on from the 8×10 view camera and hand processing now to digital colour, the work still follows this overriding interest in people and their inner lives.

His portrait of Hungarian-born Dutch photographer Ata Kandó is an instance of the affirmative nature of Breukel’s quest for personal revelation in the portrait.


Ata Kandó is now 103 years old and lives on in a care home in Bergen in The Netherlands where younger generations of photographers frequently visit her to capture her on camera. Koos Breukel was one of them and his image is inspired by this woman whose life and work have been so intwined. Starting as a photographer of children in Paris her career incorporated coverage of the post-war Hungarian refugee crisis from which she produced a book to raise considerable funds for her homeless compatriots. She joined Magnum and traveled to the Amazon to photograph tribespeople there and later was a fashion photographer in Munich before returning to documentary work of National Geographic.  Breukel dispenses with the usual face-to-camera pose and lets Kandó’s skyward gaze shape her complex expression in which is a mixture of hope, resignation and quiet joy.

Kandó married and lived in Paris in the mid-fifties with the younger Ed van der Elsken (equally extraordinary as a photographer), whom she’d met at Magnum, and her three children, in a tiny flat in which they processed and printed their photographs. Breukel visited van der Elsken in his last year on his farm, living with his last wife Anneke Hilhorst and their infant son, before he entered hospital to die of prostate cancer. Breukel poses van der Elsken in the same way, asking him to look into the sky, and he as squints into the bright clouds his grimace reads as a chuckle characteristic of the rebelliously passionate redhead whose uncontrollable urge to make images drove his final, iconoclastic film Bye which documents his own descent into pain and death.

Koos Breukel (1990) Ed van der Elsken, Edam.

Breukel holds that “art attempts to translate the unbearable, the horror of human existence, into one form or another of beauty”. Others of his series are devoted to the survivors of the plane accident in Faro, Portugal, to farmers affected by the foot and mouth epidemic, and blind people wearing eye prosthetics (“Cosmetic View”), and in 2004 he journeyed to Sierra Leone to photograph its corrupted child soldiers. All are portraits of victims of particularly traumatic events.

Koos Breukel (2009) Rineke Dijkstra, Amsterdam

Breukel confronts Rineke Dijkstra in the same manner as she does her own subjects; almost full-length and head on, so that we learn from her fierce attentiveness how she achieves the candid directness in her own portrayals of women:

Koos Breukel’s ‘encounters’, as he calls them, with his compatriots who are photographers reveals the richness of photography in The Netherlands. His portraits, intimate and stripped of props, come very close to touching the psyche of his subjects, even when it is just their hands that he frames.

Koos Breukel lives and continues to photograph in Amsterdam and has a website which errs on the modest side, being scant of biographical information and unhelpful with dates for his images of which, at least, there are plenty, along with his extensive exhibition and publication history.


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