January 19: Photography is put to eccentric uses by unusual people. It entices both voyeur and exhibitionist.
One such is Gerard P. Fieret who was born on this date in 1924 and died January 22, 2009, in The Hague in the Netherlands, who subverted the conventions of photography in works he produced in the 1960s and 1970s. Galerie Julian Sander, Cäcilienstr. 48 50667 Köln, opens a solo show to the public today.
Abandoned by his parents to foster care at age two, then to an orphanage, he suffered sexual abuse throughout his childhood. He received art training at the Royal Academy of Art in the periods immediately before and after the Second World War, but being half Jewish, during the War he was interred in forced labour camps. Eventually he had studied drawing, painting and graphic design.
Photography was his primary vocation from the late ’50s to around 1980. In 1959 he acquired his first camera a used Praktiflex, the world’s first small-format SLR camera with a returnable mirror and with a screw mount for interchangeable lenses, manufactured by Kamera-Werkstätten VEB Niedersedlitz, (KW) Dresden, and produced between 1939-49.
His first ventures were unpopulated ‘material studies’ that he put together in 1965 in a large album and in 1967, the University of Leiden began to collect and pay for his work. Until the end of the 1970s, he became obsessed with photography and omniverous in his picture-taking taking, but his favourite subjects were women, who appear to playfully participate in his camera fun, which would sometimes get a bit naughty when they might expose a thigh or breast or even completely undress for him, but the pictures, however chaotic and exuberant, never become pornographic. For that reason he is often compared with New Orleans’ Storyville red-light district photographer E. J. Bellocq (1873-1949), but Fieret’s subjects are not prostitutes but willing participants to whom he would introduce himself with a conversation in the street.
Despite his ceaseless production of drawings and poetry, it is the thousands of photographs that Fieret produced between 1960 and 1980 that are extraordinary. They are photographed in the chaotic surrounds of his oft-abandoned rooms against the background of the African ethnic weavings and craft that he collected after the war to make a living, and where his paintings, drawings and beloved guitar also appear.
The women he photographed during casual encounters either candidly, or posed in intimate proximity.
Candid though many are, there is a gentleness and authenticity about Fieret’s images which is at odds with the brutality of his processing and treatment of negatives and prints which, because of his paranoia- he thought others were stealing his ideas and style – were compulsively signed in marker pen and stamped ‘Copyright’ by their author.
He always took black and white photos, often enlarged to his favourite 60 x 80 cm (20 x 24) format, an unusually large size for 35mm. They were made using out-of-date chemicals and photographic paper, and his processing was unconventional to say the least; many are solarised and in an effort to dry his prints he might burn them with a candle, after which many would be nibbled by mice and rats. Prints were deliberately exposed to the wear and tear of everyday life and covered in dust, footprints, scratches, mouse droppings and pigeon shit that would adhere to the surface. Collectors express awe at his energy in being able to produce so much work in such abject conditions.
In his obsession with the female subject he might naturally be compared to that of Miroslav Tichý (b. 1926) who is considered a prize recent photographic discovery for his mysterious oeuvre of blurred photographs of women taken at a distance, surreptitiously, using cobbled-together primitive cameras.
Fieret however was a romantic who wrote (identical) love letters to his subjects and claimed both that he’d never had an erotic relationship with a woman, and that he’d had several affairs simultaneously. He paid none of his subjects for modelling and none report anything but a positive opinion of him, and many of their portrayals exude a centrefold exhibitionism; they are willing participants in a joint photographic fantasy.
For many years Fieret was a familiar sight on the streets of The Hague. In 1992 he won the Hague city prize for visual arts, the prestigious Ouborgprijs (Ouborg Prize), named after the Hague artist Pieter Ouborg (1893-1956), awarded to a Hague artist whose work is of interest both locally and nationally. He took the total prize of 4000 Euros straight to the local pet shop and exchanged it for two years’ worth of birdseed, which he distributed, daily and compulsively, every day on his bike, dangling with two buckets of birdseed from the handlebars as he did the rounds of some thirty places where he fed his beloved pigeons.
Though few passersby were aware that the ubiquitous figure was an artist, let alone one whose work is now sought by auction houses in Europe and in America, promoted there through the efforts of San Francisco-based dealer Susan Herzig and husband Paul Hertzmann and Deborah Bell, a New York gallerist. Frank van den Engel produced a documentary Photo & Copyright G.P. Fieret, which follows the long-bearded, white-haired character as he cycles around the streets of The Hague feeding pigeons. These were his last days, before he died aged 85. Fieret admits in the film that he spends nights upright in an armchair, in a dump he shares with pigeons and rats, ankle-deep in photographs that are shredded, soiled, stuck together, and that “I’m desperate. I’m trapped in all this chaos and decay… I’m decomposing.” His funeral, recorded in Den Engel’s film, was attended by weeping women, young and old.
Fieret and Tichý both never set foot outside their immediate neighbourhood, they led virtually homeless existences, and were eccentric, but there the similarity ends.
Fieret did not approach his subjects by stealth;
What I aim at with my photography is anarchy: in the context of a conservative society, my photographs are aggressive, intensely alive, passionate – a healthy passion for life – that is what they are about.
Transgressive and unconventional, his disfiguration of the photograph was part of a search for “something supernatural, a sense of the eternal”.
His work was first included in a 2002 exhibition Manifestie Amsterdam Photo, Gallery Artline, Amsterdam, and from the following year until his death in 2009, he had solo shows in 2003, 2005, 2007, and three in 2009, at Deborah Bell Photographs, New York, with a retrospective at the Fotomuseum Den Haag, The Hague in 2004, and a major show Fotograficus at Kahmann Gallery, Amsterdam.
However, he was not an easy artist to work with or to collect, and was known to chase away would-be patrons with a bicycle chain if they took too long over choosing prints. Senior curator
Every six months there was a garbage bag waiting for us with vintage prints scraped from his floor.
Since then interest in Fieret’s work has mounted with solo shows appearing every year. This most recent solo show of his work at Julian Sander follows last year’s Gerard Petrus Fieret: There are no failed photographs at Fotomuseum den Haag (The Hague Museum of Photography) Stadhouderslaan 43, 2517 HV The Hague 20 May to 10 September 2017.