From 8 October 2022 till 5 February 2023, the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam (NL) presents a large exhibition around Dutch photographer, filmmaker and writer Johan van der Keuken: The Art I Love Most. Johan van der Keuken (1938-2001) gained national and international fame with his photos, photobooks, and films. His work was characterised by a calm, deliberate style arising from a precise observation of the realities of daily life. All his images are precisely framed and have tremendous poetic power. For the first time in more than twenty years, the Nederlands Fotomuseum is now presenting a large retrospective of his photography. This also includes a look at his films and the photographers who inspired him. The title of the exhibition is the title of the school essay that Johan van der Keuken wrote in 1955.
Johan van der Keuken photographed and filmed the world around him almost unceasingly. Through his images, he searched as an artist and as a human being for his own position within the all-encompassing ‘reality’, with all of its social, societal and political aspects.
The moving and searching image frame of his camera became the symbol for his open attitude toward other perspectives on the world. Beside every image, another one was always possible, according to him. They came together in the montage – or not. For Van de Keuken did not want to pin down the meaning of his work and expressly gave viewers the freedom to make their own interpretations. His work was meant as an invitation to look at the world again or from a different perspective.
In line with this idea, the museum omits any further explanation of the works in the exhibition. In the exhibition it is mainly Johan van der Keuken himself who speaks. An exhibition brochure is available in Dutch and English.
The Nederlands Fotomuseum presents around 200 original works by Johan van der Keuken, ranging from photographs to layout proofs of his photobooks, contact sheets and film excerpts. A large part of the original works coms from the collections of Maison Européenne de la Photographie (Paris) and the Leiden University Libraries. Special thanks goes to Noshka van der Lely - Van der Keuken's widow - and her current husband Willem van Zoetendaal.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Van der Keuken produced three much-discussed photobooks, which have earned their place in the canon of Dutch photography today. Even back then, his publications were distinctive for their poetic quality and striking montages. Next to the original photographs for Wij zijn 17 (We Are 17), Achter glas (Behind Glass) and Paris mortel, display cases also contain some examples of Van der Keuken’s layout proofs, with handwritten instructions for the printer. Van der Keuken made these dummies by pasting prints or parts of it on cardboard. That way he could try out different versions of the layout. Such dummies generally give a lot of information about a photographer’s way of thinking and working, but unfortunately are often lost to posterity. Fortunately, the originals from We Are 17 and Paris mortel have been preserved. Thanks to the collection of Leiden University Libraries, parts can be seen in the exhibition.
From the early 1960s up to his death in 2001, Van der Keuken published close to 60 short and long films for which he received several prizes and awards. Most of them have a documentary as well as a poetic and fictional aspect. To understand reality, you have to reconstruct it, was his motto. Thanks to the Eye Filmmuseum and Pieter van Huystee Film, we can show several (excrpts of) his films. The excerpts have been chosen to give an impression of both Van der Keuken’s method of working and the great variety within his cinematic oeuvre.
Perhaps I take photos because 18 time goes too fast, and make films because I run short of time.Johan van der Keuken
In addition to being a photographer and filmmaker, Johan van der Keuken was also a gifted writer. He wrote about photography and film throughout his working life. For a long time, he had his own column in the Dutch film magazine Skrien. In it, he not only wrote about his own work, but also that of other photographers and filmmakers, mainly colleagues who had inspired him. He wrote favourably about their work but never uncritically and always articulately. His essays establish his views on their work very clearly.
In 2019, the Nederlands Fotomuseum has added the archives of Johan van der Keuken to its Collection. The archives have been given to the museum by Noshka van der Lely, Van der Keuken’s widow. The large gift consists of negatives, slides and drawings.
"He was one of the first people to challenge the medium of photography by also working with video. And it’s precisely this discussion about the thin line between photography and video that, in this current multimedia age, is more relevant than ever. Johan van der Keuken rightfully deserves a place in our collection. He was a true pioneer ."
As a special accompaniment for the exhibition, the Nederlands Fotomuseum is publishing the book Johan van der Keuken - The Art I Love Most, which includes many photographs in the exhibition and texts by Johan van der Keuken, Birgit Donker, Frits Gierstberg, Herman Hertzberger, Lucebert and Aglaya Tomasi. The book is the third monograph in the Nederlands Fotomuseum’s new Collection Series designed by Kummer & Herrman and published by Lecturis. The book is available in a Dutch and English edition.
MEP - Maison Européenne de la Photographie (Paris), Universitaire Bibliotheken Leiden, Eye Filmmuseum (Amsterdam), FOMU – Fotomuseum Antwerpen, Het Nieuwe Instituut (Rotterdam), Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (Rotterdam), Noshka van der Lely and Willem van Zoetendaal (Amsterdam), Stadsarchief Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum Schiedam.
2. Behind Glass (1957), from: Achter glas, 1957. Collection Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris
3. Selling lilies of the valley, May Day, Gare de Lyon (1956/1958), from: Paris mortel, 1963. Collection Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris