Johan van der Keuken:
Photography and Cinema


Film and art, art and film: it was hard to escape that duo in Paris in mid 2006. On the big screen, Raúl Ruiz’s Klimt, starring John Malkovich, reinvented the stale formula of the artist biopic – aiming neither to faithfully chronicle Klimt’s life nor slavishly transpose his modernist pictorial techniques into cinematic language, but rather to find a free, inspired, dreamlike way of rendering both topics.


Wandering around the small-gallery belt of the 6th arrondissement revealed not only a space devoted solely to the works of Emmanuelle director Just Jaeckin [1940-2022] – tourists stand outside, gawking at the wall-size photos of Jane Fonda or Serge Gainsbourg in the ‘60s – and a Portraits exhibition by the infamous David Hamilton [1933-2016] who made a handful of feature films, but also an impressive 50-year select retrospective of the vigorous abstract-expressionist canvases of Jean Miotte – whose painting techniques were the subject of an up-close documentary, Miotte by Ruiz (2001).


But it was in a concurrent series of large, elaborate, thoughtful shows that art and film really got a mutual workout in Paris that year. I have discussed Jean-Luc Godard’s Centre Pompidou epic, Voyage(s) en utopie, JLG, 1946-2006 here. More modestly mounted and promoted, but more coherent and impressive, was Johan van der Keuken: Photographie et cinéma at the Maison Européene de la Photographie between 15 March and 11 June 2006.


This was an outstanding exhibition – the best of its kind I have seen. The curatorial premise – that van der Keuken’s work in these two media constantly crossed over in decisive, fruitful ways, to the point where he could continue exploring certain problematics by switching from one to the other – was vividly brought to life in an ingenious sequence of displays and projections.


Beginning in the 1950s at the precocious age of 17 with his startling images of teenagers, and moving through several photo-book collections to his enrolment at a French film school (and the somber publication Mortal Paris), van der Keuken had already established what would be the driving impulse of his long, prolific and varied career as a filmmaker (he died in 2001): to find a regard, a position in relation to his subjects, that is both objective and subjective, dispassionate and compassionate, analytical and spontaneous, political and curious.


Van der Keuken’s work in film and video partakes of a hybrid form that seems to be peculiarly Dutch: beginning from a documentary pole, passing by way of the chronicle, diary, travel-report or essay, he ends up at the severely rigorous, formal structures of avant-garde cinema. Or vice versa. (One of the only local comparisons to this fusion or hybrid that I can think of is Dirk de Bruyn – a Dutch-Australian.) Thomas Elsaesser’s book European Cinema Face to Face with Hollywood (Amsterdam University Press, 2004) contains an excellent essay on the director and his methods.


Inspired and open at the moment of filming the world (and especially its poor, struggling and dispossessed castes and classes), van der Keuken was equally brilliant at creating interrogatory forms and structures on the editing table. His preserved conceptual notes are sometimes bewilderingly complex, as in his theory of shot distance and scale (as viewed, he suggests, ‘from above’). His work, if sampled at random, can seem hard, cold and conceptual – but, as this exhibition movingly demonstrated, taken in its whole evolution it offers a precious record of an individual life constantly turned towards the complexity of relating to others (friends, family, co-workers, those who are part of one’s community or nation as well as those who will forever be strangers).


The simple, elegant ideas in the presentation of this exhibition – a digital screen to allow the virtual ‘turning pages’ of his books, multi-monitor assemblages comparing different kinds of camera movements in his work (for a fuller description of this, see here), edited video or DVD extracts alongside specific ‘cinematic’ experiments in his photography – put to shame the dull, inert, white elephant which was the grand Stanley Kubrick show that toured the world and landed in 2005 at ACMI in Melbourne, Australia.


Alas, compared to that facile wallow in auteur celebrity – which managed to illuminate almost nothing about the director’s work, with its tantalising documents untouchable under glass, and its familiar anthology clips indifferently unreeling on plasma screens – this indispensable exploration of cinema and photography would likely get ruled out of a berth in Australia by that single, killing question: “Who’s ever heard of this van der Keuken guy?” But it’s high time we all heard and saw a lot more of him.


Adrian Martin June 2006

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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