Life Is Strange: Unique Photographs from a Dutch Archive
Photographs from the ‘Banquet of the mutilated faces’, the depiction of Hitler in Tyrolean traditional costume, and a photograph of a man with his nine-year-old wife.
Photographer and visual artist, curator, teacher of photography, and columnist from Amsterdam.
— In 2006, I started working in Haarlem (an old city near Amsterdam) for The Spaarnestad Archive. It is a big archive of nearly 14 million old analogue photos from all over the world. I was asked to work for the digital database of the archive, so I photographed thousands and thousands of small, sometimes very old, analogue photographs with special equipment, gave them numbers, worked on them with Photoshop to make them as clear as possible, and sometimes digitally restored them when they were damaged.
After a few weeks at my new job it was absolutely clear to me that I was sitting on top of a goldmine. I couldn’t believe my eyes every time I opened one of the hundreds of grey filing cabinets. I discovered so many photographs with great image quality that were hidden in the dark for years and years, invisible to the outside world. I asked the director, Peter van den Doel, if it was alright if I would spend more time in the archive room just looking for old photographs that were too special to ignore. He gave me at once all the freedom that I needed for my own personal search. How lucky was it for someone who loves images the way I do. As long as I remember, I was looking with great pleasure and curiosity through every book and magazine I could lay my hands on.
So, from that moment, I did my normal daily work for the archive, but besides that I started to collect on the same computer my, sometimes strange, treasures. And I started to write about it: on Facebook, on PhotoQ, a photographic website in Holland, and for magazines. And I still do, I write two times a week about an old photograph on Facebook, plus a column for the professional magazine SHUTTER.photo.
In early spring 2015 I was asked by the famous Photographic Museum Huis Marseille to come by and present my project to them. They heard enough about it to be curious. So I went there with “my” several hundred treasures on my laptop and within half an hour there was a handshake: “Yes, this great, let’s go for it.” A beautiful day.
The archive keeps a sharp eye on the copyright issue. Every picture has its own story, its own background. But the rights for most of the pictures lies with the Archive itself.
A few years ago I was already sure of one important decision concerning an exhibition in the future: I would not use any kind of special chapters. So, no categories. No time periods. No political formats. No ‘famous’ photos. Because, in my personal opinion, this is exactly what’s wrong with almost every archive exhibition. My intention was — and still is — to free old photographs from any clusters that keep them stuck in definitions, I want them to breath freely so they can show their own strength, their only special value.
It is exactly what I love about life: the older you get, the more you discover that Life is an incredible and beautiful mess, a real mystery, an ocean of the most incredible stories and moments. When you are looking at photographs for days on end, and there are now nearly 14 million old photos in the archive from all over the world, you begin slowly to understand what the real meaning of the words ‘boundless’ and ‘everlasting’ is. Thank God your brain can’t compete with the strangeness of the world.
I really love turning the old pictures around and reading the old notes on the backside. It gives you an insight in a special moment in time, a strange personal story of unknown people, already gone, photographed by an also unknown photographer.
I heard from many people who bought the book, and especially from the head of the jury who selected my book for the exhibition Best Designed Books of 2015 in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, that when you start looking at my book Life Is Strange, it’s really difficult to close it and put it back on the table. For me, it is the highest compliment.
This project changed my way of thinking about photography. It’s clear to me that nowadays we live in a period of photography where some photographers are real stars, we visit galleries and museums with their famous names all over the building and throughout the city on billboards and bus stops and train stations.
But I discovered so many really beautiful and interesting photographs of unknown photographers in the archive. Almost every picture in my book is from an unknown photographer, the picture itself was important not the maker of it. Like in the old days with so many great sculptures and paintings in churches, nobody knew their names. Pure beauty on its own, free from egos.