In recent years, the Nederlands Fotomuseum has managed Johan van der Keuken’s (1938-2001) artistic legacy. Van der Keuken was a Dutch filmmaker, photographer, and essayist. He gained national and international fame with his photos, photobooks, and films that explicitly transcend the boundaries between visual poetry and documentary. One of his works, Wij zijn 17 (We Are 17), can be seen in the Gallery of Honour of Dutch Photography. From 8 October 2022 till 5 February 2023, a large exhibition featuring Johan van der Keuken’s work will be on display at the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam: The Art I Love Most.
Three exceptional photobooks
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. From the early 1960s up to his death in 2001, Van der Keuken published close to 59 short and long films for which he received several prizes and awards.
Johan van der Keuken’s career
Johan (originally Joan) van der Keuken started taking pictures as early as his secondary school days. He was seventeen when he published his first and much-discussed photobook, Wij zijn 17 (1956), for which Simon Carmiggelt wrote the foreword. He then decided to pursue his studies as a filmmaker at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques (IDHEC) in Paris with a scholarship from the Ministry of Education, Arts and Sciences. Between 1956 and 1958, he made his first film, and his photographic exhibitions were highly successful in the Netherlands and abroad. His photobook, Paris Mortel, which was published in 1963, marked a high point in the history of the Dutch photobook. During the 1960s, Van der Keuken increasingly turned to film as his media of choice; he was highly productive in this field in the decade that followed. For a while, he took photographs exclusively for the architect Herman Herzberger and later mainly for himself. These photographs served primarily as a tool for visual research with results that were becoming increasingly abstract, yet that still could be understood in symbolic terms.
The ‘Fifties’ generation
Together with several contemporaries, Van der Keuken shared the renewed spirit of the Vijftigers (the Fifties), a group of rebellious young writers and poets from the decade of the same name. He also loved to travel, was extensively engaged with political and social issues, and was highly interested in ordinary people and everyday life.
Investigative creator of images
From the very early beginnings of his career, Van der Keuken proved himself to be a reflective and investigative creator of images in written and visual terms. In the late 1970s and throughout most of the 1980s, his writing reached a larger audience through the essays he contributed to Skrien, a film magazine.
Johan van der Keuken’s work is usually associated with the Dutch documentary photography and film tradition, where the humanist viewpoint plays a central role. His exceptional perceptiveness and emphasis on concentrated focus, observing and thinking in terms of images, make him a unique photographer and filmmaker in post-war Dutch history.
The Nederlands Fotomuseum is publishing the book Johan van der Keuken especially for the exhibition, with many photos from 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 new Collection series of the Nederlands Fotomuseum. Design by Kummer & Herrman and published by Lecturis. The publication is available in a Dutch and English edition. Price: €45. ISBN: 978 94 6226 454 0 (EN) / 978 94 6226 453 3 (NL).
Van der Keuken built up an artistically innovative and socially engaged body of work. Always travelling but also close to home, he intercut his observations in Africa, Asia or Latin America with similar or diametrically opposed images or situations. Van der Keuken presented important or trivial everyday events from various angles, aware of the fact that a single image of reality doesn’t exist.
The Eye Film museum in Amsterdam has virtually the entire film oeuvre of Van der Keuken in the collection, from the classics Blind Kind (1964) and Beppie (1965) to his later work, including the now internationally celebrated documentaries, such as Amsterdam Global Village (1996, available soon on the Eye Film Player) and The Long Holiday (2000). Eye has restored forty films by Van der Keuken in their original format.
This exhibition is curated by Frits Gierstberg, Nederlands Fotomuseum.
Special thanks to: Noshka van der Lely and Willem van Zoetendaal.
Loan institutions: Universitaire Bibliotheken Leiden, MEP – Maison Européenne de la Photographie (Paris, FR), Eye Filmmuseum (Amsterdam), FOMU – Fotomuseum Antwerpen (BE), Het Nieuwe Instituut (Rotterdam), Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (Rotterdam), Noshka van der Lely and Willem van Zoetendaal (Amsterdam) Stadsarchief Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum Schiedam.
Cover image: Wij zijn 17, 1955. Collectie Universitaire Bibliotheken Leiden © Johan van der Keuken/Nederlands Fotomuseum