A little while ago, I went to Holland for work-related reasons, and I met up with two Dutch friends of mine. They had both lived in the town where I stayed for a few years, and they took me to meet friends of theirs. As it turned out, their friends have been spending the past ten years restoring (or maybe more accurately de-renovating) an old house. They have been taking out all the new stuff - windows, ceilings, floors, etc. - and they have been replacing it with materials from around the time when the house was built, many hundreds of years ago. I’m quite glad that I can say that I have seen lots of quite interesting things in my life, but this particular house was quite a unique experience. How often do you get to see individually hand-crafted Dutch tiles in a kitchen that is still being used? And how often do you get to know people who dig through the layers of debris underneath the mass produced new interior of an old house to look for those old tiles? When flying back home I spent the better part of the long flight regretting that I had foolishly turned down staying at that house (they had actually offered me to host me on a bed-and-breakfast basis) instead of at the two-star hotel right next to the highway (with my only defense - “Accomodation is being paid for, and I can’t get the bed and breakfast reimbursed” - sounding sadder and sadder every minute).
The old house in Holland wasn’t my first exposure to how people used to live. Over the past 30 years, I managed to see North German museum villages, the ruins of Pompeji and Ercolano, palaces in Paris and Torino, old Scottish castles, and much more. But I don’t think I have seen too many people actually living in these old houses. And with this style of life rapidly disappearing there will be less and less chances for this experience.
Fortunately, there now is Domestic Landscapes by Bert Teunissen. Domestic Landscapes is a portrait of how people used to live in Europe before, in the photographer’s words, “architectural standardization” and “social displacement and shifts in public opinion about life and how it should be lived” made such a life style disappear. We might not even be aware of this any longer, but before our age of convenience houses were built around according to what was necessary to make them livable - and livable back then meant the basic ingredients of life in a place. With no electricity, windows had to accommodate for the available light and, by extension, heat. With no electricity and no mass production, some (if not all) food was produced at home and stored there, for example in the form of cured meats dangling from the ceiling, a practice still visible in some of the photos. It is this world, which Bert Teunissen sought out and recorded in various European countries (and which I got a glimpse of during my visit to Holland), along with the mostly elderly people still living in these homes.
Photography is the art of capturing the light at a given moment. This, when all is said and done, is its simple essence, no more and certainly no less. It sounds like such a mundane task, and, as every photographer knows, it often is, especially if the light is set up artificially with reflectors and flash units. Teunissen is a master of using the available light and recording it as it is, with no embellishments or corrections. Much has been said about how Teunissen’s photography resembles classical Dutch paintings, a fact the photographer apparently was not aware of when it was pointed out to him. And it is true, just like in the paintings of, say, Vermeer the available light is provided by what is coming in through the windows, which results in a world of contrast, a world filled with shadows and unevenly lit scenes. But I am tempted to think that it is not just the light but also the way of life of these old people that reminds us of a time long gone. Only the occasional mass-produced object, like a cheap plastic chair or a light bulb dangling from ceiling on a wire, shows us that the interiors in Teunissen’s book exist in this modern world and not in the Europe that Vermeer lived in.
One could probably argue about whether the book contains environmental portraits of interiors that happen to contain people. Depending on which option a viewer picks, Teunissen’s photography manages to deliver amazing results. And it is probably only when both options are combined that the full beauty of Domestic Landscapes becomes clear.
I don’t know what other books I will be able to see this year, but what I do know is that Domestic Landscapes is going to be one of my favourite photo books in 2007.