Interview with Frits Gierstberg




4 minutes reading

In recent years, Frits Gierstberg (1959) has organized a large number of international exhibitions, symposiums, lectures and debates about photography. Last year, he was named Professor Extraordinary at Erasmus University Rotterdam. This was the first step in the Dutch catch-up race in the area of photography. “In terms of museums and knowledge, we are lagging behind the international circuit.” He cites the George Eastman House, MoMA, Jeu de Paume and Fotomuseum Winterthur as examples of museums that are able to stage high-quality exhibitions on their own initiative. In order to draw major monographic exhibitions to the Netherlands, the kind that were missed out on in the past, such as William Eggleston and Lee Friedlander, the Dutch Museum of Photography is seeking to create alliances with these kinds of institutions. 

ierstberg is not pessimistic, if anything he feels rather excited about the prospects. With  relatively new, high-quality exhibition venues (Foam, Fotomuseum The Hague, Huis Marseille and the Dutch Museum of Photography, GUP), Master’s degrees and two university chairs, Dutch photography is on the right track. However, it still lacks an accessible knowledge base, coherent research and visual education. And a platform for photography criticism. He wants to provide a broad reach and depth that experts, photographers and the general public can profit from. Gierstberg: “The Netherlands is now receiving a magnificent national knowledge centre for photography.” The museum opened fittingly with the retrospective Dutch Eyes, in which the history of Dutch photography was displayed for the first time in twenty- five years. 

Not art
What he finds interesting is photography’s versatility and complexity. But Gierstberg is wary as soon as it is referred to as art. “Take photographers who worked on commission, and who in their time never had any rapport with the visual arts whatsoever. Or take all the anonymous snapshot makers. If you start calling their work art, you’ll lose the entire historical context of it.” This is a development that is purely driven by the art market, and which he believes will blow over. In his opinion, photography can sometimes be art, but usually it simply isn’t. What makes it exciting for him is that photography is actually impossible to define, except as a technique that is applied in the most divergent fields. And then interaction may be possible, even with the visual arts. As curator and stager of exhibitions, Gierstberg has a wide range of interests and attempts to separate them from his personal preferences. Although it remains difficult to stage an exhibition when there is no affinity with the work. He is moved by the works of Daido Moriyama, Luigi Ghirri and Eugène Atget. But he is also a great fan of Useful Photography and strongly believes, just as David Goldblatt, Gilles Peress and Martha Rosler, in the power of the photographic image to shed light on the world we live in. And that is ultimately what drives Gierstberg: photography as a very direct reflection on existence, in a variety of ways, but always with a strong ideological-political component. Gierstberg therefore doesn’t hesitate to name his personal highlight in the area of exhibitions: Kurdistan, in the shadow of history by Susan Meiselas in 1998. A subject with considerable emotional charge. How would the Turkish community and the political arena respond to it? Would Kurds in the Netherlands dare to participate in it? Apart from that, it was also an important and revealing project about photography: a study made by a photographer, the set-up of a virtual archive, the writing of history. He is glad that the book is now being reprinted. And that the website (www., GUP) is still up and running. 

The Dutch photography scope
It is well known that in the past fifteen years the work of Dutch photographers has developed well in various directions at an international level. Gierstberg therefore believes that we don’t have to worry about the standard of Dutch photography. There is a great deal of young and older talent in the Netherlands. He does believe, however, that it is becoming more difficult for young photographers to find a niche in the international photography and art circuit, as well as in the magazine market. There is a huge amount of high-quality photography available, so competition is fierce. One trend after another emerges, so success can be fleeting. “Still, if I look at how the young generation in the Netherlands is paving a way for themselves by publishing independently, by working together in teams or collectives, by taking the initiative themselves, then I think: that will turn out all right.” He sees this generation as having a deep interest in the history of the medium, in theory, in debate and, last but not least, in social issues. Something that will be tangible in future works and which will lead to more depth. However, he adds that “one mustn’t forget that the older generation is developing in a very interesting way, such as Ad van Denderen and Bertien van Manen.”

Gierstberg admits that it is difficult to define the Dutch style of photography. We are just a small country, and there is large-scale international interaction. That doesn’t make it easy to remain true to yourself. “Dutch photography is strong in a kind of down-to-earth realism, in showing things as they are, without having its head in the clouds, but often with a strong sense of irony and self-criticism.” That stems from a long tradition of engagement and humanism. At the same time, the Dutch are often willing to go a step further than other people when it comes to pushing certain boundaries, stirring and provoking people. A strange mix, according to him, one that is ultimately difficult to pinpoint exactly, but one from which you can still expect a great deal.