The Work of Machiel Botman



3 minutes reading

The road must be straight, lined with trees at regular intervals. A country road, which immediately reminds me of France. But it might be an entirely different place altogether, one cannot tell. The photographer must have stood on that road, with his camera aimed at the vanishing point. Although it is the middle of the day, the road disappears into pitch-black darkness. The camera must have been very unsteady,causing the tree trunks to be out of focus and vague, with tree-tops flaring out wildly and no longer resembling branches or foliage in anyway. Instead, they more resemble thick smoke creeping along the ceiling. This makes the image shimmer and roar, like a hellish fire burning.

The image described here is one of the last photos featured in the book Rainchild, which was published the year before. The book presents numerous photos made by the Dutch photographer Machiel Botman over the last years. Rainchild is a real photo book, in the sense that it contains very little text.What we get instead, are individual images that seem to be ordered extremely carefully. The well considered placement of each image on the pageand their mutual relationship creates a rhythm and a metaphoric significance, and an overall suggestive and poetic atmosphere that makes the whole farmore than the sum of its parts. As a result, it not a book containing photos, but a real photo book fitting in the tradition of photo books published in Japan in the 1960s and 1970s. Rainchild is reminiscent

of Masahisa Fukase’s Ravens, the ultimate masterpiece among post-war Japanese photo books, and the books by Eikoh Hosoe and Daido Moriyama.Similar to the above-mentioned Japanese artists, Botman does not think that photography is intended primarily as a means to register or document theworld that we live in. He does not work with clearly identifiable places, times or subjects. A photo is not necessarily good as long as it is clear, in focus, understandable. He is mostly concerned with himself, his own life, his emotional world, his relationship with and feelings for the places he holds dear and the people he loves. For him, photography is the chosen medium to investigate and express his relation with the world. It is a highly intuitive search, a quest almost, where finding the right question is more important than finding answers. 

These qualities make Botman belong to a group who choose to be unclassifiable. Their work is often extremely subjective, intuitive and closely related to their own personality. For them, looking at oneself is more important than looking at the other. Sometimes this results in an obsessive treatment of certain themes, with atmosphere and feeling taking priority over beauty or technical perfection. Often the focus is not on the merit of a single image buton the total oeuvre, which has become inseparably entangled with the artist’s life. Such an oeuvre is rarely given a linear presentation. Yet this non-linear narrative based on associations is essential in Machiel Botman’s photography. This is why each image has the power to touch or move the viewer,despite the fact that they are primarily part of an ego document. Nothing is fixed or final, it’s all potential and open-ended.

Still, a photo book has a certain internal logic. Between the covers there is a first and a last page, with in between the unfolding narrative. Thesequence is for ever fixed, which implies that choices must be made. Once the book returns from the printer, it has reached its final state and can no longer be changed. When Botman was putting Rainchild together, he made endless changes, constantly moving images, changing the sequence, and requiring new dummy runs. The journey seemed more important than the ultimate goal, possibly for fear of arriving at something final and irreversible. This, after all, is directly opposed to his searching, questioning and tentative way of working. 

At the same time, this is what makes his work so strong. Every individual image has tremendous visual and poetic strength. But most of the time, it remains unclear what we are looking at exactly, and where, when and why a certain photo was taken. Unlike Botman himself, we don’t really need to know this. He offers us something that we can work with ourselves. This is exactly why Botman’s work transcends the issues of the day and will preserve its magnificent potential, even for future generations. It is often the works by artists who turn away from the fads and fashions of their day and keep pursuing their own line that prove to have a very distant best before date. Without doubt, Botman is among them.