Esther van der Berg

Esther van der Berg

Introspective photography

by Esther van der Berg (The Netherlands)

When reflecting on my photo work I do recognize a noticeable resemblance in how I approach my photo projects. It seems like my approach has a lot in common with how a cat discovers a new space for the first time. It will always circulate along the edges of a room and then slowly move away from the edges towards the center in well-considered movements.

Portfolio from the Photographie Introspective workshop with Michael Ackerman, November 2013.

Written review by PAULINE VERMARE,
Associate Curator, International Center of Photography

Esther van den Berg Going through Esther’s portfolio is like looking at the landscape from a high speed train: a long journey, passing thoughts, a feeling of nostalgia.

I appreciate the cat metaphor, which is also very feminine. And I see what Esther means: her photographs are very delicate, as if taken on tip toes. They are thoughtful and selfless. They are at the same time distanced and intimate. Somehow there is something of Antoine d’Agata’s universe in this series, perhaps also because the main protagonist looks like him, and reminds me of his somber wanderings. The dark, blurry mood that prevails in this series is very moving (in many ways: motion and emotions).

I like the texture in some of these photographs: the superimposition of layers, like in image 5, 6 and 11, are beautifully made: very subtly and skillfully. They allow for movement within the frame. The eye wanders from one layer of meaning to the other. The point of focus gets lost for a while, and we find it again. Image 1 is a beautiful one, with these lines -the beautiful chair in the middle, the mysterious objects on the table, the smoke? - the textures are beautifully rendered.

The portraits are very interesting, but I find this one, almost a non-portrait, just a fleeting arm and hand, on their way out, to be very special. There is some “gainsbourgian” melancholy and poetry in this image (“je suis venu te dire que je m’en vais”), a story in one frame.

Portrait number 3 is very dark and haunting, the fact that the subject is looking right into the lens. I like that one can see the shadow of a tree behind him: it adds a layer of meaning to the photograph. And, again, this movement is very good, as well as the proximity to the subject, a calculated proximity, just like a cat indeed.

Portrait 10 is very beautiful, powerful, and dark. I like that the subject matter is not centered. In fact he is almost out of the frame, to the extreme right, like an outcast, a misfit, living on the margins of society. As much as I like those portraits, though, I have to say that overall I am more drawn to Esther’s non-portraits, or portraits of the absents, if you will. Images 6 and 11 particularly.

Image 5 is very special: this woman in passing, that we barely see unless we scrutinize the image, is very delicate. In the black lining, one can almost see a self-portrait.

I find that images 8 and 9 are weaker than the other images in the series. Image 8 is too gimmicky, to Christmassy, those lights are bothering me, are they too bright perhaps in this overall dark universe? Perhaps too easy: the composition is good, but something is not quite right, the emotion does not come through. The portrait 9 is too static: the subject matter is too self-aware, and the angle too artificial. Again, it blocks the viewer: there can be no strong, spontaneous emotion. I don’t know what to think of image number 7.

As an individual photograph, it is good and it works well. But in this context, in this blurry, dark, moody universe filled with emptiness and distraught men, this older woman smoking a cigarette catches my attention in the wrong kind of way. She doesn’t fit in. Picture 4 bothers me in the same way, not because it is a bad picture, but because it doesn’t fit in the overall spirit of the essay. They are parenthesis, as if I had for one second glimpsed away from a movie. Image 2 is perhaps a little too contrived, too artificial: that cropping (or natural frame) doesn’t seem natural.

I found Esther’s universe to be very touching, and I would encourage her to pursue her work, her visual journey, the way she is engaged in it now. Her approach is excellent (engaged yet at a distance), her style very personal. She shows us that photography, when used with sensitivity and sensibility, is the best medium to observe and convey the emotions of the strangers passing by.

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