Bert Teunissen is a photographer from the Netherlands whose fascinating work I came across a number of years ago at The Photographers’ Gallery, London. His extended archive of European living is a life’s work named Domestic Landscapes.
For the last thirteen years I have been working on a photography project called Domestic Landscapes. This project is about light – natural daylight. The photos show how daylight illuminates the domestic interior, and how it dictated the way the interior was built, used and decorated. This specific light and the atmosphere it creates have their origins in the architecture of the pre-electricity era, when daylight was the main source of light. This kind of light started to disappear from European homes after World War II when the old way of building was abandoned. At this moment few of these homes remain.
Domestic Landscapes is also about identity and diversity. Every country, every region has its own distinctive culture that can be recognized in its homes, customs, cuisine and traditions.
He has recently returned from shooting in The Ukraine for this ongoing project and has kindly answered my questions about how he views the art vs documentary debate.
SB: How would you define documentary photography?
BT: I would define a documentary as an objective and factual way of bringing an historical, social or political story. It therefore has a beginning and an end and there is an obvious reason why the documentary was made. The reason can be and almost always is a personal motivation to want to make it.
How would you define art photography?
I don’t know what art photography is. Is that photography made to be considered as art? For me photography is art. It is always a personal interpretation and expression of a situation, an object, a person or an idea.
Do you see your work as one or the other or a blurring of the two?
I consider my work to be a very personal piece of work with historical and social aspects. I call it an archive rather than a documentary because what I do is: I collect information in photographic, narrative, vocal, filmic and physical way of an era that has been around for centuries and that started to disappear after the introduction of artificial light.
I do not consider my work as a documentary because it has no beginning and no end. An archive is always open for new information that can be added even years from its origin. I have been working on this archive for 15 years now and it is ongoing.
What do you think of the term ‘Conceptual Documentary’?*
I think it is just a way to give certain work a name so it can be classified. I give no further value to this description
Do you think an art gallery is a good venue for displaying documentary work? Why or why not?
Any work can be displayed in an art gallery as long as the gallery, the story of the work and of the one who made it is in harmony.
* Conceptual Documentary is a term used by Martin Parr to describe the blurring of the two genres of art photography and photo-journalism to create a more concept driven documentary rather than an assignment / editorial project.