Corinne Noordenbos Interview

Fanatical photo book collector and Magnum photographer Martin Parr has often mentioned the almost unrivalled prowess of Holland at producing some of the best photo books in the history of the medium. But whilst much praise has been sung for a string of celebrated Dutch photographers over the last few decades, much less limelight has been given to the mentor that has overseen the production of many of their canonical works.

For the first time, this May will see world renowned expert of photography and the photographic book Corinne Noordenbos hold a series of workshops and public lectures along Australia’s east coast. Awarded extensively for her work as an educator and mentor, Noordenbos has been a reference for many of the most renowned contemporary photographers including Rineke Dijkstra, Viviane Sassen, Rob Hornstra and Wassink Lundgren.

While an expert in the field of conceptual documentary practice, Corinne is also a well established educator, lecturer and mentor and was Head of Photography at the Royal Academy of Art (KABK) in The Hague until April 2015. In 2014 she received an award from the Royal Photographic Society, followed by receiving a Royal Dutch decoration in 2016 in honour of her work, all of which has prompted perhaps her only rival in photo book expertise to applaud her workshops loudly: “What is really impressive about the collaboration between Noordenbos and her students is the professional standard of their work. The bar is set high,” says Martin Parr. “They devise good projects and make good photographs, and the presentation of these projects in book form has taken the students’ ambition and achievements to new levels.”

Coming off the back of a workshop at the Organ Vida Photography Festival in Zagreb where she worked alongside such Australian names as John Feely, Ingvar Kenne and Alana Holmberg, Noordenbos’ spontaneous introduction to a collection of Australian photographic practitioners lead to an on-going collaboration with Feely and an instrumental role in the production of Kenne’s highly celebrated book, The Ball - both of which prompted the idea for the opportunity of her workshops and talks set to take place in Sydney and Melbourne.

The APJ spoke with Noordenbos from her home in Amsterdam to find out more about what exactly we can expect from the highly anticipated appearance in Australia.

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What sort of knowledge and thoughts have you had of contemporary Australian photography in recent years?

Of course, I know the most famous and well-known Australian people like Trent Parke but it is always very interesting to get to know the Australian culture of photography and the visual language that comes with it. One of the things I’ve discussed with the Australian photographers that I have met is that it seems that everyone is very influenced by Anglo-Saxon and American photography. And that is very understandable but it is also a handicap because Australia - from what I have seen - looks very much like the United States or some parts of England. But it is not. So, how can you characterise your own country and how can you visualise that? That for me is a very interesting question and for me is the fun of doing a workshop and masterclass and discussions - to get involved with people and to discuss just that: how do you visualise your own country and your own culture in the current era?

Everybody always has the same kind of thoughts [about visual language] and we used to have that from Africa as a continent - a continent of misery, of constant trouble so you know, drama in black and white. Luckily, there are some photographers who have changed that and what comes out of the continent now is a completely different view focusing on completely different issues. So, that is what I hope for: to discuss and to look at that sort of thing in Australia. There are always these small stories that one can tell through personal experience that is most interesting to other people. Every country is complex, you know it is never simple, it is never black and white. A story or a visual language can start out in black and white but you have to overcome that. That’s why I like The Ball from Ingvar Kenne because he focused on a phenomenon - a phenomenon that one can recognise from their own country but it looks very different. It looks very Australian to me. It might not be! But that is how it looks to me and that’s what make it interesting.

How did the idea of the workshops and consultations come to fruition?

I know a lot of the Australians from a workshop at the Organ Vida festival. They were exhibiting in the festival but as they were coming for the opening of the festival they thought, why not attend? The interesting thing about that was that Ingvar [Kenne] exhibited another work but John Feely exhibited his Mongolian work and in the workshop we developed a totally different work on his view than that of which he was exhibiting. So, that was of course very exciting to him as he recognised other possibilities of his work but it was very exciting for me as well!

John asked if I could continue coaching him and so we’ve continued working on the Mongolia work since then but I also said that for the periods when he is in Australia he should focus on a project within the country. You know, telling a story about your own country really is getting a good start.

So that’s when John and these others said why not come. I’ve never been to Australia so I’m very curious about the country and about its photography.

Interestingly though, in preparation, we discovered that I couldn’t use certain terminology [to promote the events in Australia] because it would lead to confusion. So, the workshop in Zagreb was on ‘conceptual’ documentary photography. And John said, ‘oh no, don’t use that word’ because people will misunderstand what it is about. So, part of the workshop will be to establish the meaning of certain terminology that has a different connotation in your country. So, that is why I called it ‘storytelling and working on your personal visual language’. It will be interesting to see what people actually define as being a documentary work or a ‘conceptual’ documentary work.

Interesting! Will anything else differ from your workshops in say, China or Brazil?

Usually I bring a full kit along but I might have to change that a little bit because of the availability in Australia. That’s maybe another thing: since the early 80s I have been interested in the photobook and I started to collect around the same time as Martin Parr. And of course, I couldn’t keep up with him! That’s for sure. But for me it was a way of knowing what was going on in photography at the time to develop my own work and then later on it became a method of acquiring the knowledge for teaching.

For me, a book is a very good method for storytelling in photography because it is the collection together that makes the story. There are many ways to go about the collection. If you look at a photobook from the sixties and the seventies when it exploded in France and the United States - the photobook was more of an exhibition, like a catalogue. It was one photo after the other to show the strengths of the photographer. It wasn’t about storytelling. That came about in the 80s.

Now that you mention your friend Martin Parr, I noticed that he recently referred to a ‘renaissance’ in photo book making that we are currently experiencing. Do you think we are indeed seeing such a phenomenon? If so, what does that say about photographic practice generally at the moment?

The excitement that you get from a book goes in another direction from what you’re used to. Discovering that means that you can go back in time and discover books that might not be well known but use the same kind of storytelling. In the Netherlands in the 50s after the Second World War, a lot of companies had a book produced about that company - for a jubilee or something else or to present to clients and so on and so forth. That was actually a glory period in bookmaking and photography in the Netherlands and I think it has had a large influence on what happened later. One of the factors that made that period so successful was that there was a society of photographers that also combined illustrators, graphic designers, writers so people knew each other well from this society and when the company would give an assignment they would give it to a group of people - a combination of a designer, a writer and sometimes a illustrator or photographer. Each assignment was a kind of adventure for people to see how far they could go and experiment with new views on these combinations. One of the reasons why documentary and photo book is so successful in Holland and has had so much international recognition later on is due to this period.

What I hope from the workshop is to work on the possibilities that people have. What is their character, how can they develop their own signature in how they photograph a visual story. From what I have seen in other countries, that is not often an approach that is taken. One usually focuses on an image and asking ‘is that a good image or a bad image and why is that?’. But that is not how I look. I look for the possibilities and what makes someone special. You can only work with your strengths so that’s what I’m looking for in people. I’d like to see what people are interested in. That is not only photography but also what they are interested in in society. You can often see a visual story as a puzzle and you have to piece that together. Sometimes you don’t know where those pieces come from but often, all of a sudden you see those pieces fit. That’s the adventure. If you go in a straight line, you never get an interesting story; it has to have more layers.

In relation to your workshops, I’ve heard you mention before that often you’re aiming to deal with the ‘problem’ not the individual. Would you mind elaborating on this for me?

In the process of developing a body of work, people go through different phases and they come across the same kinds of problems. You can discuss that individually with someone but the learning effect of seeing that someone else is having the same problem and to see it being discussed is very effecting. We all feel very vulnerable when our own work is being discussed so we close the shutters as I say. But when someone else is being discussed sometimes you have the moment of realising that is what’s happening to you! Then you have the shutters open. So, I think that a masterclass is very effective in that way. Of course, it needs follow-ups after that but you can get many insights from a masterclass that is even only a day long.

I developed so many more tools since I left the Royal Academy because if you do a workshop for a day you need others kinds of tools. For example, Rob Hornstra - he was my student for four years and of course that is a very different kind of process. What I discovered and developed since then is that in a workshop or a masterclass you can develop something with high dynamics and it is very relieving for people to discover that fooling around, playing and experimenting can bring so many more insights and facilitate so much more creativity. But that can only be done when you build up trust. That is very important. The first thing is to make sure that people understand that anything I say is not judgemental. That’s what I require from each participant as well. Everyone has to participate but nothing is ever judgemental. Good and bad are non-existent. Ugly and beautiful are non-existent.

For info on Corinne’s lectures, workshop in Sydney and 1:1 consultations in Melbourne, see the event website, here: https://www.corinnenoordenbosworkshopsaustralia.org/