Something in me didn’t want to warm to Bertien van Manen’s photographic exploration of post-Cold-War Russia at Yancey Richardson. I like photography with a strong conceptual backing. I distrust “street shooters” and their ilk (see my post on Alex Webb here), and documentary, as a genre, feels cluttered with photographers who depend on their subject matter to compensate for the weakness of their images. But as I did a second circuit around her exhibition “A Hundred Summers, A Hundred Winters,” I realized that Bertien van Manen is an exception. She is certainly not a street shooter prowling around for the decisive moment. She is a documentarian, and her work shows the powerful influence of Nan Goldin: the gritty snapshot aesthetic that van Manen adopts proves that she has established an intimate relationship with her subjects.
And yet something of le moment décisif remains in van Manen’s work, which is saturated with poetic imagery and coincidences that make for astonishing photographs. In Railway Station, Tomsk (1992), a woman collapses against a wooden chair next to a radiator, her face buried against the wall. Above her, a window reveals clods of ice the height of a man, leaning oppressively against the glass. It’s a beautiful expression of desperation and claustrophobia in the snowbound former USSR. In Novokuznetsk (Volodja and his Baby) (1994), a bearded man tosses a naked infant into the light streaming through an off-camera window. The child is contorted, thrown dangerously high, but its shadow perfectly aligns with those of two cords cast by the window, leaving a visual impression that the baby is suspended by some supernatural means that the viewer does not understand. It feels like a fine metaphor for the body of work as a whole, an offering tossed up with just the combination of devotion and nonchalance to achieve a precarious, transcendent balance.
“A Hundred Summers, A Hundred Winters” runs through February 16 at Yancey Richardson.