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From photography to cinema, the life in images of Johan van der Keuken

Live with the eyes.

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From photography to cinema, the life in images of Johan van der Keuken

Live with the eyes. The freedom-loving ambition of Dutch photographer and filmmaker Johan van der Keuken is exhibited in poetic shots and poignant short films at the Jeu de Paume museum until September 17, with three late-night openings on Monday 11, Tuesday 12 and Wednesday 13 until 9 p.m. Of the thousands of shots and sixty short films that make up his work, a hundred photographs and eight films adorn the walls of the five rooms of the exhibition entitled The rhythm of images, redesigned for the French public after meeting a frank success in the Netherlands.

“None of the exhibits have a chronological order,” says Friets Giersberg, curator at the Fotomuseum Rotterdam, which hosted the Johan van der Keuken retrospective from October 2022 to January 2023. “It would have been contrived. The idea is to invite the viewer to create associations between the images, but also with the short films,” he adds.

Because the free thinker that van der Keuken is leaves behind a work that is difficult to classify, both by the singularity of his thought and by its evolution over the years. Born in 1938 in Amsterdam, photographer at the age of 17, introduced to this art by his grandfather five years earlier, the young Johan captured his loved ones in his lens.

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Camera on the shoulder - always - he depicts a bohemian youth who has not experienced war. “The characters are never alone, there is always a background which provides context,” notes Pia Viewing. His first model, composed by himself, testifies to his way of thinking about the image in a story, like an "extract from reality", comments the co-curator of the exhibition. This first book, published under the title We are 17 years old, announces the artist's self-taught career.

Alternating between color and monochrome, between an abstract and geometric composition, Johan van der Keuken's wandering eye captures the moments of life he witnesses. In turn, he photographs passers-by on 42nd Street in New York and those in Amsterdam, sometimes with a hiding system that borders on voyeurism, sometimes with superimpositions that expose the same view twice.

Face to face, the two sequences seem to watch each other in movement. “His photographic approach is very cinematic,” observes Pia Viewing. “Through a still image, van der Keuken seeks to transcribe the latent movement.”

Passing through Paris to study cinematography at Idhec, ancestor of Fémis, van der Keuken, tired of his teachings, shot his own experimental short film, Paris at dawn. By filming casually, the young artist goes beyond the codes of classic cinema by using dynamic editing, where high and low angles of the capital in the morning follow one another.

Later, as the Algerian war was coming to an end, the artist presented the City of Light in a new light, between languor and loneliness in a book of photographs, Mortal Paris. Banks of the Seine, storefronts, metro, cafes, poster, one of which reads "A Nazi general commands France" - Johan van der Keuken paints a portrait of the French capital, while developing his political awareness, a commitment which is subsequently found in his documentaries.

Collaborator at Cahiers du Cinéma, author of numerous books on photography and the equipment he uses, the artist reflects on the aesthetics of his art. “Without images, I would die,” he often says. "Maybe I take pictures because time flies too fast," he wrote, "and I make movies because I'm running out of time."

Throughout his many trips around the world - India, China, Yugoslavia, Benin or even Peru -, which he sometimes documents for Dutch left-wing television, Johan van der Keuken marks his films with a profound humanism. “He is a benevolent artist towards humans and the world”, abounds the curator of the Parisian exhibition, who has chosen to present a short film each time he enters and leaves the room. “He is interested in society and the forces that act on individuals. Van der Keuken will want to show people who are not privileged and give them a voice again,” she underlines. Only the rhythm of the editing and the camera movements bear witness to the artist's point of view.

The Blind Child on blind children and their perception of the world, Velocity on war, and especially Time/Work on the way in which the word work is embodied throughout the world, from the fields to the garment workshops, are all reflections on reality and its reflections. “70 years ago, van der Keuken already denounced poverty in the world, exploitative capitalism, changes in nature with heatwaves and migrations,” emphasizes Frits Giersberg. "It's quite shocking to see that nothing has changed." And to add that these themes “resonate all the more with the contemporary public”.

Died in 2001, at the age of 62, the artist never ceased to bring photography into dialogue with cinema. Never moralizing or pedantic, the protean work of Johan van der Keuken digs into the broad horizon of what exists to put things in perspective. And let the viewer draw the conclusions.

Johan Van der Keuken, the rhythm of imagesAt the Jeu de Paume until September 17, 2023 1 place de la Concorde, Paris 1erNocturnes Monday 11, Tuesday 12 and Wednesday 13 September until 9 p.m.

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