Willem Wernsen, man of timeless photographs
Willem Wernsen, man of timeless photographs
Renowned for his portraits, reviewed for his subtleness and praised for his involvement. Photographer Willem Wernsen, the man who senses the decisive moment. “I have seen the picture before even taking it.”
“Timeless”, Willem’s second book, is dedicated to his wife Margareth, who passed away in 2009. “Your pictures are timeless,” she always told him. Margareth was his sounding board, looking over his shoulder, she had a keen eye for his art and always stimulated him. She was the first to see his new pictures. She shared his love of photography and it was her dearest whish for him to publish another book, after she had gone. Thus happened.
This book covers a seven-year period, 2003 - 2010. A period where Willem, because of his illness, took less pictures but nevertheless made progress. His photographs are more intense, they breathe life. This development is important to him. “If you start repeating yourself it turns into a sleight of hand.” His photography originates from his love of common people. Willem’s first pictures featured people he saw on the streets. In those days he made a living as a butcher, later as a market manager at the local market. These unlikely places have contributed to the development of his talents and shaped him.
The pictures in this book form a selection from his travellings to, among others, Istanbul, New York, Paris and closer to home. Portraits as well as street photographs. Further, some snapshots have been incorporated, pictures that were taken ‘in passing’. Willem has a way of giving these photographs something extra. “It is wonderful to see a certain unexpected moment happen, that is the exiting part of it. ” He went to New York with one of his daughters. At a Toys”R”Us a woman raises her head above a number of dolls. An unpredictable instant, but Willem has already taken his shot. He seems to have a kind of a sixth sense. “I have already seen the picture, before even taking it.”
His first book, all sold out, “Beautiful People”, shows a selection of photographs that reveal the purity and the individuality of the one portrayed. There are no frills, the immediate contact between the photographer and his subject in tangible. There is not a hint of holding back with the subject, just trust and surrender.
In “Timeless” Willem’s development goes a step further, there is a deepening in the purity, and a subtly hidden intention is covering the photograph like an invisible layer. How does he do that? It is a mystery. How does he get these persons framed into the picture so spontaneously, being approached at a random moment in their life?
Willem’s portraits have three distinct characteristics: black and white, square format and natural lighting. About his love of black and white Willem says the following: “Black and white is timeless, it penetrates deeper into the essence of the image.” The format comes from the time Willem used a 6x6 camera. “With my Mamiyas,” he says in a tone of voice that covers a hint of nostalgia. “I always look at the world through my photographic eye, usually in a square,” he adds. “I still work with the square format. Some people tell me to use the entire frame. I won’t, what I don’t need I just trim away, I am not beating around the bush about that.” The lighting is always natural. “Sometimes I
Willem Wernsen, man of timeless photographsopen a curtain or a lace curtain, maybe somewhere there is a light bulb to give the extra lighting I need. A number of portraits in “Beautiful People” were made outdoors. On the market I bought a black cloth, which I threw over a washing line or something similar.”
Many of the pictures originate from encounters on the street and Willem explains how he made these contacts. “Often they are very short encounters. To make contact I look a person in the eye. One way or another things start clicking and then I ask if I may take pictures.” He does, however, set limits. The other person’s dignity is paramount and they must maintain the individuality that made them stand out in the first place. Willem has worked with people extensively and is used to approaching them. Here’s an example. “A man in a bicycle shed went home one day, full of happiness and with a big bunch of flowers. It turned out to be his fortieth wedding anniversary. I congratulated him and made a little joke.” Willem depicts the circumstances with warmth in his voice. It looks like he is reliving that particular instant. The man spontaneously invited Willem and later he made a wonderful picture of the couple in their home.
“I have always been a people’s photographer. I have focused on one subject only and tried to go as deep into it as possible. I have not touched the bottom yet, but I have reached a lot. Specializing in one subject makes one go deeper. More will come floating to the surface compared to engaging in different subjects at the same time.” He takes a deep breath and adds: “That can be very pleasurable, but you will be engaged in too many things at the same time. You will not deepen, which is very important to me.” Willem does not let himself be distracted, he stays with his subject because his power lies there!
“Timeless” and “Beautiful People” have different formulas. In the former photographs were arranged by country, in the latter everything is at random. New York next to Istanbul and a portrait from a coffee shop facing a portrait of a child at play. This leads to more variation, it is more pleasurable to look at. He gets up and demonstrates. First some boxes the size of a pair of gentlemen’s boots must be moved aside. In them are countless pillboxes. “I take several medications a day,” he says. The box is balancing dangerously on the backrest of a chair. Willem is placing two pictures side by side several times, making his statement clear.
By making choices there will be more overall dynamics. “Your eyes are made for looking, but your feeling is made for seeing,” he stresses and that doesn’t only go when taking pictures but also when selecting, assisted by a close friend. The prints he shows look like they have been made in a ”wet darkroom”, as Willem calls it. However, they have been printed on barite paper using K3 ink with an Epson printer that sits in his working chamber upstairs. “This picture was taken in Antwerp.” Five men, wearing hats, one of them looking curiously into the lens behind him. “I saw the frame before my eye, even before the picture was taken.”
“I started scanning my black and white negatives.” Willem has been working on film for a very long time. He skipped the starting era of digital imaging. “I got onboard the moment I was sure I could accomplish exactly the same printing quality with the digital process as I did with film,” he explains. Later he discovered that digital cameras andcomputers offer many advantages. Leaning over the trays, his head arched forward had become impossible because of the rheumatism in his spinal cord, as was spooling in films with cramped hands.
Digital imaging thus enabled Willem to continue his art. Willem takes his digital images in color and converts them to black and white afterwards. You can set the camera to black and white, and maybe it’s the logical choice for photographers who take picture in black and white only. On the downside: “One loses much of the image information. In color there are more hues, more possibilities that are important to post processing.” When finishing the pictures they appear in color on his monitor screen, which is quite different from what he was used to in his wet darkroom.
Willem is happy with digital developments because they offer many advantages. Still he doesn’t idealize things. He stresses: “It is a tool. A stunning picture made with a pinhole camera is as valuable to me as a picture taken with a thousand-Euro camera. The photograph, that’s what it’s all about, it should tell a story!” He cites an example from the darkroom: “Some people laugh about it,” he says in a serious way, “but you should have tried techniques such as burning and dodging, your hands making subtle movements under the light of your enlarger, even if it is only once.” He is an absolute advocate of teaching ‘analogue’ technique in photography education. “Give students an analogue camera, a roll of film and send them into the darkroom. Teach them how to develop film, then you really see what is happening. These are the basics that you must have seen and done at least once.”
He still holds on to his darkroom. The old faithful enlarger is still standing there and from a rope hang black and white negatives. It is as crammed here as it is downstairs. “Some people ask me how I can possibly work here, but I feel at home.”
“A picture on a wall is nice, a picture on the Internet is fine, but a book is every photographer’s dream,” Willem says. Then suddenly the old butcher from a distant past emerges: “A book is like having a juicy steak in your hands,” he stresses. “A book is tangible.” Photo books are lying around in his house everywhere. Willem looks at other photographers’ pictures and studies them. He is especially fond of portrait photography. “Kees Scherer, a Dutch photographer, may not be famous but his pictures are fantastic,” he says with admiration. Willem is foremost interested in portrait photographers. Among his favorites are the classics: Cartier Bresson, Diane Arbus, Ed van der Elsken and contemporary Belgian photographers such as Stephan Vanfleteren and Carl de Keyzer. He also loves many old black and white movies featuring Humphrey Bogard and movies by Italian master Federico Fellini. “These old images fascinate me. Sometimes I put the movie on hold, just to study a particular scene. I study how the light is falling, how the scene has been set up. You can learn a lot from it.”
Willem does not take many pictures of the same subject. “One, two, maybe three. That’s all I need,” he insists. “You can tell whether the picture is good, whether it has charisma. I take a lot of pictures with a very small camera. A Panasonic Lumix GF1 with a 20 mm/f1.7 (40 mm equivalent in 35 mm format) lens. With it I can go as high as ISO 800 or even slightly higher, and take pictures in almost complete silence.” To this he adds an important detail: “On rare occasions I use fill-in flash.” Willem demonstrates this. “This is called bouncing,” he explains. “You aim your flash at a certain angle to the ceiling, which gives you just the little amount of extra light you need to lighten up your subject’s eyes for instance. The advantage of a small camera is that people don’t take you for a professional. This facilitates the interaction with a possible subject more than a big SLR with a huge lens do,” he explains. The bag containing his equipment is compact, light and workable.
Four months after his wife passed away, Willem went to Istanbul with his “Delta F” photographers group. “The boys thought it would do me good to be away for a couple of days and they were right.” Delta F is a group of professional photographers who have been convening for over twenty years, and who form a close circle of friends. Once every two years this collective participates in the Naarden Photo Festival.
Pictures are shown everywhere in the open air of this beautiful little fortified village. Besides being important for the mutual contact, his friends of Delta F are also important as a benchmark. The group convenes at regular intervals to discuss each other’s pictures. “If I show a photograph, reactions are sure to come, but I don’t react to them immediately. First of all the photo will be put on the table for two or three weeks to look at. Then I decide if something needs to be changed, whether it needs more contrast or whether some parts need to be burned.” A short intermission ensues and Willem changes the subject to a delicate issue he discusses without holding back. “For me, the most important thing is to evaluate my physical state, what can I still perform. The mind wants to, but the body is weakening. This in turn limits your photography.” Once or twice a week he moves into town on his mobility scooter, the local coffee shop being his resting point. “I like to talk, I’m a real people’s person and the atmosphere is great. So I make conversation, have a cup of coffee, take a picture or two, but not always. I often leave the camera at home because I don’t want to give the impression that I only come to take pictures.”
Willem emanates peace and is sitting upright in his chair. He is a big man; the chair is big, too, and wide. A king on his throne, but modesty is his forte. “Being a photographer to become famous is not my way,” he says. “I never chose to have success, my pictures come from the heart. If it is picked up or leads to some level of success, that’s fine by me. Having success is only relative, you enjoy it, but then you move on and go ahead.”
Helena Jansz, december 2010
Photographer, Portraits, streetphotography Publicist of two B&W photo books Beautiful People(2003) and Timeless (2011) GKF.member
Thirty years ago, I bought my very first camera. What started as a hobby in those days has become a passionate fulfillment. I immediately sensed a need to photograph people, primarily in a social documentary atmosphere. In black and white, of course, because that is my great passion. In the beginning I could... not take my eyes off the collected book series “Great Photographers”. All those beautiful photos were very inspiring to me. Over the years, I have matured. This, according to connoisseurs, gave my images a distinctive signature. After many publications and portfolios, I was able to realize my first book “Beautiful People” in 2003. By now, it is sold out. Today, 7 years on, I present my new book “Timeless”, which is dedicated to my wife Margareth who passed away in 2009. It was her whish that the book should be published. Timeless came from the printer’s in April this year,. Timeless is a picture book and a deluxe edition, too. It contains 150 black and white photographs, printed in duotone image. Form 28x30 hardcover. Text: Dutch-Englisch.
Price Timeless 39.50 euro (shipping costs not included)
upon receipt of your order I will inform you personally per mail with payment procedure and shipment details. firstname.lastname@example.org
Best photo regards,
Ann Randall Martin, USA
I have quite a collection of photo books and Willem’s “Timeless,” is a treasured favorite. The big beautiful black and white images on each page tell a story of both the subject and the photographer. “Timeless” is a book of honest, engaging compassion for people that is effortlessly relatable to the reader.
“Timeless” extols the wonder and beauty in every age, shape and size of all humankind. I LOVE this book.
Alaina Dall, USA
Your images in this video are absolutely stunning. Every one is a real beauty. You are truly one of the great portraiture photographers of today. Please Flickr mail me and let me know the cost of the book with shipping to the U.S. I would be honored to have a signed copy.
Marjan van der Kuil, Netherlands
If I see the photo’s of Willem Wernsen I see ‘contact with people’. Not only in his book ‘Beautiful People’, but also in his last book ‘Timeless. He’s a portrait master! And the prints are truly beautiful. I admire his work, I’m a big fan!!
Dénis den Daas, Netherlands
To my eye Willem’s photos are honest and direct, like the photographer himself. You can tell that Willem is one of the people he photographs, not just looking at them from a distance. This contact helps the viewer of his photographs to connect with the people and situations he has captured. They are people like him, like you, like me.
Also, Willem has a great eye for light and for capturing the right moment. This combination has again resulted in a book full of wonderful photos of beautiful people from various walks of life. All in classic and sometimes slightly raw black and white and many of them in a square format. Looking at the many photos in the book, you will travel from Holland to France and then to Turkey in only a few pages. That might be a little confusing sometimes, but I think it also sends a clear message; no matter where on earth we’re from, we are all human beings, all trying to find our way in life.
Deine bilder wirken sehr stark auf die Seele der Betrachter. Sind ausdrucksvoll, authentisch, erzählen eine Geschichte der Menschen, welche Du fotografierst hast…Sie wirken nicht nur auf die Augen, sie wirken auch in unseren Herzen.Danke für das Erlebniss! Viele Grüsse K.
Ben Ros, Netherlands
The B&W work of Willem is so appealing because it really touches something inside. Willem has the ability to realise a 1-to-1 contact between his subjects, himself and last but not least the one looking a his photos.
His amazing post production technique on top of that give an exta emphasis on the characters he is interested in and wants to share with you. He is, like others have said before, a true humanist. Not looking for the most beautiful people, but for the regulars bringing along a truthfull interest in the other and by photographing them in the way he does, lifting your interest as well when you look at his pictures.
A really positive and rewarding ‘vista’ at the others who cross his path and whom he seaks to encounter. Chapeau.
Rob Hoegen, Netherlands
Thanks for Timeless. It’s worth every penny of it, again. I’ve shown it to some people over here, and they all came up with superlatives similar to the people present you on this website. Full of ‘feelings’, beautiful. About people, for people. Can imagine that both books would be a beautiful promotional gift for companies to present to their clients next Xmas.
Ann Randall Martin, USA
Willem, I received your book and it was far better than I could have imagined! Your compassion and connectedness to the subjects you shoot makes me feel as though I know them too. I truly admire your work and I thank you for sending your book to me so quickly – I have enjoyed your point of view immensely. I have shared your images with both photographer and non-photographer friends and you have gained quite a few more admirers. Now, if I could just learn Dutch I would be all set. Thanks.
Saygilarimla, Serdar, Turkye
Hello Willem, well how should I put it? Your work goes far beyond any FC or anything else your work has soul, warmth and a lot of feeling. It must be very satisfying for you to know that you managed to touch the souls of some people out there right.
What you didnt know that? Well then now you do. Willem to my mind, you are one of the last true humanists in this world, in this sense I want you to know that I am very thankful that you share your vision with us and therefore give us the opportunity to grow into something that you have achieved long ago. Namely this is the Art of empathetic soulful, poetic documentary lightpainting.
To put it in Turkish: Ellerinden öper ve sevgi ve saygilarimlari sunar ve sana ve bize yüce yillar dilerim Usta.
Willem Laros, Netherlands
The book is not –contrary to Beautiful People- ‘logically’ grouped in regard to the places where the photos were taken. They now all are placed in random order and why not? It is each image on its own that tells the story, causes astonishment, evokes compassion. Masterly done, enjoyment, photo after photo. And yes, what a special type of species are walking around on this earth of ours. In the streets one will see a special type like that now and then. Willem Wernsen also sees them, talks to them and photographs them.
Besides his photographic art, this is also a quality of him which calls up admiration.
A third book? The aficionados of the better black-and-white portrait are already looking forward for it…
Lieve De Bleeckere, Belgium
Looking into Willem’s book is always an intense pleasure for me, not only because of the beautiful B&W photography but especially because I feel his deep respect and empathy for his subjects throughout the book. A great example of “human” documentary work!!
Hans Niezen, Netherlands
The book is the crown on my jewel collection. I admire the way Willem Wernsen approaches his themes, and the way he freely takes the photos in exactly the way he sees and wants. His style of printing and converting his neg(ative)s and dig(neg)s into a book full of pearls and diamonds are a joy for the eye. Directly relating to his way to way he works: no masks, open and direct.
Seldom I’ve seen so many people enjoying and admiring his protraits in the many expositions he had. An open mind, open hart, a direct way of catching the right string from heart to heart.