Selected Texts

The Shutter as Contemplative Instant Between “I Am” & “You Are”

The subjects of Diana Blok’s photographs often attain a quiet and elegant mystique within their photographic boundaries. They hover somewhere between the contemplative state of Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” and the confident worldliness of a Vermeer painting. Self-assured in their immediate environment and yet not entirely of this world, transcending base emotions and petty concerns – if only for an instant – and inhabiting a realm bordering on the numinous.

This is an important and indelible thread that runs through many of Blok’s photographs like a vein that links the heart to the body’s extremities. It is a dynamic grounded in that filmic instant – mechanical CLICK of the shutter – when light etches the eidetic image into the silvery photographic surface. It is analogous to Zen Buddhism’s satori or sudden awareness: the viewer and viewed become instantly linked. As Dutch photographer Diana Blok (1952) explains: “I feel that photography is a great paradox. When I make a portrait it is like saying I AM / YOU ARE – and on the other side, on the mystical level, I am searching for I AM NOT – so it is as if through one way I find the other.”

At the speed of a snapping shutter the photographer and the photographed emerge as spiritual Siamese twins, each offering the other legitimacy and illumination. “The level of concentration that takes place when my subject is in front of the camera,” Blok explains, “before the subject becomes a memory, is timeless and thoughtless. It is a process guided by intuition and emotion.”

The photographic subject is immortalized while Blok is offered another clue about her place in the world. Photography as recognition – faces that stare back at you to tell you things about yourself – has always been a “very special tool to put together the puzzle of life – my [photo] archive is my diary,” notes Blok, whose work forms a kaleidoscopic “self-portrait, whether it is my mother, sisters, or friends.”

Photographs facilitate the assembling of an extended family – frozen memories as stepping stones – creating both a bio-linear perspective and a lyrical ambience to a life that was once defined as a transitory blur of motion and uprootedness. Blok’s photos of people – be they friends, family, or passersby – serve as heavy stones that might temporarily serve to hold down the corners of a nomad’s tent.

This is important for Blok who grew up a migrant. Emigré, expatriate, nomad, pilgrim all describe Blok as the citizen of the state of transition. Diana Blok was born in Montevideo, Uruguay to a Dutch diplomat-father and Argentinean mother. She lived in Uruguay, Mexico, and Guatemala until she moved to the Netherlands in 1974. Born here, grew up there with friends on other continents, reduced to small voices on answering machines. Moving implies travelling light, shedding memorabilia, paraphernalia, friendships, and roots. Friendship is manifested as nothing more than addresses on postcards or idle reflections in the windows of a passing car. The very fact of one’s alienness or alienation from one’s indigenous surroundings necessitates discovering a kind of reconnoitered harmony usually carved out of one’s foreign surroundings. The wayfarer maintains a cavalier attitude to a sense of place – it will just disappear tomorrow unless, of course, it’s captured on film. And so, for Blok, Photography is a ritual where memory and reverie are made visible and friends tangible. This ritual is practiced in her dark room, where she relocates the heart of her being and her relationship to those around her.

Blok prefers to describe her youthful stranger-in-a-strange land uprootedness as “re-rooting”. This rootless existence, although circumscribed by the genteel contours of the diplomatic world, eventually meant straying into the avant and hipster art circles of Mexico City as a teenager. It meant going far afield to find something close to her heart. She dabbled in the arts, wandered from discipline to enthusiasm, dropped out of various universities, even tried her lot at modeling, before discovering that she felt more enchantment on the other side of the camera. She felt ever more drawn to photography and its instantaneous quality. When in 1974, she “returned” to a Netherlands she had never really lived in, she took the big leap into a pool of developer and has never looked back. “I believe that this has given me a wide perception of human existence, sometimes it feels like I had a head start on being rootless like so many are today as a product of globalization.”

This EYEmazing series is a selection of Blok’s affectionate portraits. We indeed instantly sense a palpable warmth radiating from each one of them. The portraits of her mother and father reveal a graceful relationship to the process of ageing. They appear dignified and proud while the young maintain a mien of self-assuredness. And because they are often not full portraits – often “missing” half the body or the head – they have a fetishized abstract attraction as well. For Blok, these photographs may function as spiritual connective tissue to a virtual family, but for the rest of us they have a formal elegance and abstract beauty unrelated to her personal concerns. The photographs are both form over narrative or emotional content and vice versa.

But, as in her numerous vivid and intriguing books of photographs – Invisible Forces (1983, with Marlo Broekmans), Adventures in Cross-Casting (1997), Blood Ties and Other Bonds (1998) – this selection of portraits ultimately portrays human beings endeavoring to retrieve some sense of understanding or harmony (or at least a reasonable détente) between their selves, their bodies, and their places in everyday society, a society that has become increasingly less defined, where home as hearth and heart has been whittled down to a mobile phone number, a PO box, or email address.

Bart Plantenga

Writer on photography for EYE magazine and author of several novels