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 PlantengaWriter on photography for EYE magazine and author of several novels
In the last part of the introduction to the book, Elena Poniatowska writes:
"Diana Blok describes herself as a studio photographer, always working inside without anything to distract her, within the protection of the studio with its lights and shadows, its enclosing walls, an empty concave in which the subjects stand out. Through the eye of the camera she explores not only her inner self but also her genealogical background. That she loves her subjects, understands them and knows how they walk and work one can see in her dedication. In the confindence with which they allow themselves to be portrayed, they put themselves in the hands of Diana Blok as if they were saying : "Take my soul, take my nudity." Blood ties and other Bonds, 1990
This project was supported by the Foundation for the Visual Arts, Design and Architecture, Amsterdam
Kendall, Ph.D.Professor of Theater
What holds people together?
“Bloodties & other bonds” from Diana BlokWhen I saw the photos from the series, “Bloodties & other bonds” from Diana the first time, I was very touched by them. I found them accidentally in a German weekly magazine; I think it was the Stern. It must have been in the end of the 80’s. Let’s say, the photos picked me up in an emotional but also an intellectual way. The title, “Blutsbande” was confronting. The few photos that were squeezed on the magazine page caused an irritation in me, but in a positive way: black and white photos with hard contrasts in a time when the weekly, Stern (Geo), powered photographers to make reportage photos in brilliant colors. These photos – obviously produced in a studio - reminded me of family photos that I found in my grandmother’s photo album. Also these photos of people from the series, “Blutsbande” had been carefully arranged by a professional photographer in a studio – some-times with a touch of a décor – and similar to the old style photos from my grandma, my mother and her brother looking straight in the eyes of the spectator. But in contrast to my family photos, in the photo series of “Blutsbande” there was not a stiff body language because they were portrayed naked as in the tradition of act-photography.
What touched me was somehow a quiet and subtle communi-cation between the people in the scene and with the spectator. Challenging was the title, “Bluts-bande”, it was asking a lot: was it really the family blood that holds these persons together? Or sexu-al attraction between a heterosexual couple? Or parenthood and affiliation? Obviously not. It seemed that the people were connected but not fitting into obvious patterns: two women looking into each other’s eyes could be seen as friends or sisters or as a lesbian couple. The bond between them was not obvious. At that time I just had finished my study as a pedagogue and I started to work with young people between 14 and 18 years old that lived in a house of residential care. Most of them were abandoned by their parents or had difficult relationships with them. These experiences had violated their trust in relationships. The daily life with the children and the remembrance of the photos of “Blutsbande” from Diana Blok, confronted me with the question: What holds people to-gether? I can’t remember if I had found an answer at that time.
Meanwhile 20 years later as a professor of Socialpedagogy at the University of Dortmund, I showed my students in my seminar photos from the series, “Bloodties and other bonds” and asked them the same questions that I was confronted with when I took care for the children in residential care as a social worker. From a didactic and pedagogic point of view, this arrangement was very fruitful as the photos and the question opened the floor for “top down” interpretations based on a wide range of theoretical approaches, mostly sociological: Ulrich Becks’ theorem of individualization and pluraliza-tion of life situation especially family forms; Norbert Elias’ term of social “figuration”, that in modern societies humans create and negotiate small societies with common-shared responsibilities; the the-orem of doing and displaying family; or the approach of inter-corporeality (intercorporéité) by Mau-rice Merleau-Ponty. Although these are fantastic approaches to interpreting these portraits, they left the same question unanswered: What holds people together? I taught my students that it is more the aesthetical experiences that will lead them “bottom up” to an answer. I asked them to express their experiences in writing.
While I am writing this article, I had again a look at the portraits… and honestly I am still touched by them. They now give me some kind of answer to my question, “what holds people together”: the bodily expressed gestures of care, as a tender touch on the shoulder, holding a child by the hand or carrying a person in one’s arms. They remind me of when we made photographs during family gath-erings and the happiness we shared: it’s the common shared moment in front of a camera, especial-ly the joint creation of a characteristic group, the mutual posing and the shared joy after the click of the camera that give us the feeling of a bond. And if I take that photo in my hands, it will remind me of this situation and bring back a breath of happiness. But the photo also offers us this exceptional moment as a memento mori.
Prof. Dr. Uwe Uhlendorff
Professor of Sociology and Psychology
Educational Science department, Technische Universität Dortmund, Mai 2019
‘Young, dynamic, self-taught and a tireless traveler with thirst for adventure, Diana Blok, the daughter of a Dutch diplomat, was able to unleash her dreams through photography. Her series of nudes that Diana & Marlo ( collaboration with Marlo Broekmans) sign together earned them worldwide recognition. Later she demonstrated her genius individually with Blood ties and other Bonds exhibition presented in the Photography Gallery of the Teatro San Martín in Buenos Aires, 1987 together with carefully edited publication. The work depicts relationships full of mystery between parents, brothers, sisters and friends, faced with a certain ambiguity that oscillates between the psychological and the humanistic.’