Portraits with a soul

Helena Jansz, december 2010
Article in Camera Magazine (Publisher Jansz Media) around the appearance of the photo book Timeless of Willem Wernsen.

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 6×6 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 open 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.”