Willem Diepraam

by Matt Damsker


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Published by Focus Publishing, Amsterdam; 2001; Essays by Annie-Laure Wanaverbecq and Chris van Esterik. ISBN No. 90-72216-85-7. 208 pages. Focus Publishing BV, M.J. Kosterstraat 4, 1017 VX Amsterdam, The Netherlands; phone: +31 20 6264353; fax: +31 20 6236049. No price indicated.

Willem Diepraam stands as something of a Renaissance Man in the world of modern photography, having begun his career as a photojournalist with a Dutch newspaper, and evolving freely and steadily with his restless eye for imagery. He comfortably fills out the role of fine-art photographer, avid collector, and curator, and this handsome book collects much of his strongest work--mainly black-and-white shots, with a few spectacular color images.

If there's an emblematic Diepraam image, perhaps it is a 1974 shot from Fatima, Portugal, depicting old women in a crowd, their wizened visages framing the hopeful, unlined beauty of a young girl who stands between them. Diepraam brings his lens squarely to the meat of mass gatherings, protest marches, and the like, but his interest lies in the sheer vitality of the humanity he locates, not in the specifics of their geopolitics.

Thus, his images of cattle and farmland, of rainstorms and lone figures in the veldt, of nudes spread languidly on soft sheets, of nondescript architecture and unforgettable faces all convey a richness of technique that respects the gift of natural light and the infinite possibilities of human form and global landscape. Diepraam's photos may evoke pity or wonder, yet they avoid cliché with the true ease of a great photojournalist whose instinct is to record, never preach.

In one of this book's two extensive essays exploring Diepraam's life and work, he observes, tellingly: "For someone who looks at art with an informed eye it is so patently obvious that photography is art that it is actually a moot point. On the other hand, the fact that photography is art is, on principle, irrelevant. In theory it doesn't make something any more or less important and it doesn't add anything to it… It must retain something of… amateurism, relaxed and informal. In photography the connection with amateurism must always remain open."

There is nothing amateurish about any of Diepraam's photos, of course, but the sheer muscularity and freedom with which he wields his camera make his point well enough. There's not a hint of self-consciousness in his best shots, and even when he courts sentimentality--as in a 1988 color close-up of a young couple lying in each other's arms in New York's Central Park--he manages to capture something potently iconic, always locating a measure of human vulnerability to deepen the formal impact of the image.

Thus we have his sensational 1988 color shot of a young European doctor listening to the heartbeat of a child in a Ugandan village--the doctor stands, undistracted, while other children cling to his back and a needy sea of humanity seems to pulsate all around him. Formally, the image has a Biblical character--a pieta for the 20th century--but in essence it's a simple, unforced, unposed moment glimpsed easily and instinctively.

Still, we know that Diepraam's photos are art because they often startle us without trying to. A 1988 shot of Karolien, a beautiful girl in a red blouse standing on an Amsterdam street, becomes a parable of time and mortality when we notice the black-coated form of an old man with a valise who stands a few feet away. Diepraam doesn't push the composition--it seems to have happened, and that is its point.

Likewise, his freewheeling shots from the 1970s--of café dwellers sitting uneasily together in Surinam, or tourists clowning outside a bullring in Spain, or Queen Juliana greeting a worshipful throng that strains toward her--convey a rare kinetic charge; we can sense the motion that came before and after. And yet his ability to locate the still center of worlds is no less profound, as in this book's cover image--a close-up of a young woman giving birth, her face frozen in a maternal rapture. Like much of Diepraam's art, it takes the measure of our lives--earthy to erotic, humble to exalted--and bears keen witness.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.