What color is memory? Is the human soul tinted by life’s great joys and sorrows?
Jan van Leeuwen‘s darkest recollections are a deep blue tide. His self-portraits take shape much like memories do. It’s a long process with details fading in and out of focus, projecting visions of the self that never feel quite complete. It took a lifetime for the photographer to discover his medium, but when he did the images came spilling out.
Leeuwen was born in Amsterdam in 1932. In 1940, when the artist was 8 years old, the Dutch surrendered to the Nazis and Leeuwen watched as his community fell apart. Jewish neighbors and schoolmates fled or were taken. Over the course of the four-year occupation, the young boy’s confusion turned to anger, frustration and guilt.
Leeuwen’s first career was as a kitchen wares distributor, and he learned how to work a camera by photographing the products. He took his first serious stab at the medium in 1986 when he was in his 50’s, mostly so he’d have something to do when he retired.
Drawing inspiration from the innovative spirit of the Dutch Renaissance masters, Leeuwen developed his own method of producing photographs. He uses a 100-year-old wood camera to capture an image on resin-coated paper, creates a negative and then makes a contact print using a UV-B lightbox.
The process of capturing and transferring the images echoes the artist’s struggles with the trauma he experienced in his youth and the impact it has had on his identity. For the cyanotype in our collection, the artist used a long exposure to fracture himself into eight meshed figures. The only thing starker than their furrowed brows is the strand of barbed wire that stands in their way.
Leeuwen created Barbed Wire No. 1 in 1993. A year later he quit his job to pursue photography full-time. Since then he’s had a stellar contemporary art career, with shows across the world and artwork in The Photo Review, Art in America and many other publications.
The artist’s success hasn’t dampened the intimacy of his self-portraits, or lightened the burden of his memories. However, Leeuwen reminds us that sadness is accompanied by beauty, and creation always surmounts the pain of destruction.