Her first major exhibition in the United States, at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, includes selections from extensive documentary projects on Russia and China plus a small series on men in her life that is personal but informed by her documentary style.
Van Manen's working method is to make repeat extended trips to the area she wants to document, living with inhabitants and photographing them casually. On the four-year Russian project, for example, she left cameras lying around the homes and apartments of her subjects, so she could shoot quickly, at whim. The process of working thus became so much a part of daily life that upon developing some of the images, she had forgotten she had taken them which was perfect.
The exhibition is entirely in color. The prints examine the public and private lives of Russians in several cities and geographical regions. Their impact comes not picture by picture, but as a sum that, like the work of an anthropologist, is better served in the pages of a book than hanging on a gallery wall, where one expects each piece to cause its own frisson. Here we do not adequately feel the interrelatedness of the images or the weight of the whole.
Selections from Van Manen's Chinese project, which has occupied her since 1997, are simultaneously presented by four projectors from slides, to an accompaniment of Eastern and Western music. While one admires the enterprise, viewing time cannot be determined by the viewers, who additionally are denied the specificity of picture captions. The weight of the overall effort does register here, but spectators will take away more in terms of rhythm and kind of image (still life, landscape and so on) rather the artfulness of Van Manen's individual treatments.
Her "Men" series devoted to father, husband, lover and son reveals each figure through his environment as much as portrait, though what pertains to whom is not always discernible from the offhanded images, which in the gallery are interwoven (as they are in the photographer's life) but, again, lack the firm documentation provided by captions.
"Bertien van Manen" will continue at 600 S. Michigan Ave. through Oct. 13. Call 312-663-5554.