How Manon Wertenbroek Captures Portraits from Parisian Buses

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Manon Wertenbroek, a Swiss-Dutch artist, takes inspiration from modern expressionist and contemporary paintings in her portrait and still life photography. Born in 1991, she grew up in a small village by Lake Geneva, and is currently working and living in Paris. She uses photography as a medium to flirt with sculpture and paint, and, as a result, explores the relationship between the physical and emotional dimensions of human life. But her images are much more than just a simple snapshot.
Wertenbroek puts in a great deal of craftswork before pressing the ‘take-photo’ button. In fact, her latest project, “Bus Travel”, derived from images of mirrored-paper sculptures generated by a computer screen, mixed with a reproduction of paintings onto the sculptures to create further reflections. She took inspiration directly from her observations of Paris and it’s travellers, and tells more about it in a letter to the city:
“The clouds create shadows on the windows and on the passengers faces. No one speaks, it’s a quiet place that leaves room for imagination. From my seat at the back of the bus, I can look at them. Everyone is in his own bubble and just for a moment, forgetting to worry about what they let us see. One reads, the other plays on its phone, focused. Some are breathing against the glass while others are eating”. She continues, “For a second I fix the eye of a man looking straight through me. His gleaming forehead and exhausted shoulders, his face, relaxed.”
Bus travel_Book on her lap_Wertenbroek
Describe yourself in less than 50 words.
Curious, sensitive, crazy in a nice way, motivated, positive, honest, unique.
If you have an artistic statement, can you include it here please?
Starting from sensations and emotions I recall from memories and experiences, I literally create my images building subjects on different levels and photographing them in the form of still life or portraits. In this need to give back materiality to an inner energy, the groundwork of sculpture occupies a vital part: with the help of elements like paper and pigments, these fragile forms are temporary anchor points, physical and spatial in my research; the finalization of the process is played in the second half, and that way the established space for expression is framed and emotions are confined.
What’s the genesis of “Bus Travel”? Why were you compelled to see this project through?
With “Bus travel” I wanted to show the beauty of people while daydreaming. When you move to a new place, especially from a small swiss village to such a city as Paris, it’s difficult to adapt quickly to your new environment. In the beginning, I felt a little lost there and couldn’t find the perfect subject to work on. Then I met Maria, a young curator who runs together with friends a photography and art magazine, “Flofferz”. She asked me to make a series for the next issue about beauty in capitalism society. I started reflecting on the subject and looking for places in Paris where I felt surrounded by beauty. This happened to be in a bus moving across the city. I was touched by the faces and body language of people concentrated on their own thoughts. Forgetting for a moment, to think about what they let us see and being themselves without even noticing.
Bus travel_Hair behind sleeve_Wertenbroek
When was the first time you became aware of photography? How old were you?
As an artist, I would say during my preparatory year while studying at Ecal, the art school of Lausanne. At the age of 18 I intended to study there to become a product designer due to my interest in volumes, forms and objects. Machinery proved to be frustrating so I switched to a medium I felt more comfortable with: Photography. Soon I discovered that it could be a stage and frame for objects I created. Because I was creating very fragile forms using paper, pigments and clay the image made them stronger and easily reproducible.
What is the primary reason you became a photographer? When did you decide to become one?
I don’t relate to the status of a photographer. I guess it’s the medium I am the most comfortable with at the moment. I more see myself as a visual artist who uses a camera to show it’s artistic process in the most appropriate way.
What motivates you?
Basically everything that gives me a strong emotion. I see my sculptural work as a way to digest feelings and thoughts. Photography on the other hand, acts as a conclusion which embraces this very personal process.
Bus travel_Kissing_Wertenbroek
How did you learn to become a photographer (training, mentors, teachers, photobooks, etc.)?
I learnt the basics in art school and after, asked friends from the field when I needed precise knowledge. I still learn everyday, also by trying new things by myself and making mistakes.
What are the common themes, subjects or concerns that run through all your work?
I always start from sensations or emotions I can’t easily understand. These are usually linked to the relationship I have with my surroundings. As a very instinctive person I take most of my decisions by listening to my feelings. That’s an abstract concept I reflect on a lot as well. Regarding aesthetics and subjects, I am passionated by paintings.
Can you describe what you’re looking for in a photograph – are there any particular aesthetic concerns, or are you purely led by your engagement with your subjects?
By constructing objects I can give a form to feelings I cannot touch or see. In my first projects I needed to work a lot with materiality and big volumes to better express myself. Now I am using flat sculptural forms which are closer to drawing or painting. This has changed since I analyze the subjects I relate to in a more intense way. Forms got more abstract and suggestive leaving place to interpretation; this wasn’t always the case in my previous works.
Bus travel_Man looking at me_Wertenbroek
What’s the worst job you’ve done?
Who’s your favourite photographer?
Sam Falls
Are there any painters that inspired the aesthetics of your photography?
Lots! Contemporary artists like Rosalind Nashashibi, Shara Hughes, Katherine Bernhardt, Ginny Casey, Robert Holyhead, Helen Frankentahler and modern painters such as Mark Rothko, Milton Avery and Matisse. They all have a particular use of form and color I find very interesting.
What’s the best image you’ve ever taken? What was the scenario, and why do you like it?
I don’t have a favorite image in mind. I like them all as much because they tell something about myself in a specific moment of my life.
What’s the best photo you never took?
All the photographs I should have taken on vacation or important moments. I never take a camera with me or even photograph things with my phone. I like to be very concentrated and conscious during these moments, and then try to remember them with nostalgia. It feels better remembering with all my senses then just looking at a picture. But sometimes the image doesn’t stay in mind and you regret.
The one photograph you’d save in a nuclear apocalypse – your own, or someone else’s?
I would keep a random picture of all the people I love.
Where did you grow up? What are the pros and cons of that place?
Both my parents are Dutch, but I grew up in a small village in the middle of vineyards near lake Geneva in Switzerland. It’s a very beautiful place were I always felt privileged. Living in such a great country as Switzerland is very comfortable and pleasing but it’s also like growing up in a bubble. When you leave, everything seams a bit scary.
As an artist, how have you changed since moving to Paris, and has this translated onto your work?
I got more tough. I guess it’s something I was looking for and that will appear in my art since my approach in very personal. Since living there I am even more determined then before.
What’s your message to your younger self, in the moment they decided to be a photographer?
Make mistakes, be confident, try harder and always stay true to yourself, it’s worth it.
Find out more about Manon’s work here.