Dear dPS readers. This is the first of a series of articles about photographers I have either long admired or recently discovered. Some may be famous, others unknown. Either way, I find inspiration in their work and I hope that you do, too. Valérie Jardin
Focus on Willem Wernsen ~ Philanthropist Photographer
Edward Steichen once said: “Photography records the gamut of feelings written on the human face [...] It is a major force in explaining man to man.” Those words particularly rang true for me the day I opened Willem Wernsen’s latest book Timeless. I could feel a connection with the subjects portrayed in those big, beautiful, square black and white images. I felt drawn into their lives and wanted to know more about them, and their photographer.
When you look at Willem Wernsen’s work, you clearly see his love and compassion for mankind. He doesn’t care about photographing beautiful people who are good looking or fit; instead he finds in every human being something beautiful. His idea of a good photograph is to tell a story in a single frame. He never works in secrets, preferring the interaction with his subjects and constantly looking for interesting faces wherever he goes.
Wernsen wasn’t always a photographer. He bought his first camera at the age of 32 and joined a local photo club in his hometown of Amersfoort in the Netherlands. He soon discovered the joys of developing and printing his work in his own darkroom. After attending a few workshops led by Dutch photographer Kees Tillema, it soon became clear to his peers that Wernsen had a talent for portraiture. While working as a butcher 6 days a week at the time, he had little or no free time to devote to his new passion. He applied himself to the craft every chance he got and photographed people in his neighborhood. Wernsen became known around town, always seen carrying his Mamiya C330 and a black cloth to use as a impromptu backdrop over a fence or a tree branch. He rapidly gained experience and assurance, studied the work of others and started taking his photography to the streets with a Mamiya 6 MF, a 6×6 range-finder and a 50 mm lens.
He soon defined a style of his own with natural light, high contrast, square format B&W images and always with the utmost respect for his subjects’ dignity and individuality.
Wernsen accumulated hundreds of images made in his country as well as those from trips to Paris and China in the late 1990s. His first book, titled Beautiful People, was published in 2003 by Jansz Media BV and was much acclaimed.
Very attached to film and his own darkroom, Wernsen did not convert to digital for a long time. It was only when he was certain he could get the same results in the digital darkroom that he made the switch. He now enjoys the flexibility of the new medium. He currently shoots with a Pentax K5 and a Panasonic G2 and still favors the square format in post processing. This is how he see the world with his sharp photographic eye.
Seven years after the publication of Beautiful People, Wernsen added a second book to his repertoire. It was also the wish of his wife of thirty years, Margareth, who passed away in 2009. Margareth had always been a great motivational influence in his photography. She was his greatest supporter and used to say that his work was “timeless”. To honor her memory, Willem set to work with his publisher Fred Jansz and Timeless was born in the Spring 2011.
In his latest book Timeless, his subjects all have one thing in common, they had either crossed his path in his hometown of Amersfoort or in far away places such as Istanbul, Paris or New York as they went about their daily lives. Wernsen is constantly looking for the slice of life that will tell a story in a frame and he captures the moment in a non aggressive way. Sometimes the result will be a candid street scene, often there is a connection and a street portrait is made. Willem will only take one, maybe two, frames, before moving on. He says he sees the moment before taking the actual picture. There seems to be an understanding, a connection between him and his subjects, and you can feel that when you look at his work. I find that amazing!
To learn more about Willem Wernsen’s passion for mankind and for social documentary photography, I urge you to visit his site to see more of his work. I hope you will be as touched and inspired by his images as I have been!
Visit Willem Wernsen’s site here.
Timeless is a large hardcover book with about 150 large format B&W images and the text is in Dutch and English. It is available for purchase through this link