Marcel van der Vlugt: Isolation brings out the best in us.
by Pim Milo
Marcel van der Vlugt (Naaldwijk, 1957) saw his first Polaroid when he was about two years old. It was made on the occasion of the festive opening of his father’s photo studio and store in the Molenstraat in Naaldwijk. Marcel Sr had set up a Polaroid camera and the mayor was using the cable release. Marcel and his older brother Will stood by and watched.
On a Friday afternoon in 2008, Van der Vlugt heard that Polaroid had stopped producing instant-ready material. Van der Vlugt then purchased $25,000 worth of Polaroid material at B&H in New York, which he could use until 2014. The last 8×10 Polaroid he shot with it is on the cover of his book Buds. The petals you see on it are from a funeral bouquet for his father, who passed away on July 2, 2014.
Now Marcel Jr is standing behind a Polaroid camera that is more than five feet high and weighs a hundred kilos. As big as a large fridge. Mainly made of wood, but also with metal gears and even an archaic bicycle chain. The spartan design, never actually progressing beyond the prototype stage, is based on a reproduction camera. The mastodon spits out Polaroids that measure fifty by sixty centimetres. In other words, 20×24 inches. Of the original design, there were five worldwide. The prototype is in Cambridge, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. An empty shell, the interior has been reused in a later model. Number two is in New York, in photographer John Reuter’s 20×24 Studio. Number three is at Reuters 20×24 Studio West in San Francisco. Number four, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was owned by photographer Elsa Dorfman, who died last year. Number six, an afterthought, was a present for Edwin Land, the creator of Polaroid, who received it on his retirement in 1982. It is now in the Harvard Museum of Scientific Instruments. And number five – normally stationed at 20×24 Studio Berlin by Markus Mahla – will be in Amsterdam this spring, in Marcel van der Vlugt’s studio.
On the back wall, Van der Vlugt has indicated the crucial actions required to produce a 50×60 Polaroid with numbered stickers. If you forget one, the recording has failed. A checklist: close the shutter, tension, set the aperture, close the frosted glass door, unroll the negative, make a recording, roll up the negative, open the case, insert the pod, close the case, unroll the negative, start the engine, lower the pods between negative and positive paper, then pulling down simultaneously breaking the pod and activating the chemicals…. after a minute and a half, the museum work is finished.
He recently made a 50×60 Polaroid from his still very lively 95-year-old mother Kitty. This ensures that there is a nice last portrait to put on the coffin after her death. Due to the complicated method of loading, lighting and developing, an experienced operator is indispensable. John Reuter does and did so in New York, and Czech Jan Hnizdo did so from Prague until 2018. Thanks to these operators, artists such as William Wegman, Chuck Close, Julian Schnabel, Joyce Tenneson, Douglas Kirkland and in the Netherlands Toto Frima, Auke Bergsma, Ulay, Marlo Broekmans and Marcel van der Vlugt were able to work with it.
Van der Vlugt has now reached the point where he can do it on his own. This is convenient, now that the lockdown has restricted photographers worldwide with its ban on group formation. He has rented the 50×60 Polaroid camera before. Previously Jan Hnizdo was the operator, last year Markus Mahla and Oliver Böhm. Now Van der Vlugt even does his self-portraits without help. A PhaseOne behind the camera focused on the image on the ground glass of the Polaroid camera. He himself stands next to the lens, with a monitor next to him to check composition and sharpness.
At aperture 11, all of its light — 12,800 joules — is needed to photograph a dandelion’s fluff. Not just any fluff ball, but one from younger brother Ron’s garden. Because just about everything in Van der Vlugt’s oeuvre has a deeper layer. The tulip photographed earlier, for example, comes from a grower from Voorhout who is also called Van der Vlugt.
At 22, as an assistant to photographer Manfred Vogelsänger, Van der Vlugt had already travelled around the globe twice. Travel and Polaroids have since marked his 40-year career. Where everything overlaps: advertising, editorial, and autonomous. Previously separate disciplines flow organically into each other for him. An autonomous project (A New Day) can easily become an editorial and win prizes at the ADCN (the advertising world). An image from an unpublished magazine project (Stars) will be included in a commercial exhibition by Dove on Amsterdam’s Museumplein and subsequently part of the installation ‘Rejects’ in his major Kunsthal exhibition in 2008. That has always been Van der Vlugt’s ideal. And frustration for a long time because the three work areas are seen by many as separate worlds. In recent years, he made fewer trips and Van der Vlugt realized that paradise could be found closer to home. Laziness and idleness are the devil’s ear cushions and if Van der Vlugt has not been creative for a few days, melancholy and gloom lurk. Walking through the Amsterdamse Bos, he already discovered in 2013 that exciting and exotic locations can also be found closer to home. In a few amulets in a tree, he saw references to another world. He associated huts built from branches in a summer camp for children with the indigenous people of Terra del Fuego. While walking, he developed a new way of looking at his immediate surroundings. An investigation into observation and perception. This is how the Anotherland project was born.
Last year, during the coronavirus pandemic, everything fell into place. And the project gained momentum due to the lockdown and the eruption of a beautiful spring. Anotherland is not a retrospective, despite the fact that it contains work that he has made before. It’s a culmination of everything he’s learned, tried, and researched over the past 40 years. Everything he loves. Everything comes together here, both in terms of technique and subject matter. Van der Vlugt’s constant search for beauty. And its transience. But it is also about identity and perhaps even more about imagining desire.
Van der Vlugt publishes images from Anotherland daily on Facebook and Instagram; i.e. photos shot with the iPhone or SX-70 camera (which he calls Simple Pamphlets) and the 50×60 shots (which are called Giant Pamphlets). They are accompanied by mystifying captions. Occasions from everyday life, are summed up in a few sentences. Unlike in the past, Van der Vlugt now wants to do everything alone. No styling, make-up, hairdresser, or assistants. No models were flown in from abroad. So, he had to work with the person who was there. Van der Vlugt himself is a model in his photos, which makes him feel like an actor on his own set. A very instructive process, which means that he now knows even better what a model needs in terms of direction. And that has only made him admire directors even more who play in their own films. Anotherland has now been mapped out nicely. Van der Vlugt was able to photograph many places in his vicinity including the four seasons. He has still lifes, landscapes, portraits, and nudes of the – imaginary – inhabitants of Anotherland. This parallel world is amply documented. Partly thanks to the lockdown that Van der Vlugt threw back on himself and brought out the best in him. Or, to end with a quote from Goethe: ‘It is in self-limitation that a master first shows himself’.