Hoorn –“What preoccupies me is the disappearance of individuality in an environment, the unstoppable advance of uniformity”, says photographer Rob Sweebe. A statement that sets the tone for an extensive exhibition in which he is showing his non-commercial work for the first time.

Sweebe was born in Indonesia but came to the Netherlands in 1960 with his parents. He did the HBS (higher-level high school) in Weert and got his high school diploma. He went on to study Photography at the art school in Breda but was disappointed by the lack of focus on technical aspects of photography.

Public photography

To fill this gap, from his third academic year onwards he also studied at the Photo Technical College and got his Technical Photography diploma. Sweebe then began his own company in Eindhoven practicing public photography, such as wedding photography and portraits. In addition, he worked for companies and in advertising. However, his passion for non-commercial photography became so strong that he closed his business five years ago and now continues to develop himself as a non-commercial photographer.

The exhibition has the appropriate title “With all my heart” and also forms the basis for a yet-to-be published photography book. Transience is a central theme in most of his photos. Sweebe captures flaking plaster work, decaying wood and rusting metal. But graffiti on walls, and collapsing windows and doors are also key motifs.

In one series of photos, details of graffiti have been highlighted. These are subtle works with little colour. The primitive lines on the rough surface call to mind details in prehistoric cave drawings. Other works show run-down half-timbered houses. Windows where old rags have been wedged in gaps to shut out the cold and weather-beaten shutters hang in front of windows suggest that these are buildings in the former East Germany.

Documentary character

It is a mistake that in the exhibition it doesn’t say by any of the photos where or when they were taken. For a photography exhibition with a documentary character, such information is indispensable. In addition to photos around the theme of decay, Sweebe is also interested in landscape photography. The photographer lives in Bemmel, a village between Arnhem and Nijmegen, close to the large rivers.

His panoramic river landscapes, both in bright daylight and at dusk, are poetic. A few of the river landscapes were taken in winter. The thin layer of snow, still untouched by humans, makes for untainted scenes that create a feeling of peacefulness and space. A number of photos reveal Sweebe’s strong feeling for composition. Moody black-and-white photos with fields of clouds floating above the relics of dead trees produce painterly images.

Photography is an art form closely linked to technical advances. The process was bestowed upon the world by the French state on 19 August 1839 in a formal session of the Académie des Sciences. What began as ‘writing with light’ (derived from the Greek words ‘photos’ and ‘graphos’ that mean ‘light’ and ‘to write’ respectively) has been transformed by the advent of the digital camera and image editing programmes. Today, it is far easier to produce technically perfect photos. Sweebe was taking photos back in the 1970s, when people regularly experimented with coarse silver grain, and special treatments of films and other photographic material. Although he digitized his oeuvre a few years back, he does sometimes miss his old darkroom, where failures and discoveries kept the profession on its toes. The chemical structure of silver grains, typical of traditional photos, has now been replaced by a rectangular grid of pixels (electronically coded photo elements). Though techniques like photomontage and retouching meant that in the past photos could be altered, with image manipulation this can now be done invisibly. As a result, the veracity of documentary photography has been a subject of some discussion in recent years.

In contrast to his documentary photography, Sweebe uses digital techniques to give symbolic shape to themes that interest him, combining old and new images to do so. For example, in one intriguing photo, two stone statues of saints are the focus, flanked by earthly females. Because the photo is a one-off within the exhibition, it is too early to conclude that this will be the new direction Sweebe follows, though that looks likely. Most of the work, however, depicts remnants of a world that has not moved on, photographed in the realization that these invaluable places should be captured for posterity before they disappear.

Lida Bonnema.

Noordhollands Dagblad (North Holland Daily Press), Friday 23 January 2004

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