For many, the exhibition is Vincent Mentzel probably a feast of recognition. For younger viewers, it’s more likely to mean a refresher course in history. In his nearly forty-year career as a staff photographer at NRC Vincent Mentzel (1945) helped shape the Netherlands’ view of the world, and in particular of The Hague’s politics. His photos of politicians, historical demonstrations and social upheavals abroad immediately found a large audience through the newspaper.
The Rijksmuseum is showing a modest exhibition in two rooms with 75 photos from the photojournalist’s oeuvre. The selection comes from the 2,300 photos that the museum acquired in 2011 from Mentzel’s personal archive.
In the mid-sixties, Mentzel cycled through Rotterdam as a novice photojournalist in search of news. In the evening he took the “photos in envelopes” to the newspaper editors so that they would hopefully be published the next day. He worked for a while as a freelancer until he won the prize for the Best Dutch Press Photo in 1973. World Press Photo awarded his photo of Joop den Uyl raising his finger with pursed lips from behind the microphone during a PvdA election meeting. Shortly afterwards, Mentzel was NRC Handelsblad approached to become the first and last photographer to be permanently employed there. He continued to work there until early 2011, a few months after his retirement.
Hand in hand
The exhibition in the Rijksmuseum is loosely divided into the different areas of focus from Mentzel’s career. One of the walls is full of politicians from a bygone era: Joop den Uyl with his head in his hand, Hans Wiegel visibly enjoying the political game in the House of Representatives and a young Ruud Lubbers. The most striking photo here is that of Den Uyl walking hand in hand with Rashidi Kawawa, former Prime Minister of Tanzania. The silhouettes are accentuated with light and dark, making the two prime ministers a cinematic duo. The most impressive photo on this wall is the portrait of the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chris van der Klaauw, who is sleeping in the government plane en route from Syria to the Netherlands. Mentzel portrayed the minister almost endearingly, at an unguarded moment in the political scene.
That he was close to power is not only apparent from that photo of a sleeping minister. His photos of the young Queen Beatrix have also become iconic because of the disarming smile that Mentzel managed to elicit from her. Another portrait of Beatrix became the basis for a postage stamp.
When Mentzel begins to experience his proximity to power and The Hague as uncomfortable in the early eighties, he shifts his attention to photo reports abroad. In addition to his reports of anti-communist riots in Portugal in the 1970s and the photos he took in Iran after the revolution, the exhibition also shows reports from China. Mentzel, for example, defeated the bloody protests on Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Low in esteem
Through Mentzel’s work, the exhibition also tries to tell a story about the development of photojournalism in general – albeit fleetingly. It took a while before photography started to play an important role in the newspaper and the profession of press photographer remained low in esteem for a long time.
Mentzel is labeled in the exhibition as a ‘nestor’ of news photography and portrayed as an important driver of the profession. In addition, the curators of the Rijksmuseum do not lose sight of the fact that Mentzel may well have experienced the golden age of his profession: a permanent photojournalist is almost unimaginable these days.
Although the exhibition shows a lot in a limited space, the choices made sometimes seem arbitrary. For example, where are the photos that Mentzel made in Suriname? The two small walls with Mentzel’s portrait photography really only ask for more. A clearer focus would have been desirable, now it seems to be a retrospective in which there are just too many holes.
Once trained by the well-known theater photographer Maria Austria, Vincent Mentzel has always continued to see the theatrical in people. Particularly in his close-ups of politicians and celebrities, it is easy to see how he lays strong accents with light and dark for dramatic effect. Mentzel gave his personal twist to press photography in the Netherlands. He often managed to take that one picture just as politicians lowered their shields. Like a true master of the unguarded moment.
The Rijksmuseum, in collaboration with the Nederlands Fotomuseum and Museum Hilversum, has published the publication ‘Vincent Mentzel. Photos’ issued. The exhibition ‘Vincent Mentzel, photographer of power’ can be seen in Museum Hilversum until Sunday 6 February.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 5 February 2022
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of February 5, 2022
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