Shelf Sessions: Emilia van Lynden
Besides the idyllic canals, which may function as a great backdrop for tourist pictures or influencer marketing, Amsterdam is one of the most prominent cities in the world of photography. Every year new talents emerge, and galleries and museums exhibit the greatest works within contemporary photography today. Obviously, there are many factors that come into play with such an emergence, but one institution that certainly helped shaping it has been Unseen. On a very early friday morning, we visited Unseen’s office in Amsterdam, to talk with its leaving Artistic Director Emilia van Lynden.
Check some of Emilia’s favorite books.
You’ll rarely find someone who’s code-switching between English and Dutch as easily as Emilia. As a daughter of a Dutch diplomat, Emilia has lived throughout Europe, and was raised in both English and Dutch. In fluent Dutch she asks if it’s okay to do the interview in English. As confusing as this may seem, she explains that talking about work-related things, such as photography, is always easier in English. English it is.
Work-related, in Emilia’s case, means Unseen-related. Still in her twenties, Emilia is the Artistic Director of Unseen Amsterdam, as well as the Editor-in-Chief for Unseen Magazine (Ed. Emilia has left Unseen before the publication of this interview). After six years at Unseen, Emilia is leaving the company for a new challenge. “Past September was my sixth edition of the fair since I started in 2013, and with an annual fair and magazine, things can get rather cyclical. After six years, I felt that this was the right time to move on and leave the company behind in good hands. Plus, I can finally go on a proper summer holiday.”
In those six years, Emilia went from an intern to the artistic leader of Unseen. A multi-faceted company with an annual photography fair, a magazine, and the newly launched Unseen Platform, all lead by Emilia and her co-director Sean Farran. “We have three different companies and the non-profit Unseen foundation. Besides the event at Westergasfabriek, we have Unseen International, which means we do international events all over the world, and Unseen Media, which is divided in Unseen Magazine and Unseen Platform, a new way of launching new work by artists online.”
‘I don’t need to know everything.’
So what exactly does an Artistic Director of such a multi-facetted brand do? “Basically, it’s the overall artistic planning, it’s being a spokesperson for the brand, and being the traveler to connect with the network. It’s a pretty cool job to be honest.” The way she tells us about her job raises the question why anyone would want to leave such a position behind. “It’s time for someone else to take Unseen to the next level, and it’s time for myself to move on as well. I will still be in the advisory board, so I won’t be gone completely, but the foundation is set. We’ve got an amazing team, and they know what they’re doing. I can look back with great pride to what we have achieved as a small brand.”
Maybe the next step is to lead a bigger brand. Emilia has proven herself in the past years as a true connector within the Dutch art scene. “First, I think I need a while to take a step back from the pace I’ve been in for the last couple of years. I’m not really a 9 to 5 person, I love to work hard, I love a good challenge—so I want to take my time to find something that feels right. In the meantime I’m focusing on some smaller projects, like teaching and consulting, which I truly enjoy.”
Who knows, her next adventure might not even be in photography. Emilia has a background in art history, with a focus on neoclassicism and baroque architecture. A large step away from contemporary photography. “I was going through my own collection at home, and I saw that it was mostly books on seventeenth century architecture. I already thought that wouldn’t exactly be the books that MENDO would be looking for. I loved doing what I did during my masters, learning about Constantijn Huygens and Jacob van Campen, and I was considering an academic career for a while. But if I would have done that, I would probably have been stuck in a library for the rest of my life with dead architects as my closest friends. I love the social aspect of the work I do, and I’ve always had affinity with photography. By coincidence I ended up at Unseen, after visiting the fair for the first time in 2012. And I stayed around until now.”
That affinity with photography started for Emilia at the age of thirteen with an exhibition show in Bulgaria by a photographer we all know too well. “My mum had helped secure Erwin Olaf’s Royal Blood exhibition there, via the Dutch embassy. That was the first show I saw, and it made a real impression on me. It all came together there. I grew up in Vienna and London, and I will never forget those images of Sissi with a knife in her chest and Diana with that Mercedes-Benz logo carved in her arm. I’m definitely an architecture nerd, but I’ve always kept an eye on photography since then.”
After six months as part of the VIP-Team, Emilia was quickly promoted to Head of Exhibitor Relations and later to Head of Artistic Affairs. Besides all this, she also became the Editor-in-Chief for Unseen Magazine and eventually even Artistic Director. All this, only four years after she just started working at Unseen. “I am unbelievably lucky to be working with a board that is willing to take risks. They saw a risk that they were willing to take with me, and in general they have a strong progressive mindset that helps young people move forward. Every year my role has changed, and it grew organically. When Foam and Unseen parted ways, there were new shoes to be filled at Unseen. Fortunately, I was given that opportunity.”
Emilia modestly credits her board, but when one is given such an opportunity, there are still expectations to live up to. “I did work hard for it. It’s not that everything was simply handed to me. I was reading everything there is to read, I was following everything that happened, studying everything there is to know about the contemporary art world, and going to as many exhibitions as I could to see the art, and to meet the people who could tell me about it.”
In the world Emilia is in, oftentimes those people were a lot older, and men. For Emilia, it sometimes meant that she had to prove herself, and perhaps even run an extra mile. “No one ever said it that way, but I did put a lot of pressure on myself in the beginning, especially because of my age. I remember being invited for a talk in Paris among the elite of the photography world. Having started as Artistic Director just before the event, I tried to bluff my way through a difficult question. I failed. It was excruciating. A horrible experience. But it taught me that I don’t need to know everything. I’m allowed to not know, and to ask the wonderful people around me. This community in and around Unseen feels like a family. Everyone has their own strengths and knowledge. It would be stupid not to ask.”
‘ Amsterdam has everything a small city should have ’
‘ Amsterdam has everything a small city should have ’
Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Unseen’s office is located on the Keizersgracht. Foam, Huis Marseille and Unseen (the three biggest photography institutions of Amsterdam) are all located on the same canal, and all are run by women. Under the “rule” of these women, Amsterdam became one of the most prolific cities in the world of photography. “We have quite a rich heritage within photography. Prominent names such as Ed van der Elsken, Rineke Dijkstra, Anton Corbijn, and Erwin Olaf are internationally known. Those people made the world know that it’s not only London, Paris, or New York. It’s all happening in Amsterdam. It’s small, it’s idyllic, it’s liberal—it has everything a small city should have. On top of that, we have incredible art schools in the Netherlands. Plus the government, even since the budget cuts, does try and stimulate the cultural sector, especially in comparison to other European countries.”
In that sense, Amsterdam seems like the perfect place for Unseen. “Definitely. I think Unseen is quite Dutch in the sense that everything is down to earth and evenly divided. You could call it democratic. The art world may seem to be filled with elitist people, but I think Unseen has a great balance, largely thanks to the team and the galleries and artists exhibiting with us. It attracts a different kind of collector.”
Although Unseen may attract a different breed of art collectors, they are still collectors. According to Emilia, the difference lies in the contemporary part of it. “The contemporary photography collector has this sense of urgency, hunger. He is willing to take risks, and understands the value of photography. I think it’s the most accessible and communicative medium to tell stories with.”
Photography as a serious art form has been scrutinized in the past. In the age of endless reproduction and digital content, print is not always valued as it should be. “For me, it has never been a question. Photography is an art form. I do understand people’s difficulty with this idea because it doesn’t fit within their traditional notion of a collectible sometimes. They often don’t know the rules behind photography. It takes time and patience. It’s not that a photographer goes to the local HEMA and simply prints the biggest size. The technique used to take a photograph, how a work is printed, how it is framed, what edition size it has—things like that make the difference. It is up to us to make that clear to people who aren’t familiar with the world of photography or the world of photo books.”
‘ For me, it has never been a question. Photography is an art form. ’
‘ For me, it has never been a question. Photography is an art form. ’
It is one of many ways the photography market and photo book market are related. At Unseen they come together, as there is a huge photo book market next to the photography fair. “There is a big overlap between the book market and the photography market. It is a crucial way of placing the work in context. Photography, as a medium, is often at its best when it is presented in series. So to have the book next to the work to understand the narrative and the context around the work is super important. I have a small collection of pieces at home, but for every piece I have the book that goes with it. And in my opinion, it is the best way for younger practitioners to get their work out there.“
Emilia owns about 50 books herself, next to the small collection she has at the office. For the occasion, she brought a few of her personal favorites, among which Sjoerd Knibbeler’s Paper Planes, In Bloom by Jean-Vincent Simonet, and Restricted Images by Patrick Waterhouse. “Photographing indigenous cultures comes with a certain responsibility of course, and Patrick Waterhouse did really well by collaborating with them, instead of just creating something about them.”
Unseen’s office book collection, is kind of similar to Unseen Amsterdam: contemporary artists with great work you probably haven’t seen yet. Next to this collection, the shelves are stacked with magazines and catalogues of pretty much every relevant art fair in the world. Also, there is a huge collection of single dummies. “We have the annual Unseen Dummy Awards, for which artists from all over the world send us a dummy of their work. Last year’s winner was Rebecca Fertinel, whose project Ubuntu will become a beautiful book. But we receive amazing projects every year. That’s the great thing about the Dummy Awards; we get to see books that no one has seen before.”
With her final issue of Unseen Magazine being at the printer, we catch Emilia at a relatively quiet time. Maybe you could see this as her farewell interview. This piece will be online when Emilia has already started her new adventure, or she’ll be enjoying a well-deserved holiday. “Now is actually quite a relaxed period, as I’m preparing for my leave. It will be odd to no longer be working at Unseen, but I will remain part of the Unseen family, and can’t wait to be back at Unseen Amsterdam this September and be there as both a visitor as well as a true Unseen ambassador.”
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