Shelf sessions: Narda van ‘t Veer
‘I want to live between the art.’
‘I want to live between the art.’
“What I like about books is that it’s definitive. There is no way of editing it after it’s printed, which obliges you to make a conscious choice. We work the same way with portfolios. I want our artists to be conscious of what they do. Clients should know that you really have thought about what you bring to them.”
In our opinion, these are words to live by. So when we heard them on a sunny Thursday morning in September, we knew we were at the right address. Narda van ‘t Veer, founder of Unit c.m.a. (creative management amsterdam) and The Ravestijn Gallery, welcomed us to her home, along with her wife Ingeborg and three energetic dogs. A home where she houses a couple thousand photography books, and a photo collection containing some of the best photographers in the world.
Check some of Narda’s favorite books.
Even though Narda has been a regular at MENDO for years, we first worked together during the making of our book with Carli Hermès. The two have been long-time friends, and she could be seen as the one who discovered Carli (“although he would probably never admit that”) when the two first worked together for her advertising agency thirty years ago. Having worked in this industry for thirty years, it’s evident that Narda knows quite a lot. After finishing, what would later become, the Amsterdam Fashion Institute, she started working for a high-fashion boutique in Amsterdam. She quickly joined the buyers to Paris Fashion Week, and became a photographer at the biggest shows in Paris. “Back then, anyone with a camera could simply walk in. And this was before the Web and social media, so these photos were still pretty exclusive. It would take four or five months before the first photos of a new collection would come out so I sold the photos, or made slideshows (with old school projectors) to show to the art academies in the Netherlands.”
Her work offered Narda a chance to invest in photography. Getting acquainted with other photographers and brands, she quickly found her way into the business and started an agency. “Together with a partner, I started Toonbeeld as an agency in marketing, visual merchandising, and photography. That’s how I first met Carli. The photography agency was the most precious to me, so when we decided to split up, he continued with marketing and visual merchandising, and I continued with the agency. Eventually that agency became Unit c.m.a.”
Around that same period, Narda started buying her first photos of a collection that now contains (“I never counted them”) more than a hundred photographic prints, varying from poster size to postcards. None of it is for sale. Her collection contains photos from international greats like Collier Schorr, Helmut Newton, Viviane Sassen, and Ed van der Elsken, but also smaller names one would not immediately recognize. All the works are interspersed with antique curiosities collected by her wife Ingeborg, who used to be an antiquarian. “I look around me everyday. I want to live between the art. Some collectors have it stored in an archive, but mine are everywhere in the house. Also, because it never started as a collection. I don’t know if I’m really a collector. Every year I buy a few prints, and at a certain moment you’ll end up with this.”
The way she talks about her house, her work, and her collection seems to be typically her. With her no-nonsense attitude and North-Holland accent, one would almost forget that she’s one of the most influential figures in photography. She has been part of the jury of World Press Photo and is now part of the supervisory board. In the meantime she’s running a gallery and agency seeing thousands of photos pass by every year.
‘I don’t know if I’m really a collector.’
‘I don’t know if I’m really a collector.’
“The most important thing for a photographer is to have a recognizable signature. That has always been the case, but now that brands and magazines are working towards a more distinguished identity, I often see that they are not looking for someone who makes generic or commercial work. You can see how Balenciaga works with Lotta Volkova, for example. There is no desire for the glossy commercial images in the old style of Mario Testino anymore. Art photographers are the main focus now, and I think that’s a good development for photography.”
You can see that shifting of emphasis with brands like Loewe, working with J.W. Anderson and Jamie Hawkesworth, or Gucci, making a book like Disturbia. Projects that would have never happened in the era of Tom Ford. “We’re moving into a new era, and I’m happy that we have young photographers like Casper Kofi, Gilleam Trapenberg, and Carlijn Jacobs at Unit, who embody that strong artistic style.”
It’s not that Narda doesn’t like a bit of glamour, though. Her walls are covered with photos from the likes of Helmut Newton, Annie Leibovitz, Erwin Olaf, and Collier Schorr. All photos are arranged in a somewhat thematic order, although there is one central theme to be recognized throughout the house: the female nude. Narda’s sexuality isn’t a mystery. And when she talks about one of her favorite works from Collier Schorr, you sense that Schorr’s identity and approach is something that strikes close to home for her. “In case you haven’t noticed, I love women. So evidently, my house is filled with them. Let’s keep it that way.”
From Marilyn Monroe’s damaged negatives, to Diana Blok and Marlo Broekmans (“very interesting as a young gay woman”), and Robin de Puy (also represented by Unit). Her photo collection extends far beyond imagination. Her book collection is at least as impressive. While a recent favorite by Alex Prager is partially eaten by her dogs (“I have to buy a new one at MENDO soon!”), her prize possessions are protected in an old church cabinet. Thomas Sauvin’s Xian, and some limited antique prints are carefully stored. “Whenever people see something I might be interested in, they call me. And somehow, I always fall for it.”
An example is the Six by XX box set. “Six female photographers with photos about women, and it comes with exclusive signed prints. I had to have it.” As she carefully grabs one of the books out of the box, she talks about why it’s exactly these photos and books that she has selected. “There are so many things happening in photography right now, and a lot of it is interesting, but I think everything you see here as a certain aesthetic value. It can get experimental, but I think it’s never ugly.”
As the house tour continues, we tend to agree completely. Throughout the morning, Narda, Roy, and myself seemed to be agreeing on pretty much everything that was said. (Which in Roy’s case, is quite rare). The house is filled with prints and books, that exhale a love for the printed image. A love that is also central in what we do at MENDO. A photo reflecting light, instead of shining, to us, makes a total difference as opposed to digital media like Instagram. In Narda’s view, being a photographer and being an agent has changed in total. “I love Instagram. I actually found Carlijn Jacobs on Instagram. But with print it’s different. It allows you to see, instead of just looking and scrolling. Young photographers have a different way of working than someone from the generation of Carli Hermes. In my experience, they are far more eager to do everything themselves, while the older generation only sticks to what they’re good at. That’s why I think an agency is important for a young photographer. They need to focus on what they’re good at.”
Besides running Unit, Narda also runs the Ravestijn Gallery together with Jasper Bode. A photography gallery in the same building as Unit’s head-office, representing artists like Christopher Anderson, Scheltens & Abbenes, Inez & Vinoodh, and Ferry van der Nat. With the amount of photographic images produced today, selecting quality can come down to cherry-picking. “I always want to meet the artist to see what kind of energy he or she has. That still is very important, as well as their taste. They have to have their own style, and that style has to be something they truly believe in. They have to live it.”
It’s almost as if she is describing herself, although it never becomes pretentious. As she leads us throughout her home, she drenches every word with passion. “I still grab a book every once in a while. I love to study a photographer’s work down to the details. That’s why 90% of my books are monographs.” She has a huge collection of books on the 20th century greats like Richard Avedon (original version of Nothing Personal), Elliot Erwitt, Arthur Elgort, and many others.
After she has shown us the upstairs area with more books and photos, and even past a limited edition Helmut Newton SUMO, she leads the way downstairs, casually walking past another huge Erwin Olaf print. You stumble upon artists like these everywhere you look.
Even though her collection is extensive, and it contains some of the biggest artist in photography, it doesn’t feel like a museum. You can sense that people actually live here. An inspiration to see and to talk about with Narda. With our jaws still on the ground, we take another look around before she casually says: “Well, I guess that’s about all there is.” Knowing that in terms of her collection, it probably never will be.
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