Valid Document
Anthropological Document

Nelson González

We also have a Vermeer in the Dutch Caribbean. In this case, it is Rob Vermeer, maker of anthropological documents that are extremely valuable  in the visual and urban culture of our Caribbean.

With a Dutch academic background, 50% artistic and 50% technical knowledge, Rob Vermeer generated an archive of works that resized the essence of photography on the happy island of the Caribbean. More than the production of works of art through photography, Rob was in charge of documenting, in an anthropological style and not in a conscious way, the evolution of his society through human representation. That is to say, the hardcore of his visuals centered on the photographic capture of people.

The singularity of this Dutch Caribbean Vermeer is the flirtation between the resource of photography as a document of graphic communication and the work in the photographic studio. For some, perhaps for the more orthodox in the matter, this may generate noise in this work process. Rob shakes the conceptual springs of what is understood as documentary photography and develops an archive in which he compiles portraits of people of different races, ages, social contexts, multiple personalities, subjects in various initiation rites such as baptism, birthdays, or family photos, captured in the photographic studio. Using the Malandra seasoning as a reflexive operative, even the most “square” of thought will be able to perceive the value of Rob’s artistic production as a photographic document without even having explored the periplus of the more traditional photo documentation.

In the very peculiar case of Rob Vermeer, his contribution lies in the extensive anthropological research that, unconsciously, he developed throughout his fifty years of active work. A transversal production to all sectors of Aruban life: social, political, economic, cultural. It is possible to make an anthropological survey of the socio-historical development of the island, according to the epochs recorded through his archives. With this work, he has built a memory that allows situating the social and cultural identity of this geographic region in time and space. It becomes a legacy for future research, specifically anthropological or sociocultural research. Therein lies the current nuance of this mega document of half a century of work.

In the domains of light

Light is different in the Caribbean area. There is no doubt about that. The relationship between the sun and the sea gives us to a greater extent this singularity as a daily spectacle that those of us living in the area have the joy of appreciating. That marks the condition of the island on which we are born and is in our thoughts. That sensation that runs through the bloodstream and that, at the same time, is presented to us as a cursed border that imprisons or as a possible subterfuge of a “beyond.” The more perpendicular, the sun is outlined on the water, the more the luminous reaction becomes almost a divine moment; it is a prismatic effect that has no comparison with any artificial light solution. Therefore, the light is different, and that also influences our way of seeing. It is tattooed on our conscience like the poetry of Caribbean nature. In this sense, remember Rob Vermeer’s Dutch structural training, 50% artistic, 50% technical.

He decided to take this natural lighting system and the instrumentation of technical artifice to the studio. Not to try to reproduce a natural process impossible to replicate, but to absorb all the benefits that light gives to the photographic technique. Hence, the recurrence of flash and high speed. Furthermore, he adds the background to create volume and texture to his portraits, freezes the gesture of each person, their temper, and thus offers them a new relationship with the photographic space; space already decontextualized that in no way competes with the protagonists. This economy of visual resources and additions favors the communicative process that interests Vermeer; that of capturing the essence of people. It is a type of studio photography that is both minimalist and documentary. It is a work in progress that has involved technical and creative experimentation, research, willingness to grow, development, and adaptability to new times without losing the path of creation. The latter was essential during the artistic progress of Rob. He understood the many technological advances that occurred worldwide in the last three decades of the twentieth century without altering his creative mode. Although he had access to the enjoyment of the technological revolutions of the postmodern world, this did not cause a modification of the anthropological study he has developed and maintained for fifty years, which stands today as the island’s national archive.

When it comes to Vermeer

Two Vermeers: one European and the other from the Dutch Caribbean; and although one named Johannes and the other Rob; one stood out for his art in the 17th century -the golden age of Dutch art- and the other framed between the middle of the last century and so far this one; although one has stood out for his chromatic palette and his costumbrist paintings while the other has developed an extensive career as a photographer -with an anthropological surname-, there is an element that links both Vermeers, in addition to their differences in time, media, technological processes, perhaps resulting from the Dutch inheritance. It is the use of light as a mood in their respective works. Light is a determining poetic halo for both of them.

The Vermeer painter resorted to light as a bullet within his compositions to offer optimism and less gloom in the midst of a dense, cloudy, gray, and cold atmosphere characteristic of the European climate. Vermeer’s genre scenes always offer a small ray of light as a hopeful element in the thickness of the western winter. The darkest areas within his painting find their illuminated counterpart in another plane of the work, a protagonist, and this gives it a kind of optimistic mood, of clarity.

The Vermeer photographer assumes light not as a contrast with darker areas -something exquisite to point out in his work- but as an enhancer of a discourse based on the cultural idiosyncrasy of the happy Caribbean island. The light in the photographic documents of this Vermeer sets the visual tone, reaffirms the essence of happiness and state of enjoyment of the Caribbean. His light is constructed, manipulated by him to redirect his intention in pursuit of the visual result. Rob is not interested in natural light per se or the country landscape with its nuances of ambient light. He turns his back on that to create with total mastery and freedom in the experimentation of technical processes, to approach people from the intimacy of the studio, from the constructed and documented space, illuminated with a purpose.

In the end, a necessary clarification. This archive of half a century of documentary photography by Rob Vermeer may lack relevance for some of the people portrayed -many of whom are no longer here- or for their relatives. But it undoubtedly has a meritorious validity insofar as it is a faithful manifestation of the constant documentation of the Caribbean subject in different contexts, ages, races, characters with diverse backgrounds of personal/social history. This is an anthropological testament capable of generating questions, stirring sensitivities, motivating and clarifying studies, locating in a timeline the development of the social culture of a region in a given period. It is there where the superlative value of this anthropological document is anchored as a social-historical book and as a work of art, which offers light on the visual and urban culture inherited today, especially in the Caribbean.

Nelson Gonzalez
EL PRAN Projecten / Curaduria Malandra.

Aruba/Havana. 2021


First installment
50 years of perpetual light.