Shortly after U. was born he started taking photographs. The distinguishing feature of his pictures was their frog perspective – no surprise, as U. lay mainly on his back. We learn this in the first chapter of The Universal Photographer, a book about the strange life and work of the universal photographer U. (1955-2016). It is the latest publication by artists Anne Geene (b. 1983) and Arjan de Nooy (b. 1965) who, with their humorous, pseudo-scientific work, make their audience look at the world in a new way. They are about to present The Universal Photographer in the form of an exhibition in Gemeentemuseum Den Haag’s Projects Gallery.
Geene and De Nooy have used U. to produce an ‘encyclopaedia’ of photography. The fictional character took more photographs of more subjects in more styles than any photographer before him. Numerous characteristics of other photographers, philosophers, scientists and collectors can be discerned in U. This is because, as a photographer, he adheres in the extreme to the basic quality of photography: copying.
Anne Geene & Arjan de Nooy have loosely based The Universal Photographer on Gustave Flaubert’s unfinished 1881 novel Bouvard et Péchuchet, in which two men in their fifties survey the state of affairs in a wide range of fields, from chemistry and psychology to religion and farming. Like these protagonists, U. had a tendency to copy, collect, combine and study – and just like them he lacked common sense. This resulted in unconventional methods, peculiar preferences and naïve solutions to self-made problems.
Anne Geene & Arjan de Nooy’s method of systematic documentation is reminiscent of the work of Christian Boltanski, as in his Archives du Cœur, a constantly growing archive of the heartbeats of people all over the world. Like Mariken Wessels, who had a solo exhibition at The Hague Museum of Photography last year, Geene & De Nooy create a fictional account based on photographs they have found and taken. Comparison with Hans Eijkelboom also seems unavoidable, in the sense of photography used as a conceptual medium and, not least, because of the healthy measure of dry humour.
Taking the chapters in the book as a basis, the exhibition explores successive periods in U.’s body of work, for which Geene & De Nooy draw on a multitude of sources. U.’s work reflects the typical artist’s view of the art of photography, full of reservations and absurdism. Backed by an astonishing collection of quotations about photography, Geene & De Nooy use U. to construct a pseudo-scientific encyclopaedia on the medium. Above all, The Universal Photographer is a celebration of photography.
Anne Geene & Arjan de Nooy met at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. They previously collaborated on the award-winning publication Ornithology, an alternative bible for birdwatchers. This year Geene won the Volkskrant Visual Art Award and the readers’ prize. The exhibition of The Universal Photographer is being shown for the first time at Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, to coincide with the publication of the book (HEF publishers, 39.90).