Alex Ten Napel | WATER PORTRAITS | 17 May — 20 June 2007
Alex ten Napel (1958, Alkmaar) lives and works in Amsterdam. Ten Napel studied at the School for Photography in The Hague. His autonomous work is frequently published in Dutch and foreign magazines and newspapers. He also works on commission for advertising agencies and magazines. Since 1996 he has had several solo and group exhibitions and has been frequently commissioned by the municipality of Amsterdam and Utrecht.
In 2005, his Waterportraits were exhibited at the Epson Photo Festival in the fortified town of Naarden, the Netherlands and at Paris Photo.
Photos from the WATERPORTRAITS series were selected for Photography Now, One Hundred Portfolios, 2006, Dayton, USA; the Photographic Portrait Prize 2006, the National Portrait Gallery, London; Prix Photographique BMW-Paris Photo 2006, Paris.
Alex ten Napel is represented by Ton Peek Photography, Utrecht, the Netherlands.
The Netherlands is a water country. The photographer and his models live in a city in which almost half of the houses are situated along the water. On the outskirts of the city we bike along ditches, canals and rivers. When the weather is nice we go to the beach or go boating. And when it is freezing we go ice skating on the frozen waters.
When you think about it, it is a miracle that the amount of people who end up in the water by accident is rather small. A boy runs after his ball, trips and lands in a canal. Two chattering girls are biking along a ditch. They start laughing uncontrollably, lose their balance and go straight from the bike path into the water. A brother and sister are floating on an airbed, a little too far out at sea. When the low tide comes they are pulled further and further from the sea shore.
Dutch parents are aware of these possible scenarios and take their small children to swim class, where experienced swim lesson instructors start out by teaching them the most important lesson: the water is your friend. If a child is afraid of water it is impossible to teach him anything. After only a few lessons the children are able to float steadily. They learn how to use their arms and legs effectively and sure enough, a couple of weeks later they are able to swim — without any help — from one side of the pool to the other. Just to be on the safe side, the six- and seven-year old swimmers have to keep their clothes on during part of the exam. Almost all of them pass the exam, I think because most of them love the water.
One day, the photographer took his son to a so-called swimming paradise and found the water slide less interesting than his son. He decided to relax and make himself comfortable in the warm whirlpool. Across from him two teenagers were caressing each other. The light was reflected by the water on their skin. Their eyelashes were wet and drops of water trickled down their hair. The photographer studied the scene, as discretely as possible, and came up with an idea.
Photographer Alex ten Napel is blessed with a rare combination of patience and decisiveness. About ten years ago he photographed a large number of elderly people who suffered from Alzheimer’s.
Ten Napel sat down across from them and talked to them in the makeshift studio he had built in their institution. Sometimes it took a long time to connect with them, other times he was not able to. Their minds wandered off and they did not notice the man and his camera in front of them. But often something beautiful occurred; a meaningful instant and Ten Napel captured it.
A good photographer’s gift is an intuitive certainty that enables him to single out a moment and lift it above time. Ten Napel selected men and women from the extremely diverse population of the famous Albert Cuyp market in Amsterdam and asked them if he could photograph them. The encounters lasted only a few minutes, but the men and women, boys and girls he portrayed display a powerful presence.
A long time ago, when Alex ten Napel was starting out as a photographer and submitted several portraits to a photo contest held by the PvdA (Dutch Labour Party), one of the jury members labelled his works as sensitive. That jury member was photographer Willem Diepraam, who is now mostly known as a photography collector and appraiser. At the time, the term sensitive stuck by me as I was writing an article about Ten Napel. It may well be the best compliment a portrait photographer can get. Ten Napel’s gift to the viewer is his own empathic ability.
Back there in that whirlpool, he decided to portray children in the water. He talks to their parents about practical details and photographs dozens of boys and girls against a white background in a shallow part of the pool. The children are up to their shoulders in water. Ten Napel holds his camera just above the surface.
Imagine how something like that unfolds. One day you and your friends go to the pool and a kind-looking man asks if you want to be in a photo, with consent from your mother or father. From one moment to the next, the pool has transformed into some sort of photo studio, even though you are up to your neck in water. The photographer wants you to look into the lens without smiling. For a moment, everything remains motionless as if time is frozen. Then you hear your friends calling out to you: Hey, what is taking so long, are you coming? One more photo says the photographer, think of something very pleasant. This direction makes you think and the photographer takes a photo. Thank you, says the photographer, I will send you a good photo, okay? Okay, thanks, you say before you join your friends again in the deep end of the pool.
For a moment you think about how you were just captured in a photo. Swimming comes naturally, because the water is your friend.