Paul Faassen (55), illustrator and photographer: ‘Backs of hairstyles are fascinating. Fascinating is, of course, a dirty word. Intriguing? Doesn’t say much, does it? In any case, I can spend quite some time studying a hairstyle. How the curls fall, how the braids run. I can look at that in museums for just as long as I can look at the work behind it. Maybe because I don’t have a haircut myself, could be. I took the photo of the bald man with the black square of Malevich on the back of his head in a split seconds. I saw him walking in the Uffizi in Florence and he shuffled in front of the Venus of Urbino from Titian.
I started photographing museum visitors in 2015. There were a lot of those big blockbusters in museums. As a lover of art I could also be found there. What am I actually looking at?, I thought. To art, or to backs? I started seeing people as part of the job. A work of art is only finished when it is looked at.
I like to watch how people behave. What goes through their mind when they look at a work of art? The museum is a very peaceful biotope. People shuffle quietly past each other. Even the climate stickers were removed in peace.
I decided to record how people behave in this biotope. In practice you photograph a lot of backsides. I only have a few seconds at the most. There are many people who immediately jump to the plate, looking for an interpretation. But there are also plenty who take the time to look extensively, such as Mark Rothko. Endless. Many sat down on stools.
I never asked them: do you want to stand there? I’ve stalked people. Then I saw a hairstyle or outfit passing by and I went after it, looking for similarities or differences. At an exhibition about animals in the Kunsthal, I saw similarities between visitors and animals: buns that resemble a bear’s haircut, tiger prints in clothing. And at an exhibition about Caravaggio I tried to capture the visitor in the same chiaroscuro light.
People photograph themselves completely paralyzed in a museum. I have seen the arrival of the iPad, but it has completely disappeared. With that you could – nice and big – take good pictures. The photo on the iPad looked even better than the painting itself. La Primavera by Botticelli hung in dim light and had turned brown, unrestored for many years. But on screen it was crystal clear.
Then something interesting happens; people come face to face with the original, but at the same time are absorbed in the reproduction. This also applies to photos you take with your phone: as if you were holding a postcard of the painting and looking at it, instead of the painting on the wall.
You also have the I-was-here photographer. He turns his back to work and takes a selfie. With which he, as it were, strips the painting of its original function and gives it a new one: that of a back wall. I find that endearing.
There is much more beauty to be seen in a museum than just the art on the wall. The way I look at museum visitors, I also look around at everyday life. I always try to keep a little distance between myself and the world. Like an anthropologist in the field. This photo series of museum visitors is now more or less finished. Next week I’m going to the Vermeer exhibition in the Rijksmuseum. Another blockbuster, completely sold out. I expect queues and crowds. A heaving silver-grey sea. Also beautiful.’