Standing in front of his family home, the nine-year-old Bert Teunissen watched as all he had known through childhood was razed to the ground. Security, history, the way time shapes and orders the domestic world had finally made way for a modern replacement. To the young boy, it appeared comfortable and contemporary – but not home.
It is perhaps this memory that was drawn upon when rationalising what has become a sprawling, decade-long project, taking in much of Europe. Stretching from Achterhoek, in his own rural east Netherlands, to the more withdrawn regions (both geographically and, it appears, socially) of Great Britain, Teunissen has sought those whose lives had remained entwined within pre-war domestic environments. On first glance, these homes are hardly altered, occupied by the elderly who have known little else. Looking through the pictures, clues appear about their wider lives, through the keepsakes, collections and tokens of spiritual devotion that personalise the properties. Like Delft pottery passing through generations, these are significant details that suggest we have happened upon the later hours of active, ambitious and cultured lives. On occasion, the encroachment of the contemporary interrupts the mood of rural remoteness; a strip light seems a singular addition in a De Panne cottage; storage heaters perhaps relate to a family decision when money was found in the 1970s. Histories become apparent, readable.
Indeed most of the photographs that appear relate the imperatives of family life: tables, softened by lace, cotton or oilcloth are important routes into these lives. They allude to the intimacies of mealtimes, of discussion and decision. When Teunissen succeeds, the pictures relate something of the way in which couples negotiate a space they have shared for decades. In Ruurlo No. 4, a wife sits nearer the sink, ready to act, perfectly framed within the mosaic of cream and black wall tiles. Her husband sits to the right, near the door, crowned by a shelf that, through simple, light-dulled photographs, confirms the generation that follows. The table, which separates them, is small enough to reach across, and holds two kinds of cups, blue and white, two of each.
So, in part, these pictures might be about relationships, about how families have grown old in their homes in a manner that Teunissen’s family could not; how sisters (spinsters) have become as symmetrical in their lives as the coats hanging neatly behind them on the wall. But what of those photographed in isolation? Elsewhere, lone dwellers have let such disciplines falter. Tables are topped with carrier bags, or the accumulative creep of objects that are either disposable or simply belong nowhere. Tired timber furniture has been maintained with scotch tape. Calendars are added to, rather than replaced, and become more simple decoration than a schedule to live by.
Moving between a loose panoramic format and more abruptly structured frames, the pictures have an unhelpfully broad range of temperaments; from lukewarm interior photography, where we feel nothing for the subject, some pictures belie the brevity of their making, and draw upon tenderness and depth rather than the spectacle of exotic, if charming subjects. The book, over-length as it is, exposes such inequalities. We should be wary of claims alongside the recent London exhibition of these pictures that compare Teunissen’s photographs to the paintings of Vermeer. While a considerable number of pictures show an appreciation of light, it’s an ambitious and lazy claim. There are a handful of very good Vermeers that convey precisely the social tensions of domestic service. Alongside a painter who knew his subject, knew his territory, and returned to it, it becomes clear that Teunissen is still looking for his.