Bert Teunissen: The light of his life

For the past decade, the Dutch photographer Bert Teunissen has travelled Europe trying to recapture the lost world of his youth. Charlotte Cripps reports

Bert Teunissen was just eight years old when his family house in Ruurlo, in the Netherlands, was demolished before his eyes. In its place, a modern house was built, but when the family moved in, the child was dismayed to find that it had lost its special character. Thirty years later, the sense of loss he felt then sent him on a quest to find the same light and atmosphere elsewhere, and he has travelled throughout Europe taking photographs of the interior of people's houses to try to rediscover theambience of his childhood home.

"I am chasing a warmth of atmosphere that my native house had," says Teunissen, now 47. "Its essence can be captured in old houses filled with natural light from one window in a room."

He will never forget the day he entered the newly modernised house. "I was full of expectation," he says, "but every corner - every step - was gone forever." Pursuing the light of his youth, his pictures, all bathed in natural light, have a painterly quality that admirers have compared to the Dutch Old Masters.

His photographic mission was triggered by a visit to a bar in the south of Bordeaux, which produced Les Landes. Castelnau No 1, the first of 250 images in a series that spans the Netherlands, Belgium, the UK, Spain, Portugal, Italy, France and Germany. In it, a wizened old woman sits at a table with a plastic tablecloth of brown-and-white squares, a large fireplace behind her, a mounted deer's head on the wall.

Many of the buildings in his "archive" of photographs were built before the Second World War and the inhabitants have lived traditionally off the land. He seeks to document as many domestic landscapes as he can before they are all eroded by modernisation. "Their houses and ways of life are fading out of our societies forever, together with their knowledge," says Teunissen. "It is my aim to capture this, wherever I can find it, before it disappears completely."

An image taken in Portugal (Vilar Chao No 6) reveals a ghostly woman, dressed all in black, standing expressionless in a dimly lit room. Her face is hit by a shaft of bright daylight while around her in the shadows, objects - a broom, a watering can - lurk. In Rao Faquis No 1, a couple sit in a one-room dwelling in Spain. The light from the one window softens the room's harshness, giving the picture a sense of warmth and serenity.

Looking at the photograph taken by Teunissen in Camelle, Spain, of a woman in her miniature, cerulean blue home is like looking into a doll's house rather than a real living space.

His pièce de résistance, Azaruja No 1, Portugal, depicts four characters in a bar in the Portuguese countryside, an apple and a knife lying on the top of the bar. "The man on the far left who is staring at the camera went to the bar to slice his apple, and then left the knife on the side as he went back to his seat, to eat each bit of apple," says Teunissen. "I found this very mysterious. I discovered that he had once been in prison for an offence that had involved a stabbing. He was not allowed to carry a knife. It was as if he was frightened of what would happen if he held on to it. I always send people copies of a photograph. But when I returned some months later to visit the bar, having sent five copies of this picture (including one for the barman who is not in the picture), I was told I had sent one too many. The man who had been eating the apple had been stabbed outside the bar two weeks after this picture was taken."

Burt Teunissen Domestic Landscapes is at the Photographers' Gallery, London WC2, from 8 December to 28 January; www.photonet.org.uk. A book of his photographs, Domestic Landscapes, will be published by Aperture in February. Limited edition prints of Azaruja No 1, Portugal, with the men at the bar, are available at the Photographers' Gallery, priced £352.50.

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