Marga van den Meydenberg
By Tim Luscombe
Dirk and I wanted some portraits done of us as a couple, so he suggested we go and see Marga. I didn’t know much about her. She was the girlfriend of one of his friends and apparently she’d somehow brought into existence a Pop Up photostudio on Oranienstraße round the corner from where we live in Berlin’s Kreuzberg. She was taking pictures of people there. That’s all I knew. That, and that the deal was that you just showed up and paid her what you thought the experience was worth after you’d had your picture done.
Dirk suggested we bring some things to play with. I didn’t like the sound of that at all. What about our jazzy, hand-knitted, ridiculously long scarf?, he asked. ‘What about our mouse?’ Take our mouse?! What on earth did he think was going to happen? I went along with it, mostly because I liked the idea of paying what you wanted and getting a professional portrait in return. But I made one stipulation. I would not be taking off any of my clothes.
So, there we were, half naked, larking about like over-weight, under-skilled ballet dancers before I had my head wrapped up in the scarf. Why? Who can tell? I blame Marga. She makes these sorts of things happen. And the mouse seemed to enjoy himself.
As you can see, Marga is pretty inspiring, and she’s extremely relaxed. There’s only one rule when you visit her. You mustn’t be in a rush.
She and I had become friends by the time I went back a year later for a second go. This time, she’d created a Pop Up studio in Schöneberg, right in the middle of the gay neighbourhood and during the build-up to Berlin’s Leather and Fetish week. She quickly connected with the Cigar Men, clad in their leather attire, who meet monthly in the bar opposite her studio, and she had me, shirtless once again, fighting for breath inside a transparent blue raincoat.
Marga’s talent to get you naked, literally or emotionally, is surprising since she comes so heavily unarmed. The cleverness of the trick is precisely it’s untricksiness. Brought up in the middle of nowhere, she’s still a farm girl at heart. Fearing the distraction of TV, she currently doesn’t own one. She’s partnered to Niels but they’re not married. She’s a European citizen but insists on identifying as stateless. In her studios, she doesn’t hide behind a computer. There’s no internet connection. There’s no phone visible!
What there is, is nothing but Marga, her camera, and a bench outside. And with her comes her availability, her patience, her frank honesty, her gentleness, her curiosity and her desire to connect. I’d say it’s a kind of love.
She loves people, and she’s certainly one of life’s great observers. She told me she’d like to be invisible so she could unselfconsciously observe till she was satisfied she’d identified exactly what is unique about someone and sketched out a biography. When she began her artistic training, it was people she wanted to draw, and when she first entered a photography class, her desire to document humans found its perfect creative expression. Before the portraits came street photography, and before that, social projects in her native Netherlands, but the work has always been about the people – the people in the street rather than the street itself.
Her Pop-Ups (there have been eleven in four years) are humble, ordinary-looking places, but there’s nothing casual about the locations. She once spent a year on reconnaissance to find precisely the right spot north of the centre in Prenzlauer Berg. And she doesn’t want her set-up to get any bigger. She can’t imagine the kind of people she photographs being comfortable with huge, professional spaces, loads of lights and assistants running about.
Sitting innocuously on her bench outside the shop, she doesn’t snare her victims. She attracts rather than promotes, and her oeuvre is testament to the fact that people are only too willing to trust her with their pride – like the old lady who passed by on her way to the shops, exploiting the bench for a rest. Over several pitstops, the woman recounted her life story and her regrets – she was grateful to have a listener, and Marga is the best. Next, she happily submitted to being photographed with a pile of bowls on her head. The picture of the lady with bowls was taped to the window.
Photos accumulate as the month ticks by, and an informal exhibition evolves. The locals get a sense of what’s going on. A curious couple turns up with a bunch of sex toys. Pretty soon, the air is thick with brightly patterned dildoes. A friend drops by with the purplest of giant vegetables and, before long, they’re hanging out of her mouth in a way that’s both grotesque and funny.
Marga’s work revels in an apparent fearlessness on the part of today’s Berliners to express their bizarre fantasies and their uninhibited sense of themselves, encapsulating moments of happy chaos that are full of beauty, vulnerability and mirth. She’s interested in freedom and the unique forms it takes.
‘You can’t create these situations’, she assures me, ‘They just happen’. But, crucially, she’s created the space and the relaxed atmosphere of trust in which they can happen. And she’s present, she’s shown up every day with no distractions, fully available, to capture them when they do.