Housekeeping is the enemy of Amsterdam-based photographer of Erik Klein Wolterink. He’s a guest who insists no one cleans up before he comes over. The more mess in the kitchen, the better. The pile up in the sink, the strange, potentially embarrassing over- or under-stock of comfort foods from faraway places, the teabag adhered to a counter—these are the qualities that give the space its essential features, the small reveals that tell the human story in his work.
"One photo can’t tell much," says Klein Wolterink, who, with surgical precision for his Kitchen Portraits spliced together as many as 15 to 30 different images of intentionally unstyled, often unkempt kitchens of strangers around Amsterdam. He opens up their cupboards and shoots from above, for an intimate, highly detailed perspective on their everyday lives.
To find subjects, people who will invite him into their kitchens, Klein Wolterink often turns to his Facebook group. Though the format of the photos is always the same, the results—the contents of everyone’s kitchens, where products and people share space—are wildly varied.
After graduating from art school in 2007, Klein Wolterink began experimenting with photography, using it to frame and observe the details of domestic life. He quickly discovered that kitchens are the key to this, the room we most gravitate to, as individuals and as families. It’s also a place where we tend to be paying attention to food—something more than a phone or a television, more analog and interesting to observe. Klen Wolterink began documenting his own kitchen, then those of his neighbors. Eventually, he photographed 11 kitchens across Amsterdam, a city with a diverse population and a very tangible "multicultural reality." Visual clues, such as international foodstuffs and cooking utensils, reveal much about the people who pass in and out of these intimate domestic spaces. "The kitchen comes as close as possible," he tells Co.Design "to getting at the everyday ordinary life. I am a cartographer of daily life."
As it turns out, Klein Wolterink doesn’t use his kitchen much himself. He doesn’t cook, but he understands the symbolic value of the kitchen as the social condenser of the home.
The time he spends, of course, is in other people’s kitchens, where the execution of his shoots requires considerable planning. First, like "a sort of carpenter," he takes measurements and otherwise cases the room from every angle, making annotated drawings so he can then map out the spaces and plan shots in advance. "I worked a lot with maps," says Klein Wolterink, who trained as an engineer and admires the form of geographic representation. "A map makes you understand reality, without being realistic itself."
He then shoots the kitchens head-on and parcels them into square and rectilinear components. As he turns to each sector of the space, he opens doors to expose the contents within. Then he prints out the individual high-resolution photos and tacks them into a gridded montage on his studio wall.
The finished portraits are of kitchen owners as much as they are of kitchens. Cabinets are full of plates, produce, cookware. The dishwasher is filled with dirty cups, small pyramids of beer bottles occupy the top shelves of the refrigerator. The props don’t exactly line up, lending the images—and our image of the people who live there—a slightly skewed and highly individual off-kilter originality.
"It is difficult to make all the photos fit exactly to one kitchen again," Klein Wolterink says. But that’s part of the appeal.