Depth of Field, volume 7, no. 1 (December 2015)Maartje van den Heuvel: New ‘Masters’ of Dutch Landscape. Photographs of the Most Man-Made Land in the World

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The Industrial and the Urban

After the Second World War, human interest and social documentary photography were predominant in Dutch photography. Photographer Wout Berger (b. 1941) was an important pioneer in the 1980s to introduce landscape photography again in the Netherlands. Berger states that the 1978 photo book Cape Light: Color Photographs by Joel Meyerowitz influenced him to change his own photography. Before that, he made human interest and commercial photography in which people were central. In 1980, he bought a field camera and started to photograph landscape. In the following decades he experimented with various ways of working with the field camera and was known in the 1980s for working from tower wagons. The photo book Uncommon Places by Stephen Shore from 1982 was also influential for his work. This spirit of social documentary led to social and media controversy around a Dutch village that turned out to be built over an illegal dumping site for hazardous chemical waste. Political action was taken to clean up the most polluted sites in the Netherlands, and more than 1,000 sites were designated with a so-called IBS code by the authorities in 1983.[15] (Fig. 1) It was exactly this list that Berger took as a starting point for the subjects of his series and photo book Poisoned Landscape: Polluted Sites and Landscapes in the Netherlands.[16] Berger was struck by the contradiction that these heavily polluted sites sometimes turned out to be able to produce rather beautiful scenery. In his later work, like the Ruigoord series or harena aqua palus, the political aspect was pushed to the background or eliminated completely. He explored the visual qualities of the very detailed, egalitarian color images that the field camera produced.[17] Berger started to photograph man-altered landscape like the New Topographics did, but he did not know the exhibition by then. He was influenced by a contemporary of the New Topographics, Joel Meyerowitz, who worked much in the same spirit. Also, he was directly influenced by one of the photographers from the New Topographics exhibition: Stephen Shore. This was the way it went with other photographers as well.

FIG2

Fig. 1 Wout Berger, Diemerzeedijk. IBS-Code 025-007. June 1986, from the series Giflandschap/Poisoned Landscape, chromogenic print, 40 x 50 cm.

Berger had been working in North Holland – the province of the Dutch capital Amsterdam. In South Holland, the metropolis Rotterdam, with its extensive industrial harbor and its modern architecture that was newly built after the destruction of the Second World War, offered sites that were attractive for photographers of a new kind of photography. With a field camera transported on the back of his bike, photographer Jannes Linders (b. 1955) was a frequent visitor of the Rotterdam urban landscapes and harbor in the 1980s. In his early art academy years, from 1976 to 1981, Linders attended exhibitions by Lee Friedlander and Walker Evans at the Lijnbaancentrum in Rotterdam, which, according to him, influenced his work. Although he worked in a broad field of artistic production – he was a portrait, theater, and museum object photographer as well – he also made work in the genre of architecture photography, which in those days was regarded with little esteem because it was thought to be a serving form of photography. Through the Swiss magazine Camera, he learned about the innovative landscape photography by photographers of the New Topographics.[18]

Already in 1983, in the context of a commission for urban photography by the Amsterdam City Art Fund, Linders positioned his own work in the photography production of his time:

‘Looking at a large part of Dutch photojournalism, one can see that almost exclusively distorting wide-angle lenses, coarse grain and burnt-in skies which are made use of. These techniques have to do with social engagement of the photographer, but throughout the years have become so widely accepted that they rather often bury the actual subject and therewith lose their original power of expression. Of course, the human condition is also important in my photographs. However, I believe that this aspect can also, and maybe in these times even stronger, be expressed from the ‘other side’: the typical, graphical and psychological effect of the built environment itself. …. The photography I am engaged in occurs little in the Netherlands as far as I know. It is the searching of a balanced combination of information, aesthetics and emotionalism. What I strive for is a restrained monumentality, with photographs that ask for attention without forcing their content on the beholder.’[19]

Of course, as noted above, Wout Berger was also working with his field camera in a more withdrawn manner, describing a new kind of photography from his tower wagons. But it is clear that this way of photographing was still very uncommon in Holland. Commissioned by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Linders made a series of black-and-white photographs entitled Landscape in the Netherlands in 1988-90. (Fig. 2)

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Fig. 2. Jannes Linders, On the A13 near the Delft-Zuid exit, 1988-90, from the series Landschap in Nederland/Landscape in the Netherlands, commissioned by the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

It was the Rotterdam-based Perspektief gallery, together with its photo-theoretical magazine of the same name, which gave exposure to new forms of foreign landscape photography in the Dutch photography scene in the 1980s and positioned Dutch photography in an international context.[20] The work of Linders was internationally contextualized and positioned in exhibitions at Perspektief – for example, in the exhibition Stadslandschappen: Gabriele Basilico, John Davies, Jannes Linders, Gilbert Fastenaekens (Urban landscapes; 1986) and the event Architectuur & Fotografie (Architecture and Photography; 1986).