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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Breakthrough of the Anti-Monumental

The 1988-89 exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the 1989 photo book Hollandse taferelen (Dutch scenes) by Hans Aarsman (b. 1951) put the landscape back on the agenda of Dutch photography.[21] (Fig. 3) This happened in the spirit of ‘restrained monumentality’ – as Linders previously called it – akin to the photography of the New Topographics. In 1988, Aarsman bought a camper van and drove around the Netherlands for one year to take pictures with a field camera that he put on the roof of the van, or sometimes from another elevated position (in some of the pictures, the blue van itself can be seen). He did not construct his scenes very consciously, but instead allowed himself to be led by coincidence and turned left or right as the occasion presented itself. Instead of monumental subjects or impressive events, he captured ordinary street corners, text signs, and people stopping for a chat. Even the weather with pale, slightly overcast skies formed a counter-image to the dramatic, ‘typically Dutch’ cloudy skies. It was the stereotype of the Dutch landscape from painting that Aarsman opposed with a counter-image. His photographs also formed a counterpoint to the social documentary photography that was popular in the 1980s, with people and social conflict often in the leading role and political convictions rhetorically communicated in a visual way.


Fig. 3. Hans Aarsman, Maasvlakte, from the series Hollandse taferelen (Dutch Scenes), 1988-89, digital file.

Aarsman acquired the New Topographics exhibition catalogue, but only after he already had produced Dutch Scenes.[22] He mentions the photographic work of Stephen Shore as a source of inspiration. He also knew the work of Wout Berger, who worked with a field camera and also photographed from high positions. Along with the exhibition of Aarsman’s Dutch Scenes at the Stedelijk Museum (1988-89), it was the exhibition Landschap in Nederland (Landscape in the Netherlands) at the Rijksmuseum in 1990, with photographs by Jannes Linders and André-Pierre Lamoth, that meant a large breakthrough for and exposure of a type of landscape photography similar to the New Topographics to a larger audience in the Netherlands. The shock that Linders’ photography produced was expressed by the weekly newsmagazine Vrij Nederland (Free Netherlands), which was known for its attention to photography. This magazine wrote the bold headline ‘Not a soul to be seen’ above a review of Linders’ Dutch landscape photographs.[23] Comparable to the commission of the cityscapes by the Amsterdam Art Fund in 1982, Linders made these Dutch landscapes in the context of a commission by the Rijksmuseum, which regularly commissions new art that documents Dutch society and contemporary history.[24]

Another photographer who was important to other photographers was Henze Boekhout (b. 1947). He made fragmented impressions of environments with different camera techniques, viewpoints, and different printing and mounting techniques. On the exhibition wall, he poetically combined these different types of images into new, multi-image installations. An important aspect of his work is a democratic treatment of elements from the environment, which also reminds us of the ‘anti-monumentality’ of the New Topographics. In Boekhout’s work, no type of landscape, building or object was more important than others. He reacted to and photographed his environment in a purely visual and intuitive way and made it into an all-encompassing stream of visual poetry and surrealistic coincidences. His sources of inspiration range from the photography of Leonard Freed to Graham Beal’s book A Quiet Revolution: British Sculpture Since 1965 to drawings by the Belgian artist Léon Spilliaert.[25] Boekhout’s open-minded view of his environment culminated in his photo book Seconds First from 1993. This book was and remains popular among Dutch photographers and is also a source of inspiration to photography students. In 1992, a year before Boekhout’s book appeared, the influential event Wasteland: Landscape from Now On took place in Rotterdam. This exhibition, with its accompanying publication and events, is often mentioned by a new generation of photographers as important for an awareness of new types of landscape photography. It was not the event that made the New Topographics photographers famous in the Netherlands, since of the photographers in the 1975 exhibition only Lewis Baltz was present in Wasteland. However, we could say that seventeen years later the spirit of the New Topographics was evolved and elaborated in Wasteland. Old traditions of looking at the world and composing landscape imagery were overturned by different types of photography with different approaches to environments like industrial areas, wastelands, airports, or computer rooms. For many in the Netherlands, including photographers, this was the way to getting to know the works by Lewis Baltz, Gabriele Basilico, Michael Brodsky, Jean-Marc Bustamante, John Davies, or Jem Southam. From then on, the new type of man-made landscape photography became more common. Also, in the 1990s the photography of the Düsseldorf Photo School of Bernd and Hilla Becher, with photographers like Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, Axel Hütte, and Candida Höfer, became known in the Netherlands. The Bechers, who had participated in the New Topographics, spread the ideas and approaches originating from their photography to this new generation of German photographers. The pupils, however, introduced their own influences, such as choosing large, sometimes even monumental sizes and the extensive use of color where the New Topographics often worked in black-and-white.[26]