Documenting a place

January 30, 2021

And why this is most likely to fail.

Documenting a place requires involvement, in this case also with people, simply because they live here. It’s a neighbourhood. One that is soon to disappear, to make space for a new street plan, with new houses that are larger, more comfortable, more expensive. Half of it is demolished already, the other half partly abandoned and sealed off, partly still inhabited. I find it difficult to stick my camera into the backyards of people still living here. It’s a working-class neigbourhood in Rotterdam Zuid. Gardens are shoddy, inventories are poor. I’m not working-class, it’s not my neighbourhood, I don’t know the people who live here, and the problems they are facing are not mine. That complicates things. Also because this is not about individual stories, I’m mostly interested in this neighbourhood as an example of post war architecture, more specifically the garden village, and the lack of historical awareness in today’s city development. And also: how easily every sign of individualism is wiped away by clearing out gardens and boarding up windows. And what traces are left of lives spent in these homes. But photographing a process, if that’s what I’m doing, requires a sort of before and after. Or at least two faces of a current situation. It’s somewhat problematic not to include houses that are still inhabited, when photographing others that aren’t. Or perhaps it’s not. Perhaps it’s just telling only half the story. Or a different story. 

Documenting this place also requires a different way of looking at my own pictures. I feel that my perhaps rather simplistic idea of a good picture - one that satisfies my sense of harmony and control, a composition that feels right, colours that please me -, falls short when applying it to this place, this series. Perhaps any series, because they need pictures for the sake of the whole, while I’m used to taking pictures that only need to exist in their own universe. And I’m sort of in the dark about what, in this given context, makes for a good picture. Or even one that I’m pleased with.
Take this photo of the two windows. As a single picture I wouldn’t have taken it. I included it (for now) because I think it is an important part of the story. Or at least an element of the story that I find significant. It’s up for debate of course if this is the best execution possible. I suppose not. I don’t even know if it’s noticable, but the two windows, curtains and reflections included, are exactly the same. Which means they are not windows. They are photographs taken of windows, meant to make the deserted part of the neighbourhood look less grim. There are also painted curtains, but I like the ambivalence of the more real-life photographs.

Also, documenting a place that changes over time requires a long term interest. Evidence shows that I’m not particularly good at that. I’m interested in a lot of things, but not necessarily in a deep, profound or everlasting way. But even if I manage to hold on to my initial interest, the time span is problematic anyway. Along the way, I find myself distracted by new ideas about execution, form, content, focus, approach, processing. It’s difficult to accomplish consistency over time. The fact that this set is black and white, as opposed to the previous one that I took last summer, and cropped into a different aspect ratio, speaks for itself.  

Which is not to say it’s not worth the effort. If only for all of the above.

An exercise in chaos

January 11, 2021

1035 Rkm, Maasvlakte Rotterdam, The Netherlands.
Which is probably an exercise in composition, but then, what isn’t? An exercise, if you will, in allowing clutter, unwanted, distracting elements. An exercise in not exercising control, perhaps. Or is this the superlative degree of control? Okay, enough. We went for a walk last Sunday and afterwards we ate some fries at this snack joint. That’s all there is to it really. 


December 12, 2020
I feel that this preference for black and white and an up close perspective comes from a sort of tiredness with reality. Tired of the mundane scenes that photo walks are offering, of the visual noise of the urban environment that I now depend on. This series, a mixed bag of images of bricks and stones from my everyday surroundings and memories of past landscapes, tied together by a layer of monochrome, somehow feels apt for this timeframe: a blur of successive days that I can hardly tell apart, inflicting a sort of meditative, detachted state of mind. A world coming to a stand still, while time is accelatering, leaving not much of a trace.

Preparing for winter

November 15, 2020
This picture from last weekend (and also these) triggered some ideas. That happens sometimes, but usually nothing much happens after, as ideas have a tendency to drain away as quickly as they emerge, outsmarted by practicalities, my inability to move a project forward, a lack of time or motivaton. The only thing that might be different now, is that I need it more. Ideas, a project. Life has somewhat shrinked since the outbreak. The work eat sleep routine is starting to suck the life out of me. Keeping up photography feels essential under the circumstances. The idea is quite simple: go into town and take pictures, squares, in black and white, more ‘flat’ than spacious. I have no words for the content or concept yet, other than these formalities. I can somehow ‘see’ what I want it to be like, what it should look like and what feeling I want them to convey when I put them together. Very vague, I know. But enough to move forward, I believe. 

On a more practical note, but also stemming from this single image: I rearranged the website quite a bit. Some design changes, but more substantial: the menu now consists of six shortcuts: three permanent, and three subject to change, depending on what I’m working on or what I would like to put in the storefront. It includes a draft, a sort of moodboard for this new series. The index page is now the main navigation tool, offering access to every single page with one click. Keeping the institute and the travelogues out of the menu, pushes them somewhat to the background, which feels appropriate. 

Third: this series, if it will ever come to that, will be of moderate size. I’m thinking of a magazine format to publish them. Either with Blurb, for starters, to explore the concept as well as the format with their design tool, but also looking at Printroom, a Rotterdam based studio dedicated to artist’s publications, small press and self publishing projects. I would be interested to do one of their workshops. In better times to come.
Facade (detail) of the now vacant Correct building, a warehouse for consumer’s electronics in Rotterdam. Correct moved into this building, a former movie theater at the Bergweg, in the early seventies. It will soon be demolished to make space for a new housing complex.

Field notes from your editor

September 27, 2020

At this point, the website contains 116 pages, most of them stacked in a continuous feed so it’s not instantly noticable, but it still is a somewhat embarrasing 116 pages, or topics. It’s a rough estimation, but I’d say that every topic contains an average of seven pictures (zero to five for a blogpost, 15 for a travelogue, 5 per assignment). Which makes for more than 800 photographs. Needless to say that this is not a portfolio. It’s documenting work. Including some sort of portfolio, although I’d rather not use the word. It’s a living thing, fed, raised and cared for like a pet.

In my own defense: I like making websites. I enjoy tinkering with lay outs and navigation, aligning content with design, selecting and pairing images. I also like seeing pictures in their context and making them accessible, not necessarily to others. Pictures that otherwise waste away on the hard drive. I like making books too. Different medium, similar reasons. It helps me to get a grip on the outcome of photographing for almost a decade now and learn from it. Building and maintaining a website is a blunt confrontation with where you stand as a photographer, beyond the single image. 

The better part of the website shows pictures in their original context. The documenting part. It’s only on the sample pages that I detach them from where they come from. Cross selections, based on or moulded into formal, not unproblematic frameworks, like ‘landscape’, or ‘interior’. And then there is a sort of meta layer in the form of a blog. Also the home of small, incidental series that do not belong anywhere else.
It’s partly an occupational hazard, this inclination to offer multiple entries to the same content to improve accessibility, and to contextualize content in different ways to provide more than just one narrative. Another truth behind these layers is, of course, a lack of series and concepts. Organizing pictures based on their geographical provenance is the most obvious thing to do – and quite satisfying I must admit – but not necessarily the most interesting. I always find myself looking for cross connections, for other ways to organize them. Not sure if there are any that are fruitful. I do wonder how likely it is that several meaningful bodies of work could ever emerge from a bunch of singles that are taken without a clear concept beforehand. Not very, I’m afraid. Unless your name is Todd Hido.

Perhaps I should forget about series and admit and embrace the autonomy of these pictures and present a seemingly random selection on the homepage. I’ve been thinking about it on and off, and looking at Marton Perlaki’s website the other day, a photographer that I first came across at Unseen photo fair, sort of revived that idea.

On the other hand, looking at ‘landscape’: I intended to regularly update the sample sections. Turns out I almost never do. I sometimes replace an image or one of the pairs, but basically, it’s been the same selection since I first put it online. I feel that more recent pictures do not fit in, perhaps because they don’t, or perhaps the current selection has grown on me. I wonder what that means. It might mean that this is the beginning, or the core, of a series.

Picture taken in Telemark, Norway. Just one from recently that I happen to like.