The name "Netherlands" literally means “low country”.  Beginning in the 16th century, the Dutch reclaimed areas of the sea and lakes. These areas, called "polders" now amount to about 17% of the country.  What better place for a Dutch photographer named Bart van Damme to explore and reclaim a man-altered landscape than a man-made landscape -- New Topographics for a New Topography. Furthermore, if we look back on European painting, it was the Dutch who had the most fascination for the the painting of landscapes.

Jacob van Ruisdael, "View of Haarlem from the Northwest" c.1660

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In the Netherlands, a polder is a low-lying tract of land enclosed by embankments known as dikes that form an artificial hydrological entity, meaning it has no connection with outside water other than through manually operated devices. The ground level in drained marshes subsides over time and thus all polders will eventually be below sea level some or all of the time. Water is pumped out by opening sluices at low tide. They are unique environments that only exist in the Netherlands.

 "Polders, Grootschermer, The Netherlands" Edward Burtynsky, 2011

The now legendary photography show called “New Topographics” opened at the George Eastman House in January, 1975. One of it’s participants, Frank Gohlke, remembers that it was “a vigorously hated show”.  But the show put a name to a phenomenon --  straight, seemingly uninflected photography of the built environment -- and that name stuck. What remains cause for discussion is what exactly New Topographics meant and why the term and its attendant attributes have had such an enduring influence.

Frank Gohlke - "Landscape, Los Angeles," 1974

The New Topographics movement started as a reaction to the tyranny of idealized landscape photography of the kind that, for instance, Ansel Adams did so well. There was a place for that kind of photography, because it helped spawn the environmental movement and made it palatable and understandable to the average man. Adams was technically brilliant and did much beautiful work; he knew how to use light as almost no one else had before. But something new had invaded man's world in the meantime. That thing was technology, the sum of man's ingenuity and work in the world since the birth of the industrial revolution.

 "The Grand Tetons and the Snake River", Ansel Adams

Thus for landscape artists, the Ansel Adams school of photography had long become a cliché. People were looking at some new sources for inspiration. They looked at Atget. They looked back at Berenice Abbott, Jack Delano, Walker Evans, Marion Wescott and the painter Edward Hopper. Beginning in 1963, the Los Angeles artist Ed Ruscha did a series of books of photographs built around ironic architectural themes. His first was Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963).  He followed with Some Los Angeles Apartments, Every building on the Sunset Strip and Real Estate Opportunities. For him, photography was merely a utilitarian tool; he had little interest in aesthetics, but nonetheless photographers of the time took note. 

In the opening to Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places, Shore acknowledges his debt to Ruscha. Lewis Baltz, in his last interview, said that Ruscha was even considered as a participant in the first New Topographics exhibit.  It was a case of a kind of interest suddenly being seen in what was formerly thought of as uninteresting. For example, one of the New Topographers, Robert Adams, said, “What I tried to do in (my series) The New West was to include the objects we’d brought to the landscape and which by common consent are the most ugly, but also to suggest that light can transform even grotesque, inhuman things into mysteries worthy of attention."  Adam's language shows how the man-made landscape was thought of in the early 1970s. 

From "Twentysix Gasoline Stations" Ed Ruscha, 1962

Is it possible to hypothesize that images of man's works say as much about him as a picture of a man on the street? An image of a man or woman on the street is a universal anatomy; similar expressions, similar clothing usually; perhaps less revealing of a culture, unless the person is involved in something or has a presence that touches us. Man’s works, whether a gas tank or a wall or a building can say quite a bit about mankind in its use of materials, color, design, function, form, state of upkeep, and sheer presence. The way the Bechers began documenting the disappearing industrial landscape of Germany revealed as no book, news article or image of out-of-work factory hands could -- how whole economies were undergoing rapid change. The Bechers had many social, cultural and aesthetic concerns that the images were meant to introduce, but images, just as in the case of Ruscha's books, tend to have a life of their own once released into the culture at large.

"Gas Tank", Bernd and Hilla Becher

The Dutch photographer Bart van Damme first experimented with a variety outdoor street photography, but gradually he narrowed his focus to a topographical social landscape, for he'd had what he considered a wake-up call when he saw an exhibit of American and German New Topographers. As he explored his environment, he concentrated on the coastal edge of Holland, that area where man-made land and man-made form mix. He was mapping the encroachment of industrial development onto open landscapes and how contemporary life is administered by man in his control of nature. Since a part of this land is reclaimed from the sea as polders, this is one of the most controlled and human-designed areas in the world.

Composition No. 10, Pier and Ocean, Piet Mondrian, 1915

In painting, Cézanne's pre-Cubism was a major driving force behind Dutch art's quest for essence and coherence, but it reached one of its key culmination points in Mondrian's breakthrough in 1915, in Domburg at the Dutch Zeeland coast, where for the first time true abstraction was reached by creating essence out of the coastal landscape. Mondrian’s journey is still one of the most important and brave endeavors of art history. Though Van Damme's images are not abstractions, he's always looking for underlying interconnectivity and coherence, as opposed to merely depicting a subject. "Good photographs have to be investigations into what’s going on, on multiple levels", he has said.

Botlek, NL, Bart van Damme

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Van Damme has a capacity for capturing the wonder of the man-made world in an elegiac manner. One of his conjuring tricks is suggesting something that's impossible to see, either at close quarters or in the real-time motion of a busy landscape, but is contained in his photographs -- again, a case of bringing out it's essence. With his objective stance, he bears witness to sites that have their own story to tell, that only photography, lacking the overbearing hyperbole of a strong personal signature, could visualize effectively.

Botlek, NL, Bart van Damme

Parallax is an astronomical term that refers to the difference of position of an object when seen from two different vantage points. These differing viewpoints can be collated to better approximate the position of the object. Van Damme’s obsessive views of Holland’s coast function as a kind of parallax, collating from different directions the ways the the Dutch have come to grips with the North Sea and the Rhine River deltas. Through his work, we gather data points and understand these strategies. His body of work ties these areas together structurally and semiotically.

In contrast to the original New Topographers disdain for atmospheric light, Van Damme is very interested in the Dutch light, which, thanks to Dutch topographic painters, has been documented since the 16th century. Although some of his images have the look of summer in Los Angeles, he more often works with the half-sun, half-overcast misty steam that hangs over the North Sea and Holland. In this environmental laboratory, where the light changes from minute to minute, Van Damme uses this unique radiance as an aide in his images, and feels indeed that the coastal Dutch light is one of the main ingredients to the success of his work. 

Maasvlakte, NL, Bart van Damme

As Stephen Shore states in his coda to the work of Sze Tsung Leong’s book History Images, documenting the transition of China’s cities, “a photographer can only communicate his or her perception of the currents below the surface of things and has to find places where these currents are visibly manifest”. Van Damme’s work is characterized by its recognition of the fact that photography can address the interstices of time, and beyond this, can set out an understanding of architecture as the visible face of forces shaping his culture and place. Thus the terms of Van Damme’s body of work addresses itself to questions of historicity in the urban and coastal landscape of Holland, and to the place of images in an understanding of the passage of time and physical change in a unique place in the world.

Ever since the Greeks, there's been an art of significant form, of the abstraction of objects or structures in the environment into more than utilitarian views, but rather into sculpture and matrix. In this aspect of Van Damme's work, it becomes a delight for the eye to travel around and through his landscapes. The original New Topographers tried to minimize aesthetic concerns from their work, but you can feel Van Damme's regard and affection for his subject matter, which, seen under the luminescent coastal light, becomes our regard and affection too.

This is imagery as philosophy, and an invitation to ponder what transitional landscapes can tell us about metamorphosis and essence. In the image below, nothing is static, the clouds are in movement, the dunes and piles of rocks will change and shift, water pushes in from the lower left; a mondo materialis of many substances, where humans are not part of the scene. We feel we could be witnessing the birth of something, but we know not what, it's origin and purpose a mystery. Since the birth of high technology, we forge ahead; we know not where. Life has become an uncontrolled experiment, a liquid modernity. "All entities move and nothing remains still" said the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Van Damme would agree, but with this proviso -- there's an idea and essence behind it.

Maasvlakte, NL, Bart van Damme

The invitation is to wonder at Van Damme's perspectives, colors and tones, and take pleasure of scrutinizing them. We catch hints of photographers like Andreas Gursky, for instance his pictures of “The Rhine”, and of Thomas Struth, of which one of Van Damme’s favorite works is a picture called Grafenberger Wald.  Van Damme’s great strength is the way he’s able to bring out the essence of his subjects. As Plato famously formulated, the world of change known to us through sensation is not the most fundamental kind of reality. Non-material forms or ideas are the universal and highest reality. Van Damme tries to break through the sensational world into the non-material abstract idea or ultimate seeing. He's taking us out of Plato's cave into the light of pure essence.

It’s a synthesis of elemental form and color in a dance; analyzing the world with thoughtfulness and precision. Van Damme photographs not only landscapes or structures, he photographs environments; ecological and ethnological worlds, with their attendant forms of light and intangible spirituality. As Van Damme says, Dutch art has always been characterized by seeing rather than by religion, philosophy or ideology. Or perhaps put another way, seeing is the Dutch artist's religion, philosophy and ideology.

Thomas Struth, "Grafenberger Wald"

Interview with Bart van Damme

How did you first come to the visual arts?

At seventeen I enrolled in drawing and painting classes at the free art academy in The Hague, where I lived at the time - did that for a few years. Later on I worked for a couple of years for an art gallery in Leeuwarden, in the Northern part of the Netherlands, after which I started my art school study in the nearby city of Groningen. After a few years I grew bored with school and thought I could do a better job just educating myself. Years followed where I would be painting, reading about art, visiting art shows, working as a graphic designer and playing in a punk rock band. 

In order of appearance there was cartoon making, painting, graphic design, making music and only then photography. As some other photographers have remarked, I've most always felt more like a witness than a participant when it comes to the world in general.  Also, from the very first beginnings it was clear to me that above of all I was a visual person. In primary and high school I was the draftsman of the class. Cartoons and comics at first, but soon "proper" art would take over my interest. 

Scheveningen, NL, Bart van Damme

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What kind of cartooning did you do?

For some time I did political and literary caricatures; these were the tumultuous times of punk at the start of the Thatcher and Reagan era. I was trying to find my own style, but looking back I can’t really say I made it past the influence of artists I admired like David Levine and Gerald Scarfe. I had some of my stuff published in some of the punk and underground zines from that time, but I guess deep down I already knew polemics along with the matching cynical attitude were not the thing for me. It was art that increasingly was getting my attention.

Rotterdam, NL, Bart van Damme

How did your interest in photography come about?

Though I had a SLR from quite early on it wasn’t until the late 1990’s I began using it as a tool to try and make art. I took some photography lessons and for years I dwelled in the dark room, developing film and making black and white prints. In 1998 I started experimenting with slide projections of plants and flowers on a model - a series which later became known as Herballistics and which was exhibited in the 1999 edition of the Noorderlicht Photo Festival - my first one-man exhibition. Not long after this surrealist way of working I received what I considered a wake-up call by the American and German New Topographics photographers I’d seen in an exhibit somewhere. The mundane way they documented the landscape blew me away in such a way a whole new aesthetic and philosophy was starting to take root in me. From these guys on I’ve started my explorations all the way back to August Sander and Eugène Atget.

Botlek, NL, Bart van Damme

After discovering the New Topographers, whose work did you admire most? 

Lewis Baltz was of importance to me, especially when in his search for the essential I found traces of Mondrian. The thing with New Topographics is, it was such an American phenomenon and most of the portrayed landscape so quintessentially American, to me it was more the attitude that was of influence; seeing and trying to create beauty and essence out of the mundane. You could say the more European approach of Bernd and Hilla Becher and their Düsseldorf School - Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth - comes closer to what I’m aiming for myself. We certainly share a taste for a certain monumentalism.

Brouwersdam, NL, Bart van Damme

As I look at your work chronologically, it seem like something changed in about summer of 2012 with your "Sand Motor” images.

I agree about the summer of 2012 being a sort of breaking point for me. Some landscape encounters happened, some dots were connected and I guess I was beginning to harvest some benefits of years of searching and researching. 

The main catalysts were a few days in particular I spent at the Maasvlakte and at the Sand Motor at Ter Heijde, both reclaimed bits of the North Sea. I guess you can say that a deeper understanding sank in of how landscapes -- seascapes even -- can change; how they can be created by man and that large parts of the Dutch landscape surrounding me are indeed man-made. Both Maasvlakte 2 and Sand Motor are part of a larger Dutch story of dealing with the water around us, the rivers, the deltas and most of all the North Sea. The idea of the transitional landscape awoke inside me, connecting to the Heraclitus' Panta Rhei principle I always liked. I love these transitional zones and I love trying to capture their essence. I feel that they somehow touch the essence of our own transient lives. Also, there’s something soothing about a landscape, or a building, that’s hasn't found its definite shape yet. There are still possibilities and promises, much more fun than the final result usually.

Something that also struck me also was how the light was different in this newly reclaimed areas. It reminded me of Joseph Beuys and his theory about Dutch Light. He said that the light for which Holland was famous had lost its unique radiance because of major reclamations in the IJsselmeer in the 1950s and 1960s, thereby acknowledging not only that it had disappeared, but that it had actually existed in the first place. The odd thing was that I frequently found extraordinary light in these reclaimed areas, especially Maasvlakte 2, very different than, say, a few kilometers landward. This special light feels something like stolen beauty, a bit like the Dutch tricked both sea and weather.

As I progressed in my understanding of the area, I grew further away from "the subject" and closer to the interdependence of subjects within a photo, something I’m still working on. It's said that Dutch art has always been characterized by seeing rather than by religion, philosophy or ideology, and that’s something I recognize and aspire to as well. For me photography or art is all about seeing, hyper-seeing, trying to create essence. 

Hook of Holland, NL, Bart van Damme

It seems like there’s almost a spiritual or ethereal quality to your work.

Perhaps. I remember the Pantheon building had a large effect on me while visiting Rome years ago. I guess it's a challenge for me to show a sense of underlying spirituality and mystery in places where you would least expect it, in these man-made and industrial landscapes. Beauty is of importance, but it has to be a challenged beauty, not an obvious one.

Sand Motor, NL, Bart van Damme

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On another front, can we talk briefly about online social media sites? At this point in the new medium of the internet, what do you think of photographers presenting their work on these venues? 

It’s hard to picture where developments are leading us exactly, but largely I can say I embrace the democratization process the internet and social media platforms offer photographers. Like what happened to the music industry, the big photo agencies as middle men are becoming antiquated. The downside perhaps are the crazy quantities of pictures that are being uploaded every day, which to me questions the validity of social media sites. Everybody can get hold of a decent camera and seems to be shooting in some sort of New-Topo style - and it all looks great. But sometimes it can leave me feeling a bit empty and I wonder why that is . I guess we all have to attempt to push the envelope more, to go beyond accepted boundaries, beyond photography merely as daily compulsive behaviour and try to really tell authentic stories. It’s the only way for me to see value in proceeding to make pictures - and posting them on social media.

Maasvlakte, NL, Bart van Damme

Thank you very much, Bart van Damme.

More of Bart van Damme's work can be seen here and on his website and in his recent book.

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Maasvlakte, NL, Bart van Damme

Ouddorp, NL, Bart van Damme

Maasvlakte, NL, Bart van Damme

Scheveningen, NL, Bart van Damme