The back story: Mountain Legacy Project director, Eric Higgs, finds himself involved in repeat photography project in Amsterdam, about as far physically and psychologically from the mountains of western Canada as one can get. He is spending the year working on his new book, Changing Nature, which examines the future of ecological restoration in a rapidly changing world. He and his family are based in the northern Netherlands university city of Groningen.
Patrick Augenstein, an independent filmmaker and scholar, invited me to join him in an embryonic repeat photography project in Amsterdam. We met first at the Society for Ecological Restoration conference in Manchester in 2012, when he presented PhD research that used repeat photography to understand changing landscapes and ecological restoration in Rwanda. Subsequently, I served as an external examiner for his PhD at the University of Bremen, Germany, in 2017, and we hatched the Amsterdam idea.
Amsterdam is a beguiling city in so many respects. Much of the downtown of the old city dates to the 17th century “golden age” in global trade. Canal side buildings lean and creak on pilings, and the semicircular pattern of canals adds fascination to the streetscapes. Transportation networks are world-class, with fast efficient rail service between Schiphol airport, one of the world’s busiest, and the downtown. The central train station anchors the city alongside the busy river IJ. Bicycles and bicycle paths are everywhere, and booming tourism means the downtown streets are thronging year round. It has become one of my favourite cities.
Patrick has lived in Amsterdam for several years, and noticed there are no books that trace changes in the city through photography. Since he and I have used repeat photography extensively, he began to comb the Amsterdam City Archives for historic images of the City. He found a trove of compelling images and acquired digital copies. Thus was borne the Amsterdam Legacy Project.
Repeat photography in an intensely urban area bears scant resemblance to the work we do in the Mountain Legacy Project. We use helicopters and hike and climb in forbidding terrain. It is almost perfectly flat in Amsterdam. I took the train from Groningen to Amsterdam Centraal train station. From there, I hopped on my folding Brompton bicycle, which served as a mobile photography studio. In the mountains, meeting up with people is a rare occurrence, and usually a treat. Amsterdam is mobbed with people. Instead of waiting for the wind to die down for a stable exposure, we bided our time while people and trams passed through the frame. Dangers? The mountains hurl weather at us, and we are constantly mindful of our footing, hydration, exposure, rockfall, and helicopter safety. I’ve come to realize that Amsterdam can throw some interesting safety challenges. One of our stations was centimetres from a tram line, and Patrick would need to remind me every time a tram came along. At another location, we were in the middle of traffic median. By far the most dangerous was having the tripod set up in a busy bike lane; Amsterdaammers appear intolerant to repeat photography when it impedes their progress. I’ve been perched on pinnacles and rock ledges to get some of the remarkable Mountain Legacy Images, but nothing prepared me for our shot of the Beursplein, a prominent historic building and square. The original image was shot from an elevated location, likely a building that no longer exists. In its place is Primark, a popular budget European department store. We figured the location would be on the 4th or 5th floor. We ended up in the lingerie section, staring out the window and tantalizingly close to the original photo location. I miss the mountains, but in those remote location it is difficult to enjoy a fine restaurant meal as a break from photography, or stopping by for a quick shot of espresso or gelato.
What is the trajectory for this project? We do not know precisely. Patrick is paying attention to the local market to see if there is a viable prospect for a book of before and after images; he thinks there is. With his partner, Iris Ma, also a photographer and IT professional, they are continuing the repeat photography, and I hope to join them for one more tour before I head back to Victoria in late July. As a filmmaker, Patrick has lots of still and motion capture that might find its way into a project. In the meantime, it has been a pleasure working alongside a repeat photographer who has experience in such different landscapes. I have often claimed that nothing I learned in school prepared me for the work I would do on the Mountain Legacy Project. That is doubly true for the Amsterdam Legacy Project.
Fringe benefits of urban repeat photography: (from l) Patrick Augenstein, Iris Ma, Eric Higgs. May 19, 2018.