Saturday, November 03, 2007

Han Singels

Into the farmlands

In 2000, photographer Han Singels (1942) bought a moped. He rode it through the polders, sometimes taking his fishing rod with him. But what’s bred in the bone will never come out of the flesh, and so the rod was replaced with two cameras: both 6x7. One had a 50-millimetre, the other an 80-millimetre lens. There’s nothing a photographer likes better than to use the summer months to do his own thing.

Slowly but surely, doing his own thing grew into documenting cows in the Dutch landscape. Singels worked inside a radius of forty kilometres around Amsterdam. But he also visited the large rivers and the river fore-lands. Rain was not shunned, which resulted in beautiful pictures of cattle sheltering under trees. While others would have spent their money on parts and accessories for their new moped – to make it faster, more attractive or more comfortable – Singels invested in a new bookcase: he scoured antiquarian book shops in his hunt for books about art, cows and the landscape. That resulted in a wealth of knowledge, especially about landscape painters from the Golden Age.
Jacob van Ruysdael’s landscapes are more poetic, stately and dramatic than in real life. In fact, they are largely imaginary. Ruysdael’s most famous work, The Jewish Cemetery (1655-1660), is meticulously composed. All that can be traced back to reality are the gravestones from the Jewish cemetery in Amsterdam. As a landscape photographer, Singels is unable to take these liberties since he works in analogue form. Neither is the trick of working with both a ‘wide angle’ and a ‘telephoto lens’ in one single image available to him: the painter, on the other hand, first lay on his stomach in the grass so that he could paint everything in the foreground from a low vantage point. Then, standing upright, he raised the horizon. He painted everything in the background from that perspective. This enabled him to transcend photographic reproduction.

Holy cow
There’s a lot of commotion going on in the Dutch farming industry: European regulations, milk quotas, manure management, the consequences of a changing climate, economies of scale and the attempt to find new sources of income for farmers. There is no trace of these changes in Han Singels’ photography. On the contrary, it is surprising to see that the farmlands probably look exactly like the farmlands we are accustomed to seeing in the paintings of Van Goyen, Potter and Van Ruysdael. Agricultural policy, which strives to give land back to nature, is apparently beginning to bear fruit. Livestock is also becoming more varied. In addition to Frisian, there are also Belgian Blue, Blonde and Piedmontese cows.
The Dutch man-made landscape is incredibly dull without cows. Singels’ way of photographing cattle should therefore be seen as a vindication, in the same way that the Dutch Masters used to make lively reproductions of windmills. Incidentally, a cow is a thankful subject, with its horizontal and vertical lines – pictorial elements that enable the photographer to maintain visual control. Singels uses the same compositional and stylistic devices employed in painting, which Jan van Goyen and Annibale Carracci learned from Giorgione and the Venetian painters. The secret to reproducing a landscape lies in the parallel lines transacted by a triangle.

Han Singels plays a game with geometry, without resorting to technical devices. He creates depth and sectional planes and introduces elements into the picture in order to create a sense of background space. And in doing so, he makes exciting use of vertical objects, such as trees and pylons. The image looks the same way that a landscape is perceived from a dike in the polder. Normal and matter-of-course. Modern objects like UMTS antennas and high-voltage cables are deliberately omitted, unless they can add an attractive visual aspect or accentuate the space.
Singels wasn’t attempting to emulate painting. His work remains photography, with the camera in the hands of a documentary photographer. Singels: 'I’ve taken trips to farmlands on many occasions, and on some days I returned with as few as two photographs. You go somewhere and wait for things to happen. Sometimes you have to wait an entire day. And sometimes passers-by tell you you’ve just missed a herd of cows wading across river fore-lands in the most beautiful light.’

© Pim Milo, 2007 - GUP Magazine