michael hughes’s blog

The making of…Alkmaar Windmills

Posted in The making of... by michaelhughes on April 22, 2009
Windmills at Alkmaar, Holland, October 2002

Windmills at Alkmaar, Holland, October 2002

Anyone who fears that global warming, melting ice caps and rising sea levels will destroy civilisation as we know it, can take heart. Holland ties with Denmark in having the lowest level of land of any countries of the world; 7 metres below sea level. If it wasn’t for the presence of the dykes 27% of what is now Holland would already be underwater. In fact dykes and holding back the sea has been a major preoccupation with the Dutch for 2000 years, despite setbacks, they have even managed to create a new Province called Flevoland from land reclaimed from the sea in 1986.

Land reclamation is a slow process, dykes are built and canals and pumps used to move the water into rivers which then drain to the sea. In the 1200’s windmills were harnessed to do the pumping. The enormity of the task can be judged by the amount of windmills which were built whose distinctive silhouette on the flat line of the Dutch horizon became inseparable from the image of the country which we have today. There are still more than 1150 working windmills in Holland and that number is rising because the past ten years have seen many extensive rebuilds take place.

Never one to be afraid to take on a cliche, I had my eyes open for a souvenir the moment I touched down in Schiphol Airport. I had been commissioned to do a reportage by Merian, a travel magazine in Jahreszeiten Verlag, well known in Germany for its exquisitely photographed stories. I had been trying for a couple of years to get a foot in the door and this time they thought that my ironic (and maybe “iconic”) style of photography would be a good way to illustrate the billiard table attributes of this horizontal country. The journalist would hire a bike and I would accompany him through Noord Holland. The only uncertain aspect of the undertaking was the weather, it being October 2002 and in the north sea coastal region meaning that we could not be certain of blue skies. This appeared not to be so important because the ironic approach meant that we needed to pay less attention to the classical aesthetics of travel photography. The souvenir would be easily found to ice the cake with.

Hiring a bike was not as easy as we had thought because when we arrived the tourist season was over and most of the bicycle shops were already closed for the winter. The weather was mixed but not catastrophic so we travelled around the countryside picking appropriate spots to do a little photo shooting. I was using a Mamiya RZ67 for the reportage and had my F5 for the souvenir opportunity. You can see the reportage at  http://www.flickr.com/photos/michael_hughes/sets/72157594535336208/One of the first photos I made was in one of the few remaining places which smoke fish on the Ijsselmeer; there was a young man sitting at a red oilcloth covered table, cutting the heads off sprats with a pair of kitchen scissors. This rather macabre picture put a spin on the story which we could never quite shake off. Soon I was photographing a man with an eel and, on one of our cross-country excursions, we found whole dead sheep sticking out of dustbins at the side of the road. Less macabre but bizarre were the Korean tourist’s children dressed up in Dutch national dress on a bridge at a museum showing the Dutch way of life in the middle ages.

I was starting to get a little jittery about my souvenir, so we stopped in Alkmaar at a souvenir shop and I bought myself a beauty of a toy windmill. It was clockwork, rendering “Tulips from Amsterdam” while rotating the vanes and would light up when plugged in. The real windmills were not long in coming. There is a museum of windmills just outside of Alkmaar and over the main road, up a side road we found two wild windmills standing next to canals in a perfect landscape. The sun was starting to set so the sky was luminescent, arching across the scene. I tried holding my pet windmill in front of the nearest in the picture in classic “Souvenirs” fashion but then quickly decided to try something different. For the first time I decided to integrate the souvenir into the picture in its own right. Instead of replacing a landmark I introduced a new similar object to those already existing in the picture. It was important that at least two other “real” windmills could be found in the picture because just one would have given the impression that I was merely comparing them:- which was not the point.  Algy Batten of Fivefootsix, (the design agency which produced the “Souvenirs” book in September 2008) refused the image for the collection because the object did not replace the original. For me the picture is as much about commenting an ideal Dutch landscape as it is just about windmills. I wanted to convey the feeling of belonging; three windmills just hanging out at the end of a long but productive windmill day…

The weather broke up soon after this and I seem to remember that we came back two days earlier than planned. Giving back the hire car at the airport and faced with the task of getting my windmill onto the plane I gave it to the guy at the counter, telling him to give to someone he hated. One of the few occasions that a Souvenir failed to make it back to camp.

The reaction to what we had produced was muted to put it politely. While we were away a recession had hit Germany, resulting in a nosedive in sales for almost all magazines and periodicals. Merian was trying to correct course by going for safe, which meant that they asked me to send them green fields and cloudless skies; a bucolic paradise, photos which I had not made (because I had been asked to do something else), could not make (because of the time of year) and therefore could not deliver. Readers who look at the set on Flickr will see that almost all of the pictures are with blue skies; this is what I had to deliver. These days young picture editors are so used to seeing digital blue skies, that the presence of grain in a film photograph (film does not cope well with light, solid areas) makes them believe that the photography is not up to quality. That is like preferring plastic to wood because it has no grain. The resulting bad blood meant that neither I nor the journalist ever worked for them again. That aside; the publishing house is presently in a fight with freelance photographers because they have tried to impose a contract on those working for them which takes away all of the rights of the picture for ever, thereby robbing the photographer the chance of earning in the future on his work and also the photo agency to which he or she belongs. To date over 1700 photographers in Germany have undertaken not to sign this contract. It has lead to them having difficulty finding people to adequately photograph their assignments.

I signed too.

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