The 2012 book A Photographic Portrait of a Landscape emphasizes on the meaning of the terms landscape and land ownership. Despite its ambitious title it presents an easily readable collection of texts and images, showing the different aspects of Dutch landscape. By both a photo study on the Frisian village Wjelsryp and an extensive essay this philosophical topic is researched thoroughly. A must-read for those who work with landscapes.
When browsing through the book the reader comes across ruminant cows, pelota competitions, ice skaters and school children. Individually no spectacular images, but remarkably expressive as a whole. We learn about Wjelsryp [or: Welsrijp], a Frisian terp village close to Franeker. With its 500 inhabitants this village may seem a rather dull study object for a book about landscape, but this is not the case.
The authors Pietsie and Wapke Feestra dive deep in the different elements of the Wjelsryp landscape, soil, users and its architecture, reveal its stories and histories, and prove that a landscape is a versatile and complex phenomenon. With an engaging writing style, comparable with that of bestseller writer Geert Mak to whom the authors also refer, we learn more about the village and the Wjelsryp inhabitants. We get involved in the country life and the daily life of the community. All exudes the authors’ devotion to the topic and study object, something that absolutely benefits the book.
Both authors seem to complement each other gradually. Wapke Feenstra is a visual artist who uses local knowledge and dynamics as an inspiration for her projects. She specializes in photos and memories of a place and creates art installations that emphasizes on the connection between stories and environments. For this publication she uses own pictures, but also pictures made by inhabitants of Wjelsryp. They are grouped in different chapters: Soil, Life on the Land, Village Community, Poems and Grassland, A Farm and Surrounding Landscape. Highlights are the pages showing pictures of grasses interspersed with (local) poems written by Baert Oosterhaven.
Pietsie Feestra has a background in film theory and did a research on the relation between visual culture and written history. She chooses a cultural-historical angle to the case of Wjelsryp and presents a “filmic journey through the landscape”. She researched the relation between the physical Dutch polder landscape and the cultural ‘polder model’, the societal organization structure that is iconic for our culture. The story is accompanied by a 1978 picture album of the village and its families. Her main conclusion is that film and reality (= stories/use/history and physical landscape) strengthen each other: a terp landscape is only a terp landscape because of its community and the stories about it. Without it, it would not be more than “a mound of earth”. In other words, a landscape is only a landscape if people attach meaning to it.
A Photographic Portrait is an extensive study, but when given the needed attention, it shows how well this study is done. Graphically, the book can provide much pleasure to the reader. It has an appealing combination of texts and images and has a well-grounded structure. The thoroughness and (apparent) completeness of the research is very pleasant. Translating the complexity of a landscape into printed text and images is not always an easy thing to do – something that landscape architects and planners would recognize. But, moreover, this portrait is not only relevant for Wjelsryp or similar terp landscapes, but tells the bigger story about the relation between land, cultural use and landscape identity. It proves that they understood well what German philosopher Walter Benjamin meant by saying: “the focus on one single moment lays bare the structure of the whole event”. Highly recommended!