What’s it like to thoroughly document a city? As relocality prepares to roll out Amsterdam, NL, photographer Matt Peyton set out with intrepid locals Jonathan Groubert and Ferry Biedermann to shoot the city from top to bottom, side to side, and the places in between.
When the phone rings and a favored client says: “You’re going to shoot Amsterdam!” it’s supposed to be a hallmark moment. This is the kind of opportunity that I had hoped for when I opened my photography practice; Interesting, high-end clients with interesting issues to solve using imagery and production—far flung destinations—exotic locals, etc.
The dirty little secret of my business, however, is that all photographers (and I believe all artists) are full of a certain amount of self-doubt, anxiety…. and worry. It’s why we got good enough to sell our work—that feeling that really, deep down, the next image won’t be as good as the last, the job won’t go as well as it should, somehow, we would…. fail. And as any independent contractor can tell you—failure isn’t an option!
How do you approach a problem like photographing an 800-year-old city, representing it for people who might move there, when you yourself have never gone? The city of Amsterdam, to its limits, exceeds 240 square kilometers. It’s a city in a constant state of change. A glance at Wikipedia tells me that “The origins of the city lay in the 12th century, when fishermen living along the banks of the River Amstel built a bridge across the waterway near the IJ, then a large saltwater inlet. Wooden locks under the bridge served as a dam; protecting the village from the rising IJ-waters, which often flooded the early settlement. The mouth of the river Amstel, where the Damrak now is, formed a natural harbor.” It’s a city ringed by canals, with it’s own rhythm of doing things, quite different from cities more familiar to me, like London or Paris.
To answer the question above, first you divide the city into neighborhoods. Amsterdam supports a huge population of Dutch natives, new immigrants, ex-pats, tourists, merchants, business people, and explorers, like myself. New neighborhoods like Amsterdam Noord, Gein and Bijlmermeer sit within a 15 to 30 minute metro trip from the Centrum with its famous canals, churches, central station and Damrak, where the royal palace sits. Immigrants from Morocco, the former Dutch colony of Suriname, and Turkey mix with the more typical tall blond, blue-eyed wonder that tends to be the Dutch physique. Mosques sit alongside gothic churches, and coffee houses (where cannabis is typically sold) sit within feet of cafes, which sell, well, coffee. We settled eventually on 40 neighborhoods, with some encompassing many different city ”centers” or squares to take into consideration.
Early in the game, photographing ”all” of the major landmarks and attractions that Amsterdam is known for had to be balanced with photographing a ”representative” list from each of the 40 neighborhoods along with a group of parameters like Architecture, Safety, Family Life, Artistic Content, Health, etc. We planned for 7 days, including a weather safety day. In 15 to 20 pictures, we hoped to capture the essence of a place, a little bit of the ”feel” of living there. With this math in mind, we set out to photograph six to seven neighborhoods a day, every day, rain or shine, as long as we had light to work with. Sounds simple enough…. So let’s get started. - Matt Peyton