Amsterdam, the Dutch capital, is the subject of millions of photographs. Tourists, inhabitants of Amsterdam and fascinated photographers take thousands of pictures of this small but dynamic metro polis every day. But which of these pictures are preserved for future generations?
Early, nineteenth-century photographs of the city have enduring value. They even seem to begaining in intensity as the years go by. One of the oldest pictures of Amsterdam that I know is a viewof Dam Square by Pieter Oosterhuis. He took his pictures on 26 August 1856. This date is well knownbecause it witnessed the unveiling of the Monument voor Volksvlijt (Monument for People’s Diligence).Looking at the two anaglyphs simultaneously takes us right back to the centre of Amsterdam as it wasmore than one hundred and fi fty years ago. The historic city centre of Amsterdam has beenlargely preserved, and on a quiet Sunday morning you could easily imagine yourself in a Jacob Oliephoto. Olie systematically documented the city, especially in the last decade of the nineteenthcentury. If you roamed the streets of the city centre with a book of his photos in your hand, you woulddiscover that he photographed nearly every street. Photography had a completely different purposefor one of Olie’s contemporaries, the painter George Hendrik Breitner. Breitner also took manypictures of the city, but they primarily served as sketches for his paintings. Breitner took libertiesthat were unknown during this period. In his photos, we discover motion blur, striking standpointsand double exposures. He took a close-up of two domestic servants chatting as they walked towardshim. The blurred image makes the picture so vivid that you can almost hear the servants talking.
In the 1930s, the Netherlands experienced a severe economic crisis, and photographers reported onthe poverty and workers’ protests in Amsterdam. Eva Besnyö, Wally Elenbaas, Mark Kolthoff and CasOorthuys took photos of the dire circumstances, the popular unrest and the way in which thegovernment responded to it. The images of the revolt in the working-class districtof Amsterdam, ‘de Jordaan’, by press journalist Wiel van der Randen were quite spectacular. Like a truewar correspondent, he photographed the narrow streets in ‘de Jordaan’ where the military police’sarmoured cars rolled through in 1934. With his little Leica camera, he took splendid shots against thelight of two police offi cers on a motorcycle with their guns drawn.
World War II
There are famous photographs of the ‘winter of hunger’ in 1944/1945. Most of the pictures weretaken by the ‘Ondergedoken Camera’ (The Camera in Hiding), a group of photographers thatrecorded the occupation. The government in exile asked some of the members of this club, suchas Emmy Andriesse and Cas Oorthuys, to take pictures of starving inhabitants of Amsterdam, whowere standing in line at a soup kitchen. Armed with these pictures, the ministers in London wereable to convince their allies of the urgent need to arrange food drops. Progress was the subject ofphotographs taken shortly after the Second World War. Amsterdam experienced a huge expansion,and its new suburbs were frequently depicted in the photography of the 1950s. Pictures byphotographers such as Kors van Bennekom and Cas Oorthuys radiated a new optimism. Pictures ofAmsterdam by the melancholic photographer Frits Weeda, however, taken between 1958 and 1965,seriously disrupted that perception. He depicted neglected streets in the city centre and conveyedthe poverty affecting some of Amsterdam’s population. His photographs of the pollutedVolgermeerpolder, with pigs rummaging through the garbage, depicted the downside of growingprosperity.
In the ensuing years, Amsterdam photographers concentrated particularly on the confl icts that werefought out in the city. The anarchist youth movement, Provo, challenged the established order in a creativeway, and their activities were all documented by house photographer Cor Jaring. A new generationof photojournalists emerged in the 1970s and 80s, who reported on the capital’s strikes and squatterriots. Some of the inner city districts had to make way for the construction of an underground railway.Protracted and hard-fought confrontations with the police resulted. Dozens of photographers tookpictures of the clashes. The extensive squatter riots in the early 1980s werealso a popular subject for many photographers. But the most amazing photo from this period was perhaps one taken by an anonymous police photographer. He took a magnifi cent panorama picture of a surrealistic setting from the roof of an apartment complex across from Central Stationthat had just been vacated. The crowd is kept at a safe distance. Below on the street, about fortyphotographers, press cards hanging around their necks, are forced to all take the same picture. Thisimage was included in the book 'Plaats Delict Amsterdam, foto's uit het politiearchief 1965-1985' (Scene of crime Amsterdam, photos from police archives 1965-1985), a collection of photosthat added an extra dimension to the image of Amsterdam. Of course, numerous photographerstook countless, beautiful pictures of Amsterdam and its inhabitants. You need only take another lookat the work of great, local photographers such as Philip Mechanicus, Aart Klein, Paul Huf and Ed vander Elsken. The Dutch capital is exceptionally beautiful and life is good there.Of course, sometimes things go wrong, and when they do you can be sure they will be recordedby one of the few thousand professional photographers living in the city.