The Landscape as Maker and Shaper of our Identity

As part of of a research group of the Lectorate Art, Theory and Practice at the Royal Academy of Arts, The Hague. I wrote an essay on Landscape and Identity.

The result is a reflection and a dialogue between me, as a photographer, and the Rhine River.
One part of the dialogue contains also the reflection on the depiction of the Rhine.
Which resulted in a small series of six images of the river.

All of the writing and photography took place in the area The Gelderse Poort, this is the place where the River Rhine enters the Netherlands.

Below you will find the introduction of the text and an excerpt of the dialogue and the photographs created.

The essay has become part of the publication Bridging Distance, Artistic Research During a Pandemic. Which can be ordered from the University of Leiden website.

The Landscape as Maker and Shaper of Our Identity

Today, I walked through the woods, climbed some hills, and ended up here. I am looking at open plains now, with a river in the middle that divides the landscape between here and there.

I am a photographer of landscapes [i], and so have been closely observing the landscape for many years. More specifically, I have been considering the various ways of seeing [ii]the landscape around us.[1]  In this process, I gradually came to understand that, in addition to the obvious impact that humanity has on the landscape, the landscape in turn impacts our lives, and therefore has the capacity to shape our identity.

To address the matter of the reciprocal relationship between the landscape and the people who inhabit it, I turned to ‘Gelderse Poort’ (poort translating as gate), a region in the Netherlands where the Rhine River enters the country and also marks the beginning of the Rhine delta [iii]. The question I asked was: In what ways does the Rhine influence people’s way of life, their work and recreation in and around the Gelderse Poort? Living, working and recreation are tangible expressions of people’s individual identities [iv].

In the past several hundred years, the river landscape has been radically reshaped by human activity as dikes, channels, sluices etc. were built [v]. In the case of the Gelderse Poort, the landscape is characterized by specific elements such as brick factories, harbors, shipyards and riparian forests [vi]. Humans have taken advantage of the opportunities provided by the river, using its natural resources for building materials and shaping the river itself to enable trade and recreation (all of which have created jobs). In this way, the present landscape emerged [vii].

At this point I wish to introduce a few key concepts. When referring to the term landscape, I mean “an area, as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors”.[2]I must also elaborate on what I intend when I use the term identity [viii]. I turn to the definition offered by the French sociologist Nathalie Heinich; “Our identity is the outcome of the totality of processes with which an object is assigned a predicate.”[3]In the deconstruction of the term, and in reference to the etymological root of the word Identity, Heinich makes a distinction between who and what someone is. Both aspects of identity are relevant. The who refers to what differentiates us from others, or in other words that what makes someone unique, i.e their signature or fingerprint. The what refers to what we might have in common [ix].This is a way of categorizing, such as: “I’m human”, “I’m Dutch”, “I’m a photographer”. With respect to the Gelderse Poort, we might categorize it as a river landscape, a river delta; and the Rhine, might be categorized as a ‘mixed’ river [x] To identify what this landscape is in the categorical sense allows us to easily compare one area to another, such as how people work and live in the landscape.

The landscape is legible [xi].Nevertheless, the observerplays an active role in perceiving the world around them and playsa creativepart in developing its image.[4]  I read the landscape by walking in it, looking at it, photographing it, and reflecting on it. In addition to the first hand experience of a landscape, a theoretical framework can also be used for reading it, such as that created by Hendriks and Stobbelaar which distinguishes between four relationships: The first is a horizontal coherence, i.e. the spatial composition. The second looks at the vertical coherence, which concerns the relationship between the soil and what lies directly above it. The third examines the different seasons, and the fourth relationship centers on specific historical events that happened in the landscape.[5] As such, the landscape emerges as a palimpsest [xii].

“Before it can ever be a repose for the senses, landscape is a work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock.”[6] By walking from Elten to the Duivelsberg, from one moraine on the north side of the river to the other on the south, stretching from Kleve to Nijmegen, I read the layers of time that are present at Gelders Poort. In the following text I aim to make this experience of the landscape as a palimpsest tangible.

[1] John Berger, Ways of seeing (London: Penguin, 1972), 8. 

[2] Peter Howard, Ian Thompson, Emma Waterton, and Mick Atha, The Routledge Companion to Landscape Studies (London and New York: Routledge, 2019) 11.

[3] Nathalie Heinich, Wat onze identiteit niet is, trans. Carolien Steenbergen (Amsterdam: Prometheus, 2020), 89. (own translation).

[4] Kevin Lynch, The image of the city, (Cambridge Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1960),6.

[5] K Hendriks, and D.J. Stobbelaar, Landbouw in een leesbaar landschap (PhD diss., Wageningen Universiteit, 2003), 140.

[6] Simon Schama, Landschap en herinnering, (Amsterdam: Olympus, 2007), 17.

(i) Before you ask, there won’t be any map to illustrate the area that is addressed in this text. Throughout the writing and discussion period with the Lectorate it has been suggested to include one, but I decided not to. The reason for this is two-fold. Whenever I read a text about a specific region that I don’t know, I can choose whether to look up the places or create a map in my mind. The other reason is that the others in the Lectorate began to draw their own maps in response to my writing. I really liked the creativity sparked by curiosity. If you’d rather have a visual of the area, just use google maps. (By the way – if you create a route that follows the track I walked, you get a really cool diagram in Google almost representing a bathtub.).

[ii] “Ways of seeing” – the famous first words of John Berger’s eponymous essay. Its relevance in this text particularly lies in “the way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe” – a prerequisite for determining the legibility of landscape.

[iii]  The Rhine flows between two moraines where it enters the province of Gelderland in the Netherlands. The moraines can be interpreted as metaphorical gate pillars.

[iv] I hereby wish to focus specifically on the landscape’s impact on ‘what’ someone is versus the possible impact of ‘who’ someone is. Below I will elaborate further on the distinction between ‘who’ and ‘what’. As I aim to propose, the direct environment is capable of creating specific jobs, housing, and recreation. Obviously, the opposite is also true: there are already jobs, forms of recreation and ways of living that are less prone to the presence of a specific environment, e.g. such as when working in interior design or digital environments.

[v]  The radical reshaping took place in the 19th century. There was also change in previous periods, such as during the Dutch Revolt, and in the Medieval period when landlords changed the river’s course by putting up and removing dikes.

[vi] Riparian forests are specific types of forests that can only grow next to the water.

[vii] The keyword here is opportunities. Through this interaction, the natural elements of the land are provided, and instilled into culture and landscape. While this is a very anthropocentric viewpoint, it is by definition part of landscape, as I argue here. Another great example of such an opportunity was the potential power of Niagara Falls, which attracted industrialists in the 19th century. Here, nature ultimately proved to be a resource for the creation of electricity, thus giving the waterfall a purpose above and beyond the sublime experience.

[viii] The term identity is used in many different ways, often from the perspective of a national identity. To counter the idea of the need for a national identity, Willem Schinkel makes a strong argument in favour of abandoning nation-states altogether, whilst integrating nature by giving natural elements a voice, as demonstrated by Bruno Latour’s theory of the ‘Parliament of Things’.  By example, this can be seen in New Zealand, where waterways and mountains have obtained constitutional rights…
While I find the cultural creation of national identities fascinating, it is not the focus of this essay. 

[ix] Specifically, the ipse- and idem-identity referred to by Heinich in Wat onze identiteit niet is. The ipse-identity refers to those aspects that differentiate one person from another, while the idem-identity refers to those aspects that make a person similar to others. 

[x] The Rhine is a mixed river, fed by rain and by melting glaciers. Due to rising temperatures stemming from climate change, however, glaciers will cease to be a source that feeds the Rhine with water by 2100.

[xi] The term ‘legibility’ was coined by Kevin Lynch in 1960, specifically referring to the ‘legibility’ or ‘readability’ of a cityscape. He defined it as: “The ease by which its parts can be recognized and can be organized into a coherent pattern.”

Rhine 1
Rhine 2
Rhine 3
Rhine 4
Rhine 5
Rhine 6

I’ve come a long way. The bedding I run through is old. I renew every moment. Travelled a thousand kilometers, I’ve picked up sand and stone. And I bring them here. To you.

            Sorry, with whom do I have the honor of speaking?

I am young and old at the same time. I’m fluid. Before you came here, there were hills. I penetrated those hills. I meandered. It’s at this point that I slow my speed.I meander towards the sea.

            So, you are the river? You talk so fast, please slow down a bit. You said that you once             penetrated the hills. Do you mean the moraine between Elten and Kleve?

Yes, that was a long time ago.
I created this land, made it fertile. I allow you to live here.

You may be the one who created the land here, and in many ways, you have shaped the entire river delta. But without us, what purpose would this land have had? Without us, there would not be any landscape. With landscape I mean the following: An area, as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors’.

Why solely in the perception of people? I can perceive this interaction.

            Could you please elaborate, or give an example of how you perceive this?

Look around you. On one bank: I feel sand, shells, trees, the spot where you now stand, your feet in me. On my opposite bank: I feel rocks. You are the one who put them there. And there is grass covering a dike, if I’m correct. I’ve been embanked by you. Right now, I’m the water, nature. You are the embankment. Fish swim through me. Ships glide through me.

So. You feel the landscape around you, an image of what you feel and tell me comes to mind. It reminds me of a famous photograph by Andreas Gursky, entitled Der Rhein II. Here it is.

That’s not me.

Yet all of the elements you just mentioned are present in this photo: the sand, the stones, the grass, the embankment, the water. And there’s even the sky. So why would you deny this?

Ah yes. There are elements that represent me. But much more is missing. I am more than simply embanked water. I am the area between the moraines. The land behind the dikes. All flows of water that feed into me. And I feed into them. I am the clay, I am the bricks, I am the gravel, the pebbles, the sand. I am a border. I am commerce. I am the ridges of the moraine.

We talked about me. What I see, what I feel. Who are you?

Me? I am a photographer. My personal fascination lies in the perception of landscape: that which I can see by looking, by looking intensely.

Do you then wish to photograph me?

I might.

You aren’t sure yet?

Well, I don’t yet know what to photograph.

Me, and the hinterland. The connection.

For the complete text, I refer to the published essay.