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Greenfield developments

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ANDREW MEAD SubUrban Options: Photography Commissions and the Urbanization of the Landscape Nederlands Foto Instituut, 1998. 144pp. £30 (Available from Triangle Bookshop 0171 631 1381)

In a recent edition of the aj (28.1.98), the Dutch photographer Anne Bousema referred to a project that she undertook for the Port of Rotterdam, in which she documented the harbour and coastal landscapes of the Dutch Maasvlakte. The resulting images surprised her clients in the relationship of the natural and man-made that they revealed - 'For them, it was like looking at a foreign landscape' - and future decisions about the management of those areas should be more informed as a result.

Bousema was one of the participants in an exhibition last autumn at the Nederlands Foto Instituut in Rotterdam called SubUrban Options, and its accompanying book is now available in the uk. With examples from the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe, the show focused on landscapes in transition as urbanisation increases. Its premise was that documentary photographs of such landscapes and processes can - as Bousema's Maasvlakte images seem to have done - educate, shape opinion, and impinge on planning.

Prominent in the work of the Dutch photographers featured in SubUrban Options are the country's Vinex-locations: sites earmarked for the million or so new homes which are projected during the next 10 years. In some instances construction has now started, so clues to the way in which these landscapes wil be transformed are already apparent. In others - at Wateringse Veld, for instance - the area depicted is poised on the edge of change. As if Bernd & Hilla Becher had turned from photographing major industrial structures to their domestic counterparts, Cary Markerink makes typological tableaux of this market-garden community by concentrating on the exteriors of greenhouses or the varied form of storage tanks. Elsewhere, urbanisation has become a fact, as in Theo Baart's 20-year record of a former farming community, Hoofddorp, near Schiphol airport (see below right).

Other European inclusions are diverse, encompassing such ventures as an 18,000-image survey of East German sites shortly after reunification (50 years of quiet decay but now the prospect of accelerated change) and Italy's Archivio dello Spazio, where 58 photographers have recorded the landscape around Milan. The uk is represented by the Kent-based agency PhotoWorks, successor to the Cross Channel Photographic Mission that documented the impact of the Channel Tunnel.

It is PhotoWorks director David Chandler who puts succinctly the issue raised by all the work in SubUrban Options: 'It seems to me that the basis of the original social documentary approach - that, in general terms, looked to replace stereotypical, mythic images with ones that uncovered a less palatable but 'real' version - was ill-founded. In the attempt to lay claim to an authority of 'truth', both 'myth' and the 'real' are necessarily a distortion.' The subjectivity of the person behind the camera is always a factor, however scrupulously neutral their images might first appear. Commission a different photographer and you discover a different 'truth'.

A further complication comes from the ease with which the medium can be manipulated, especially in the last few years. Take the recent exhibition at London's Serpentine Gallery by the German photographer, Andreas Gursky. His large detail-laden panoramas (a Hong Kong building site, a Rhineland riverscape, the Chicago stock exchange) seem documentary in their detachment, but it transpires that this detachment is of another order - a willingness to alter images digitally, sometimes dramatically. But, paradoxically, Gursky claims his manoeuvres are in the service of truth; he says they help him to convey contemporary experience more exactly.

SubUrban Options asks as many questions as it answers about the links between photography and planning. Does such documentation reconcile us aesthetically to the inevitable more than determine a different direction for the future? Is its value ultimately as a historical record of what has been lost? This book is a broad survey of photographic practice in an area where outcomes may be rather different from intentions and where any social impact will usually be indeterminate. Text takes precedence over images, which are sparse and usually small-scale; but, with worthwhile contributions from Chandler, photographer Oscar van Alphen, and others - plus excellent bibliographic and archive information on the many featured projects - the book has undoubted reference value. In face of urbanisation, tentacular and pervasive, it gives pause for thought.

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