Scientific Perspective

Sitting between photography and field research, these images depict
the vulnerability of organic ecosystems in the age of post-industrialisation.

Eddo Hartmann (b. 1973) is an award-winning Dutch photographer best known for depicting complex landscapes – industrial, natural and domestic – with curiosity and artistic responsibility. His projects have documented the model city of Pyongyang, North Korea, as well as abandoned stately homes in The Hague, Netherlands, and isolated villages centred around radio observatories. Crisp and minimal, the images have been a source of acclaim, including exhibitions at Huis Marseille, Amsterdam; The Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography, Moscow; and The Seoul Museum of Art. 

Hartmann’s Collective Landscape series is part of an annual collaboration with the University of Groningen and Noorderlicht Photography Foundation, entitled Imagining Science. The works depict the University’s research, facing the urgent challenge of creating a sustainable future whilst managing the demands of a largely populated country, which sits below sea level. In the following images, Hartmann documents various fields of academic study including migratory bird ecology, agriculture and environmental economics. He illuminates the groundwork that is restoring biodiversity. 

A: The Collective Landscape series was commissioned to explore agriculture, housing, infrastructure, conservation, energy generation and industry. How did you interpret this brief? Where did your ideas begin?
I was approached by the University of Groningen and Noorderlicht with the task of visualising the research of three professors – Theunis Piersma (migratory bird ecology), Han Olff (ecosystems and nature-inclusive agriculture) and Henk Folmer (environmental economics and agricultural diversity) and the people with whom they collaborate. They wanted me to focus on their fieldwork in the Netherlands. It took me some time to come up with a concept; my previous projects have been made in urban environments, so I had to think of a new frame of reference. The resulting images draw attention to the connection between artificial and organic systems – how they influence and respond to one another. 

A: The series is, in part, inspired by British architect Geoffrey Jellicoe, who believed that the landscape is a common art form, to be shared by humanity. How have you responded to this concept?

EH: The Netherlands is quite small in comparison to the amount of people that live here. Everybody wants their share of the land for living, working or recreation. This automatically means that any form of natural balance is constantly being challenged and undermined. Nature cannot defend itself – especially when humans see an opportunity for economic profit. Unfortunately, we can now see clearly that we have done a terrible job at maintaining and caring for the planet. It seems that our true intentions are very individual, and not so much about preserving the collective. It’s almost a bit cynical to name this photo series “the collective landscape” – but it’s what we should be striving towards. 

A: The works document key research sites such as “exclosure experiments” which measure and compare the biodiversity of field plots. How did you use lighting to draw attention to these locations? How do they illuminate both the artificial and natural elements at play?

EH: I find exclosure experiments fascinating. One of the professors, Han Ollf, really had to point out some of these before I even noticed them. Many of them were just square plots with a simple fence around them, but these borders ensure that the soil and vegetation evolve differently to their counterparts outside the fence. When you monitor these areas over many decades, you can discover many bits of information, which normally would be hard to detect. I realised that I literally had to “highlight” these plots to make them stand out from their surroundings. I made a temporary setup of the experiment without disturbing its research, shedding light on its distinction between “inside” and “outside.” 

A: Which experiment did you find the most interesting?

EH: For this project, I also worked with drones to video and photograph from an aerial perspective, as some of the experiments were very hard to see from ground level. This is true of the research taking place in the Wadden Sea. This is a very important area of the ocean, located along the northern coast of the Netherlands. It is declared a biosphere reserve by UNESCO. Some of the scientists planted different square of vegetation, in order to better understand why some of the wildlife has disappeared in the last decade. This birds-eye view made a profound impression on me – it was almost like I was overseeing an archaeological site.

A: We’re at a crossroads in history – human impact has pushed ecosystems beyond their limits and they are now breaking down, beyond repair. How do the photographs fit into wider global conversations about sustainability?

EH: Of course, I have read many articles and reports about the climate crisis. The images from this project are not so much about reaching any kind of conclusion, but more about the individuals that are attempting to find out how certain systems work. It’s incredibly difficult to protect the landscape and prepare it for the future at the same time. Any changes or implemented plans usually conjure up serious resistance. It is easy to act irresponsibly in the short term when the consequences for our actions aren’t that visible. Moving forward, we need images like this to ensure that climate research scientists are taken seriously – that their papers aren’t marked as “fake news” if we don’t like what they contain.

A: The series draws a line between fine art and documentary – they are both aesthetically compelling and visually informative. How did you achieve this balance?

EH: Photography is, inherently, another a form of communication. Once you understand that fact, it’s all about trying to capture subjects with your eyes, not the information in your brain. An art teacher once told me: “draw what you see, not what you think you see.” I carry this into my practice every day. Your audience can only see the image that’s in front of them, not all the concepts that danced around in your head whilst you were working on it. As a photographer, you have to translate emotions and ideas – the end result should be a transparent rendering of information.  

A: How would you define your images, and the dialogues they create between art and science? 

EH: I always find it interesting when art and science meet, although its usually quite hard to tell when it happens, or when it does so successfully. Science can be very abstract –
it’s often complicated to perceive or understand. If you are able to visualise information and encourage audiences to learn more, then you have created meaningful work. It’s very important to me that my pictures contain a certain sense of power in the way that they inspire audiences to look beyond – to find out more about certain subjects that are at play within our complex and ever-changing world. 

A: Why did you choose to portray the sites as beautiful and almost ethereal when they are, at times, clinical?

EH: The definition of magical realism is “a situation that’s not very likely to happen, but that could be possible.” In all of my work I try to push for this. I also try to use a very simple visual grammar. At first glance, an image should not have a very complicated set-up, so it’s easy on the eyes. The hard part of working in this way is that the line between simplicity and insufficiency is very thin. In terms of the ethereal colour palettes – these are achieved by working at twilight. If you use long-exposure speeds and low-level light situations you often end up with a diversity of unique colour shifts. I also experimented with colour gels and strobe lights to accentuate this. I don’t like to spend a lot of time in post-production, so I try to do as much “in camera” as I can.

A: Where do you get your inspiration? Who or what has influenced you the most over the years?

EH: I have grown up surrounded by the beauty and complexity of the Dutch landscape. It’s incredibly organised, with geometric shapes, colourful squares and straight lines. Patchwork fields are located next to highways or railways –
they blend seamlessly into our flatlands. Unfortunately, these large areas are defined as “monocultures” and are devastating for the natural balance between flora and fauna. The blocks of vegetation are made to get the most revenue possible in the short-term. Though these are beautiful locations, when you look closer, things are much more complex than they seem. This is the process that I try to achieve in my photographs – encouraging onlookers to question and redefine what they think they know. In terms of artists who have influenced me, most of my inspiration comes from other disciplines. However, I have always admired LIFE photographers such as Gjon Mili and Harold Edgerton. They push technical boundaries whilst creating stunning images.

A: Many of your other projects have looked for an objective sense of truth – traversing various socio-political subjects. How does this series differ from your previous projects? Did you try anything new in the process?

EH: In the past, I have mainly worked in documentary.
However, this time I wanted to do something different. After deciding upon a given route for a composition, some of the researchers would bring their own equipment and alter the layout to see what kind of data they could collect. For example, mid-way through a shoot they might catch a bird and fit it with a transmitter to track its behaviour. In the same way, I brought my own “research” to the table, with lighting equipment that literally highlighted certain subjects and altered the perspective. In this way I re-direct my audience, just as the scientists re-adjust their plans based on the spontaneity of the organic world.

Kate Simpson

Eddo Hartmann: Collective Landscape is at Noorderlicht Foundation, Groningen, until 5 January.