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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Book Review From The Stacks: Reservoir

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Photos by Bas Princen, edited by Moritz Kung (Hatje Cantz, 2011) 

There is no unexplored territory left on this earth. Our species, and has touched, developed, flown over, or altered nearly every corner of our vast planet, and as such the boundaries between our natural world and our built world have become blurred.  Dutch Photographer, Bas Princen, in his photographic series RESERVOIR, uses scale, geometry and graphic design to explore the complex relationship between natural and artificial.

Princen’s opening image, Plateau, is a photo of a moon-like mountaintop sprinkled with small pioneers – hikers exploring and conquering the large unforgiving mountainside. It is one of the only completely natural images in the book. The next image, mirrors the form of the first, but is entirely man-made, and is one of the most powerful images in the book.

Future Olympic Park, shows a spotless concrete road carving neatly through a landscape of man-made gravel piles, covered in massive blue and black sheets. It is impossible to recognize what is new, what is old and what it will look like at the end of construction. It is both perverse and beautiful, and captures the ephemeral nature of our landscapes, and the dangerous relationship we have with our world.

Princen’s use of scale strengthens his surreal imagery and furthers his ideas of natural versus artificial. In almost every photograph there is a reference to the human scale – a lone worker, a cactus, pieces of garbage or a guardrail. But often this key reference point is hidden in the geometry or the texture of the image.

As viewers, we naturally look for something to help us better understand the context of a photo. As such, Princen is playing with the audience: taking them on a hunt. We are forced to view photos in their entirety and attempt to fully understand their meaning.

In the opening of the book, Princen is interviewed by fellow artist, Stefano Graziani. Much of this conversation is focused on the layout and design of the book, which I thought was a very interesting idea. Princen explains the spatial qualities, and importance, of the book itself: “a book creates its own space instead of forcing you to relate to a particular space.”

With this in mind, it is easier to grasp the concept behind the layout of the book. One photo per spread isolates and equalizes each image, and the muted grey-tones and large, square-format matte paper simplify the book to its bare bones. Leaving the viewer with nothing but themselves, and the images.

Princen also discusses the relationship between photo and photographer: “images use photographers as their instruments they keep on returning in slightly altered formed, they are updated, something is added.” This is powerful statement, given the subject matter of each image: the altering of the natural landscape by human intervention.

The relationship between us and the earth is constantly changing. Through globalization, development, economics, and increasing population, we are reshaping the earth. Princen photographs humans at a small, nearly imperceptible scale, yet his subject is the vast and daunting impact we have had on our landscapes. Princen’s photographs are a beautiful and haunting illustration of the vanishing boundary between our natural and built world.


For more information visit the Hatje Cantz website.


Ellen Ziegler has a Masters in Advanced Studies of Architecture. She lives in Toronto and spends most of her time biking, exploring the city, drinking coffee, and writing book reviews.


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