Review: Set Amsterdam by Dana Lixenberg


Book Reviews, Photobooks


How does one go about photographing, portraying a city? How does one go about photographing, portraying the city one was born in? How does one go about photographing, portraying the city one was born in but hasn’t lived in recently? With each new layer, things get more complex - as if photography wasn’t difficult enough! In the case of Dana Lixenberg, that city is Amsterdam, and we certainly know a thing or two about that place, don’t we? The canals, the red-light district, the relatively relaxed attitude about recreational drugs… In a nutshell, our view of Amsterdam is the postcard view. But what is the non-postcard view? (more)

Lixenberg’s solution was to have herself guided by the Dutch TV show A’dam - E.V.A. From the almost 200 locations used in the show she selected some and photographed them. These photographs have now been published as Set Amsterdam (in Europe, it’s probably easiest to order the book directly from the publisher).

As you probably can imagine, this Amsterdam doesn’t look like the tourist Amsterdam. In fact, it’s not even obvious that it is Amsterdam. You might convince yourself that you see bits of the tourist Amsterdam here and there, but there are lots of other cities with a sex cinema (which is visible in one photograph). There is a map on the back of the book showing you the locations of the photographs, and sure enough a lot of them were taken where tourists love to dwell. But all in all, it’s more like the invisible Amsterdam, except that it’s not invisible at all: It’s all part of a TV show. So it’s not real. Or maybe it’s real, but everything else around it is constructed.

With the photographer having made a selection, there is that added layer now. So what kind of Amsterdam is Set Amsterdam showing us? I suppose my answer would be: One that’s about as real or as fake as any Amsterdam one gets to see.

Oh, and photography presents us with a lie anyway. That’s why we all love looking at it so much: It’s such a seductive and stylish lie.

I have been enjoying Set Amsterdam, with its collection of still lives, landscapes, and interiors, all devoid of actual people. Knowing that these locations are featured in a TV show (that I don’t know) makes me want to create my own story around these images.

Set Amsterdam, photographs by Dana Lixenberg, essay by Jurriaan Benschop, 72 pages, Roma Publications, 2011