Capturing realistic everyday scenes that randomly unfold in just about any corner of the Dutch capital is what Elmer van der Marel does best. According to the award-winning Amsterdam street photographer, this is “the most pure and basic form of photography”. Nothing is staged. However, despite the chance aspect of the images, it’s not just the moments, but the story behind them that is essential in his work.
Van der Marel, who worked for more than a decade in the film industry as a light technician and grip, decided to turn his attention to the art of photography in 2003 when he began his studies at the Amsterdam Photo Academy, focusing on photojournalism, portraits and documentary. In 2006, a year before rounding off his studies, he started working as an intern at leading Dutch newspaper Het Parool, where he remained as a freelance photographer after graduation. That same publication would give him a weekly page, titled ‘Stadsbeeld’ from September 2015 until January 2018. Given free rein to fill the page, Van der Marel found his subjects while roaming the streets of Amsterdam. At times he would choose a particular neighbourhood to spend the day, waiting to encounter the perfect image, and other times he would stumble upon it while rushing through the city: “I would have to make a sprint in order to capture that moment, a certain light or a person,” he explains.
Twelve images which resulted from that assignment are currently on display at the lobby of the Volkshotel (Wibautstraat 150) where they will remain until June 30th. It’s a good reason to chat with the talented Dutch photographer.
What or who inspired you to become a photographer?
I was inspired by the work of classic street photographers such as Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Robert Frank, Josef Koudelka, William Eggleston, Luigi Ghirri, Joel Meyerowitz, Ed van der Elsken, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Harry Gruyaert, Alex Webb, Martin Parr, Peter van Agtmael, and many more. It’s a long list. (Laughs)
Of all of the images you made for het parool, which was your favourite?
There are quite a few, but one that comes to mind, which can be seen at the exposition, is the photo of a group of boys jumping off a bridge and into the water behind the Olympic Stadium. The image could’ve been taken fifty years ago and has something iconic about it because of the typical architecture of the light towers of the stadium seen in the background. The interesting thing is that the one I sent in to the newspaper was the image when the kids were actually landing in the water. For me, the power of a picture is sometimes evident a bit later. If I had to do it over, I would’ve only sent this one.There’s another one that comes to mind: a group of four guys who were having lunch and wearing shoes without socks. They were about to cross the street and go back to the shops where they work. A photo of them sitting wouldn’t have been very interesting, so I was hoping that they would walk out one by one in a line, which they did. I waited for that moment and then I shot them.
As a photographer, what is your favourite thing about the city?
The diversity of Amsterdam. I really like the older spots in the city that are not filled with modern apartments, such as the Havenstraat area, for example. I also like the mix of old and new.
Favourite place to eat
I have a lot of favourite places. Café Amsterdam (Watertorenplein 6) is one. They serve simple food at a beautiful location. It’s a big place. I also really like Surinamese food and like to go to Restaurant Riaz (Bilderdijkstraat 193). For fish, Viscafé de Gouden Hoek (Van Limburg Stirumplein 10) is great.
Perfect night on the town
I always go to Café Hoppe (Spui 18-20). A friend of mine works there. It’s an old-fashioned bar (one of the oldest in the city, open since 1670). It looks just as it did more than three hundred years ago. Actually, there are two bars next to each other: the ‘Sta-Hoppe’ (Standing Hoppe, at number 18) and the ‘Zit-Hoppe’ (Sitting Hoppe, at number 20). There is a small door behind the bar connecting both locations.
If there is a nice exhibition, I like the FOAM photography museum, but my favourite is House Marseille (another photography museum located in two recently connected historic canal-side buildings dating to the 17th century).
I think King’s Day (April 27th) is really special because everyone is out on the streets, they’re selling stuff and it’s great for children and older people alike. Some people are dressed up and acting weird. It really feels free.
Place to relax
I would mention the parks, but they’re usually so full. So I’d have to say the old inner town early in the morning when it’s really quiet. Especially the area around the Red Light District or the Jordaan.
Most photogenic area of amsterdam
The little streets and alleys around the oldest parts such as Zeedijk, or again, the Red Light District. And also the area around Ten Katemarkt because it’s very diverse. It’s a little bit of Holland. If you walk on the streets, you can see the real people of Amsterdam
There are a lot of magical places, so let me think about that for a moment! (Laughs) I think the little alleys outside the Oudezijds Kolk (a small area behind the Zeedijk) have quite some magic in the mornings.
Your neighbourhood in a nutshell
My neighbourhood is called Staatsliedenbuurt. I really like it because it’s very quiet and there are a lot of small houses. A lot of singles live there, as well as many artists, musicians and photographers. It’s an authentic place full of real, authentic people. It used to be a squatted area and still has people who lived there at the time, but there are also a lot of new people coming in.
I immediately think of Amsterdam’s motto, three words found on the coat of arms: Heldhaftig, Vastberaden, Barmhartig. (Heroic, Determined, Merciful; They were added in 1946 as a tribute to the Resistance of the people of Amsterdam.)
There are so many places. Of course, you can always go to the museums. Personally, I think you should go for a stroll in the Jordaan. It’s a place where you can easily wander around and lose yourself. Just walk and don’t look on your phone or on a map. Allow yourself to get lost and simply follow your heart.
What are your plans for the future?
I intend to go back out on the streets again and capture more of Amsterdam or other cities. I am also planning to do more work on film sets as a film still photographer. I don’t see myself as a photojournalist anymore. I am only interested in taking good photographs
What is the secret to creating a powerful image?
Take a deep breath and be patient. The moment you think you won’t dare to take action is when you have to go for it. Also very important for me is that I must remain invisible in order to take photographs on the streets. Although small non-verbal communication happens sometimes.
What motivates you to continue capturing the city?
It’s the energy in the city, but also my insatiable hunger and desire for iconic photos and moments.
Elmer van der Marel Exhibition
Volkshotel, Wibautstraat 150