Saturday 7 March 2015

Dutch Mountains

Exploring the wild open spaces has always been something that has come naturally to me. Thrust a camera in my hands and I’m happy as a lark, as I gaily gad about the great outdoors. I might not be the most intrepid walker or the most painstaking photographer on the planet, but when I’m in the mood, I feel on top of the world. At home, to soothe the overwhelming longing for the hills on dark winter evenings, since my childhood I have had the habit of poring over maps, guides and photographs pining for more propitious days ahead.
In contrast to my usual toing and froing, visiting family and friends in various corners of Europe, this winter – for one reason or another - I’ve been leading a fairly sedentary existence, trying to settle down into the humdrum routine of life at home. A torn meniscus has kept my outdoor shenanigans in check. Plans – such as cross-country skiing - have had to be shelved whilst the medics decided on what was best for my knee. My mountain-gazing has been restricted to looking at the photo of the Matterhorn I inherited from my father and which now hangs on my living-room wall. It has not been an easy time and over the past few months, the map-poring has been accompanied by soul-searching.

So, thank goodness for the Dutch Mountain Film Festival.
No, this is not a joke. To resolve any ambiguity it should be stressed that the event is a celebration of mountain films rather than a cinematic fixation on a hillock protruding out of the flatness of the Low Countries. As it happens, the film festival is held every year in my home town of Heerlen, which is located in the southernmost and loftiest region of the Netherlands, close to the border with Germany and Belgium. In fact, it has even been accredited with an ‘international’ status by the umbrella organisation for such things, the International Alliance for Mountain Film(IAMF).
So please, no more laughing.
The Dutch Mountain Film Festival (DMFF), held last weekend, is an annual event that is a miscellany of activities revolving not only around film, but the theme of mountains in general. The festival caters for film fanatics, mountaineers and nature lovers and is the perfect antidote for outdoor types like me who have been confined, albeit temporarily, to the armchair.
There’s a film to suit every taste. If you like the spectacular, such as watching adrenalin junkies jumping of vertical cliff faces or witnessing off-piste skiers tumble downhill through endless mounds of snow, then the DMFF is the place for you. But the festival offers more thought-provoking fodder, stories that tell the tale of simple mountain-folk, and films which recall a historical period or document the trials and tribulations of a mountain adventure.
In addition to the more than 50 films, there is a varied programme of side events featuring music, art, food, sports and - last but not least - photography.

Each year, three photographers are invited to exhibit a selection of photographs at the DMFF. This time, Paul Lahaye – curator of photography - allocated space to Alex Buisse (for his photographs of base-jumpers), Thomas Humpage (trail running) and Sean Vos (mountain photography pur sang). The fourth part of the photography exhibition was set aside for the winning entries for the DMFF photo competition.
For the 2014 event, I had the great honour of being asked to sit on a panel to judge more than a hundred entries for the DMFF photo competition. For this year’s festival, I was flattered to be asked back, this time as chairman of the jury. Entrants were asked to post their photos to the DMFF Facebook page and this time round there were no fewer than 150 submissions, each entry capturing a moment in the mountains that was special to the photographer in question. With my fellow members of the jury, Paul Lahaye, Jac Weerts and Roger Kengen (the winner of last year's competition), it was our difficult job to sift through the photos and decide on a short list of ten. It has to be said that this arduous task was tempered by the final round of judging which had been conveniently arranged in a local hostelry on a wet and windy night in November. It was a long but enjoyable evening. The winning photo was sent in by Ruben Emanuel and his photo can be seen on the DMFF Facebook page along with the other 9 photographs that were given pride of place at the festival.

In view of my personal plight vis-à-vis my ‘wounded knee’ – on a more upbeat note - presiding over the photo competition over the past few months has provided some welcome relief and helped rekindle my interest in landscape photography and my appreciation for mountain photography through the ages.
Among my favourite books I read this winter was a Christmas gift I’d received about the famous explorer Il Ducadegli Abruzzi, the Italian prince who probed unchartered regions as far-flung as Alaska, the North Pole, the Ruwenzori Mountains of East Africa and the high peaks of the Himalayas (long before they had become fashionable targets for mountaineers). To all intents and purposes, his endeavours rank alongside those of his more acclaimed contemporaries, such as Amundsen, Shackleton and Scott. In his home country of Italy he enjoys a worthy recognition.
However, it was not the ‘Duke’ who instils in me a wow-factor, but the photographer he took with him on his expeditions: Vittorio Sella - the most accomplished mountain photographer of his age, perhaps of all time. Sella was born into a well-to-do family in Piemonte and he became a proficient mountaineer and mastered the technical skills of photography at a time when both mountain climbing and mountain photography were still in their infancy. His superlative depictions of mountain scenery stand up against anything we are capable of producing with our modern-day technology, yet he was faced with enormous obstacles that we would find unimaginable today. His expeditions would involve meticulous planning with limited resources and he would be faced with the prospect of hauling heavy equipment around over rough terrain day after day. The fact that he was able to achieve his exceptional quality is quite remarkable, but this was largely due to the use of large photographic plates. Special equipment would have to be ingeniously devised to carry its fragile and precious contents. If he were unsatisfied with his results or the conditions had been too inclement on a first climb, he would simply wait for another window in the weather and go back again, often several days later.
How times have changed since Sella. Nowadays, we can climb a hill, stitch together a panoramic photo of the mountains and send it round the world on social media in an instant.
Yes, photography is a fantastic medium for capturing our experiences in the mountains, but it’s worth remembering where it all started.

And thank you Dutch Mountain Film Festival – and its organisers Toon Hezemans and Thijs Horbach - for helping to make my winter bearable.