This is my favorite book of photographs published in 2022, and the fact that Ursula Schulz-Dornburg made the pictures between 1969 and ‘70 gives me only the slightest anxious flutter about my rapport with more contemporary photography. It is easy to worry that, under this reviewer’s costume that I’ve recently slipped into, there is a narcissistic goblin searching mostly for the conceits of his own artwork on other folks’ pages. Not finding it, the goblin eschews the present. That would be bad! But I know I self-catastrophize as much as I over-share, the latter of which I am doing right now in the name of reckless transparency and/or to fulfill some arbitrary, self-imposed word count. A digression; I like a lot of things just fine!
Truth is, I am drawn to Huts, Temples, Castles precisely because the work is, despite its historical nature, wildly relevant today. After spending some time with its pictures, the sleek loneliness of the present feels extra acute. Not that the good old days were actually any better, but the past can be mined for instructive anecdotes. I now beg my child-having friends: send your offspring into the woods to have fun with hammers.
As explained by Tom Wilkinson in a valuable complementary essay in the back of the book, Schulz-Dornburg went to photograph an isolated part of Amsterdam known as Jongensland, or Boysland. There she found a community of youths — ostensibly all boys, though the occasional girl shows up in her pictures — set to work constructing a diminutive utopia of junk. The depictions are relatively straightforward, and it is a wonder that this seemingly highly-organized, equally feral (though well-dressed) community of youths felt at ease with an adult photographer in their midst. This perceived level of ratty comfort speaks positively of both Schulz-Dornburg’s craft as (lacking a less objectionable word) documentarian, and the solid confidence that the Jongeslanders had in their efforts.
The place was built from scrap wood, paper, and discarded windows. It appeared to be under constant construction, with a bicycle just as likely to be used for transportation as for a stepladder. The entire project was rife with a sort of causal, adolescent danger that feels somehow cathartic to observe, inspiring rather than worrisome. Small fires, lit from the same materials used to build, appear frequently and must have represented some critical though indeterminate part of the culture. Also, they had goats.
The residents even developed a system for navigating the waterways that surrounded their town; one tremendous picture shows a child and a smaller child using dimensional lumber to paddle a boat through murky water. In the background a multi-story Frankenstein of a building exceeds, in terms of interest, most high-end waterfront design. It is to Schulz-Dornburg’s credit that she steps back and allows the architecture (if you can call it that; MACK, the publisher, did list this as an architecture book in their catalog) of Jongensland to exist without much embellishment or photographic elevation.
On the other hand, the pictures exclude the rest of Amsterdam. Schulz-Dornburg isolates Jorgensland so completely that it is easy to imagine this ramshackle nation of children stretching on forever, some apocalyptic/idyllic planet left to the kids. Framing is a subtle trick of pictures that adds a quiet, almost subterranean level of tonal nuance to this book.
I’m liable to figure that when some contemporary photographers invent their own little worlds in which to dwell—and tons of celebrated projects have debuted in the last decade that hinge on ideas of fictional towns, maps without territories, and other more medium-specific jaunts (like the wide-ranging fantasies of the brilliant Onorato and Krebs) — they are striving for the same types of freedoms that the denizens depicted in Huts, Temples, Castles once found in the real world, in garbage. Photography will always excel at slicing lived experience out of time and into malleable, manageable scraps. It’s what it does.
Maybe I’m being pessimistic when I wonder if so many recent projects twist those scraps toward fantasy out of longing, a search for life-affirming play that’s been sapped from an imperiled world wasted online. And probably I’m viewing Jongensland’s heyday through a rose-tinted lens (Schulz-Dornburg’s or my own, I can’t tell). But to be presented with such an affectionate depiction of what a gang of kids could do with some heaps of trash, that builds positive momentum.
Ursula Schulz-Dornburg’s Huts, Temples, Castles is available through MACK.