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Alternate realities: a Dutch-American community in Iowa

René Clement, a Dutch photographer who lives in New York City, was fascinated when he first stumbled upon the town of Orange City, Iowa, which was founded by his countrymen in 1870.

"I had the strangest experience", he says. "I had unexpectedly found myself in a small town peppered with windmills, houses with Dutch stair-step gable fronts and an abundance of tulips. And since it was a Sunday, there was not a living soul to be seen on the streets of this small community guided by an unshakable Dutch Reformed tradition. My curiosity was piqued. It felt as if a classic painting of a Dutch Master had been brought to life on the great plains of Iowa."

Rene Clement

Chase De Jong (left) and Jaidyn De Jong (right), photographed in the costumes they wore for the annual Orange City Festival.
René Clement explains: "I began this project by creating a series of portraits in the tradition of the Dutch Masters, drawing upon their use of soft light and stark black backgrounds."

Rene Clement

Jennifer Carlson, Jenna Van Oort, Maria Oltmans, Julia Haverdink, Paige Blythe and Colleen Kiel. They are cheerleading on the football field of the Raiders, the local college team. In the background there is a Dutch windmill, in which the Chamber of Commerce and local tourist information can be found.

"In reaction to the period-piece elements of the portraits I had already created, I began a series of landscapes in which I took my subjects out of the studio environment and put them, still in costume, straight into modern life, smack in the middle of American culture. I wondered: what would Orange City look like if its inhabitants had clung fiercely to the past, much like the Amish or the Hutterites?"

Rene Clement

Anne Plageman is the teacher in a scene created by René Clement.
"At my request, the text 'President Barack Obama...' was written on the blackboard. I wanted to present a contrast between the current sitting president and the first President of America, George Washington, whose portrait hangs on the wall. The classroom depicted here is in the oldest school in Orange City, which is now part of a heritage museum."

Rene Clement

Mark De Jong, a resident of Orange City, Iowa. "Saint Nicholas as a lonesome cowboy, who, like my comic hero Lucky Luke, at the end of each story, rides off alone into the sunset on his horse Jolly Jumper, singing 'I'm a poor lonesome cowboy, and a long way from home...'", says René Clement.

"For my inspiration, I borrowed heavily from American popular culture, drawing particularly on the American movies and music I had known as a child in the Netherlands. The result has two distinct threads - Dutch and American cultures fused together and at the same time in direct conflict. Although I staged all the landscapes, my aim was to create an alternate reality in an almost documentary-like style. I hoped that the viewer would be curious enough to further investigate my fictitious reality, and be encouraged to see the real world in a slightly different way."

Rene Clement

Tom Croghan and Tess Josy Gommers. René Clement explains: "Outlaws have always fascinated me, whether 'Billy the Kid' or the 'Dalton Gang'. The idea behind this picture was to create a local 'Bonnie and Clyde', an outlawed couple who roam the many cornfields around Orange City. I often fantasize that while I am driving along the deserted country roads, I could encounter outlaws like these."

Clement's photographs of Orange City are collected in the book Promising Land, which will be published next month.