Photography is showing itself today to be quite a whimsical medium. As in the early decades after its invention, photographers and visual artists are again embarking on a path of daring experiments. The boundaries of the photographic process are being tested, new strategies are being deployed, new fields of enquiry opened. In Belgium, this experimental attitude is starting to fill a vacuum left by the slow demise of photojournalism.
This decline is not only to be understood in economic terms, with the printed press no longer capable of sustaining a photographic practice in the long term, but also, and more importantly, as a waning of the social function and moral force of press photography. What actually has been lost is the humanistic ideal without which photojournalism no longer makes any sense: the (sincerely held) belief and hope that the photographer, through his or her pictures, could wake the moral indignation of the more affluent sphere of the world and in doing so urge the well-off to act and to bring some solace to the suffering sphere of the world. Stripped of his or her reputation as a potent social agent, the engaged photographer has lost any sense of purpose.
Belgian photographers have been struggling for decades with this moral (and economic) erosion of photojournalism. Their first response was to move in the direction of a more detached documentary approach. Recently, however, more and more photographers have lost interest in testifying directly about the world, instead focusing their attention on the photographic process itself. This tendency towards a more self-aware use of the medium manifested itself together with two other shifts, occurring at the same time and on a global scale. The first is a technological shift, from analogue to digital photography, the second an institutional change, from the pages of newspapers and magazines to the walls of the gallery and the museum.
Two prominent Belgian photographers who still fiddle diligently and sincerely with certain elements of the photographic medium are Dirk Braeckman (b. 1958) and Geert Goiris (b. 1971). Braeckman, for instance, has developed a photographic practice that from the start distinguished itself from the documentary approach that still prevailed at the time. His subdued, dusky images offer no story, no insight, no spectacle, no revelation. Instead of working with the optical aspects of clarity and sharpness, Braeckman centres his practice on the chemical features of photography. The work in the darkroom, the place where he sculpts the light and manhandles the paper to create his dim pictures, is the most important stage in his creative process.
The colourful images of Geert Goiris seem rather straightforward depictions of the outside world, albeit with a predilection for strange and uncommon phenomena. Upon closer inspection, however, many of his photographs deal with particular photographic problems. His favourite moment of photographing is during the twilight hours, when the light is weak and uncertain. After setting up a large-format camera on a tripod, he opens up the lens and lets the camera take in the subject. Because of the long exposure time, the photographer is absent while the camera produces the image. Goiris seems to withdraw from the image-making process and to leave all the action to the apparatus. As a result, his images are pre-eminently ‘photographic’. These photographs neither reveal the world nor speak of the photographer’s intentions; rather they show us how the camera seizes the world.
Both Braeckman and Goiris have stimulated a somewhat playful if not irreverent attitude towards photography. Their commitment to the medium itself, the relentless questioning of its expressive possibilities, have opened up new avenues for young photographers to explore further. Moreover, the institutional success of both predecessors (they are widely published and have had several exhibitions in prominent museums) would only embolden this new generation to tinker freely with the medium.
One of these promising young photographers is Lot Doms (b. 1986). Her work deals with the optical system of photography, the moment when the shot is taken. By using light in a distinctive way, by tightly framing a scene or by simply turning the image upside down, she creates images that play with our sense of scale, orientation and/or depth. She often puts herself in close proximity to the subject. The absence of a stable horizon makes it impossible for the viewer to gauge the size of the depicted objects or the specific nature of their relation. The differences between big and small, near and far start to blur, the world reduced to a graphic interplay between straight and curved lines, triangles and rectangles. One series of black-and-white images in particular, dedicated to corners, demonstrates Doms’ deftness in exploiting the flattening effect of the camera lens. While a corner always opens up into a three-dimensional space, she succeeds in reducing it to a two-dimensional surface. With their separation line neatly in the middle of the image, the hinged walls seem to unfold into two joined planes that are aligned.
With ‘Ice Cube’, Arnaud De Wolf (b. 1981) manages to obtain the reverse effect, opening up a flat, two-dimensional image into the experience of a deep, three-dimensional space. Using an overhead projector to screen an image of a small part of a frozen lake, he creates an almost holographic effect whereby the subject seems to hang in space, looking like a freshly cut (and rather large) ice cube (hence the title). The illusion of depth produces a presence as though the visual apparition were almost tangibly real, making one of the oldest desires of the photographic imagination come true: the ability to show a world that not only looks realistic, but almost feels real to the touch. This fascination for the way light makes the world present to us returns also in other work where he studies the influence of colour on our perception of the environment. Again, photography is here not a simple tool by which to register the outside world, but a device by which to investigate our sensual relationship to it.
The experiments of Sine Van Menxel (b. 1988) often take place during yet another stage of the photographic process: the moment when the print is being made. For her the darkroom is not simply a place where the light is being disciplined to form a readable image, but rather a place of intervention where a new image can be wrought out of the existing negative. Consider an intriguing diptych, containing two identical pictures of a sunshade. Through dodging and burning, parts of the fabric between the ribs of the sunshade have been overexposed, others underexposed. By varying the over- and underexposed parts, the same image is here presented in two different versions. At first the viewer is tempted to ascribe the disparity between the two prints to the changing light situation during the taking of the shot(s), but soon realises this is quite implausible. The diptych is no longer a description of an object out there, but a demonstration of the way in which light can be manipulated to create ‘unbelievable’ images. As such, it demonstrates that Van Menxel attaches equal importance to the two separate moments when light and light-sensitive material touch each other: the moment of exposure in the dark interior of the camera and the moment of exposure in the darkroom.
Using (and abusing) the materiality of the photographic object, Liesbet Grupping (b. 1984) challenges, in her series ‘Matter in Progress’, our assumptions about what photography is or can be. In ‘Black with Holes’, she punctured a totally black (underexposed) slide with a needle, a nail and a hammer to evoke an image of a starry night. In another work, ‘Earth #1’, she buried an overexposed slide in a flowerpot and removed it again after eight days. After retrieving it, the chemical reaction between the soil and the image had left visible traces on the slide, as though the ‘subject’ were still capable of tracing itself into (or onto) the developed image. In the first case, Grupping uses the visual codes of scientific photography to simulate a photographic image, in the second she creates a pseudo-photographic image that seems to share the same indexical qualities as a ‘normal’ photographic image. One of the most fascinating works in this series is ‘Evaporating Picture’. It consists of a day-long projection of a slide filled with a tiny amount of water. Due to the heat of the lamp in the projector, the water slowly heats up, projecting tiny bubbles on the wall. After a while, however, the water gradually evaporates, leaving at the end of the ‘happening’ a dried-up slide (and thus a blank bundle of light falling on the wall). Here Grupping makes use of chemical reactions between light and water to obtain (and simultaneously erase) something that looks and functions as a ‘photographic’ image.
Every photographic image is a timed exposure. Although every photograph is supposed to contain only one slice of time, it is also possible to stack different moments in one and the same image. In her work, Katja Mater (b. 1979) combines painting and photography to explore what it means to pile up time within the confines of one singular image. Her work method is often the same: an abstract drawing is made on a wall or object, which is then gradually filled in with paint. At certain fixed intervals, she photographs the partly painted walls or objects, always from the exact same vantage point. The parts that were painted in first will darken during the different exposures, whereas the parts coloured later on will remain relatively light. By combining these multiple exposures, the resulting photograph seems simply to document the process of painting. However, the ‘painting’ that ultimately appears in the photograph not only differs from the ‘real’ one (which could be a wall or object entirely covered in black paint, for instance), but represents something that we could not even see during the act of painting itself. The photographs show a ‘painting’ that is purely the result of the layering of time on one and the same light-sensitive surface. As such, by presenting something that we never could have experienced ourselves but that nevertheless does ‘exist’ in the, for us, inaccessible dimension of time, Mater’s ‘unthinkable images’ teach us something about the altogether bizarre relation that photography has with the fourth dimension.
Some years after graduating, David Bergé (b. 1983) came across an archive of 283 snapshots made in 1911 by August Klipstein and Charles-Éduard Jeanneret (the future Le Corbusier). Both men had made these images while travelling through the east and south of Europe. What interested Bergé was the indeterminateness of these photographs. Not only was it impossible to find out who took what image, but they also lacked any clear intention. The photographers simply touch on people, places and buildings, without plainly asserting what they consider interesting in these subjects. One of the more tantalising projects that came out of Bergé’s ongoing dialogue with this archive is the so-called Walk Pieces he has been hosting in different cities since 2008. The Walk Pieces are planned walks of 100 minutes in which he silently guides the participants through the city. The latter must remain quiet for the duration of the walk while the guide looks slightly downwards at the pavement in front of him. He refrains from turning his head left or right, to avoid giving any indication as to what the participants are supposed to look at (he’s not that kind of guide). The purpose of the walk is to let the city work on the walking body, to let them experience how the built environment defines their being-in-the-world. Although there is no camera present (photography is strictly forbidden!), for Bergé these walks are closely linked with the photographic process. The bodies of the participants function as the not-yet-developed sensitive material, ready to be impressed by the whirl of streets, buildings, squares, people and events they will encounter during the walk. The guide can be seen as the man behind the camera, the one who enacts the programme that sustains the whole project, one that is executed even while the participants are unaware of being programmed (a situation that strongly resembles the automatic execution of the photographic programme in the camera). And, lastly, the city and everything it contains deliver the building blocks with which to write the programme.