19th century topographic photography in Bruges, Bologna and Maastricht

Project description

This is a large scale research on the visual discourse - by photographic but also graphic techniques - of the 19th century fast developing European cities.

Photography is not only about documenting but also interpreting. This large amount of photographic images in archives is not only secondary material about monuments and cites, but could be considered part of cultural heritage. My aim is to reconsider the position of these images, which have a very specific use in the different archives. I would like to focus on the images themselves, taking them seriously, as a 'historian of photography'. How can understanding be gained of the subject that was photographed? Does a frequent visit to the city allow for understanding of a city or is this strictly reserved to inhabitants? Is it important to understand how the photographed monument 'intervenes' into city life? To tackle these issues as a historian of photography I have to seek information outside of my field of research and city historians, historians of architecture and urbanists with my questions.

The second part of my research concerns the understanding of pictures. How are the photographs framed and how do the photographs work? What kind of decisions did the photographer make while taking the picture? Did they capture the cultural tensions in the city at that moment and make them meaningful?

So I have to open another field of research and information. It is important to take the cultural and political stories of the cities into consideration: what political parties were in power, who was the city architect, what were their policies? Was tourism already developing and if so, what are the impulses of tourism in promoting certain monuments and aspects of the city? Wanting to understand the subject and the photograph and at the same time wanting to discover the right way of looking at them, I do research into the visual discourse of 19th century photographs of the city.

What is the usefulness of the aforementioned approach? In literature or paintings, the city is an essential personage or prominently present in many 19th century cultural productions. Being an extremely problematic and dramatic subject, it is relevant to see how the drama and tensions eventually enter in photography.

I try to understand how space is represented and is sensed and how certain details give life to the adventure of looking at space. We look at an object as well as at the way in which this object is put into space. In order to explain the acts, I refer to cinematography and the term mise-en-scène; the photographer is not a metteur-en-scène but his function is to mettre-en-place, to put into place using a specific point of view. I consider these pictures aesthetic objects and valuable documents about a certain state at a certain moment and the handling of space.

Very early on in this project I understood that I also had to take non-photographic material from the early 19th century into consideration in order to understand how the monuments are represented, from what point of view and in what kind of aesthetic climate.

Antonio Basoli made in 1815 a closed series on the city gates of Bologna. There is a great and interesting distance from Piranesi. It is dramatic romanticism of the early 19th century. Basoli - professor of perspective in the academia di belle arte in Bologna - made a famous collection of vedute pittoresque of Bologna.

Basoli Antonio | Porta S. Mamolo, Bologna | 1817 | Entrata della Porta S. mamolo di Bologna | In Porte della città di Bologna

Schaepkens was an influential teacher at the academy in Maastricht and an important topographical painter with high standing in the cultural discussions on the safeguarding or the destruction of the city walls. Made before the 1870s they have a sketchy way of approaching the subject: the walls are without precise designing, seem not to have volume and to float into thin air. They are a lamento on the city gates on the point of destruction.

Schaepkens Alexander | Maastricht | University of Liège, Gallerie Wittert | 1879 | Brusselse poort

Schaepkens added to the approach of the walls and gates a new visual thought. It went inside the gates which nobody ever thought of doing. He does not remain outside of the constructions but went in the building itself. Through the lightness of the visual presentation, he gives body to the mass. Why did he enter the building, why was he the only one who discovered this standpoint?