Complete texts

Light as a cultural statement

The lives of pictures

These pictures have at least a twofold life: they exist as objects in the archive and as remembered, mental images; in between these statuses is the link of dubious digital reproductions on a laptop. When are these images truly real, at what instance are they most effective? These pictures are looked at for a short while and then have a much longer life in memories and through imaginary elaborations; research of this kind hovers between institutional archive investigation and open-ended daydreaming. Revisiting the cities in this way implies being confronted with past images rather than actual streets. One does away with the tourist’s gaze and looks at an older photographed projection. This is possible through the obsessive imagolatrie of the 19th century, a crazy desire to collect the world through massive reproduction. Still, this obsession is in itself fascinating. It created that rich material that in all its evidence – even through it – feeds our longing for another presence.


Light is one of the miracles in 19th century photographs. The photographers waited for the right moment to capture a specific blend of shadow and illumination, creating that unique kind of contrast that specifically defines a building through luminosity. This quality is present in the pictures of Bertinazzi. The italianità is very real because of the light. Other cities are adorned in a completely different light, wet and with a low contrast – many pictures of Bruges or Maastricht testify to that. Great city pictures play with light as a defining instrument for the rendering of the city. The qualities enhance the poetic strength and the analytical intelligence of these images.

Le chevalier de la Barrière| Jeruzalem church, Bruges | Tolhuis Bruges | 1823 | Eglise de Jerusalem à Bruges | Collection A. Verbouwe

Bertinazzi Carlo | Galleria Monti, Bologna | Bologna Cineteca di Bologna


The iconographic choices of motives and viewpoints were created long before photography by lithographic firms. Photography – often taken up by the same firms – reproduced the previous solutions for the identification of a city. These were stereotyped formulas used again and again with only the slightest variations. This new iconography was even older than the lithographic images. In the late 18th century the idea developed of a walk through represented pictorial space. The 17th century, by contrast, didn’t offer city views as representations of a walk in space, but lingered in an outside panoramic views unencumbered by the desire to link city space with the moving standpoint of a city dweller. Rather, the city was presented as submitted to the power of prince or king.

Panorama, Bruges | Brugge Stadsarchief | Collection Michiels

City as political character

During the 19th century the city itself becomes a character in a drama. Light and shadow are contrasted and are at the service of melodrama. The small figures at the foot of the monuments make for burlesque sideshows that enhance the towering drama of the monument itself.

Labarge Fecit | Belfort Via Markt, Bruges | Boeverbos, Bruges | Tour de Bruges | Publisher Dewasme

These graphic images, so popular throughout the 19th century, were at odds with the new photography, objective and anti-dramatic. A century later the graphic dramatisation is difficult to understand. The relentless and even brutal emotional investment in the monuments and in the city views unsettles. Of course this is a period of exalted nationalistic sensibilities. Needless to say, the creation of city images has to be understood in the context of politics too. The city is where the new legitimacy has to be defined.

2Oth Century photographs

19th city photography presents stable soutiens whereas 20th century photographs try to renew the subjects photographed and the viewpoints that redefine them. What’s more, there is a reversal in direction in city photography. 19th century pictures focus on the city centre. In the late 20th century, photographers turn their backs to the centre and photograph what is revealed when one leaves a city and wanders through its ambiguous outskirts. In the 19th century the monuments were the exclusive reason to travel. The monument marks the centre. This centre is the dominant force of attraction of the urban texture. The centre is the resolution of the spatial narrative of each city. This delicious happy end of the centre resolves all kinds of problems and conflicts – personal, political, aesthetical. Its charm is unforgettable. 20th century photographers, then, incite our astonishment: they turn their backs on the centre, resist its attraction and negate the possibility of an urban resolution.

I.A. | Belfort Via Vlamingstraat, Bruges | Boeverbos, Bruges | Steenstraat

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