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Corpus 4 — Serial Projects: Watteyne and the Album Ronse [1]

Alfons Watteyne Jr. (1874-1964) compiled a sumptuous album with 106 photographs of the Bruges facades that had been renovated with restoration grants under the auspices of Alfred Ronse (alderman for public works, 1876-1904). Together with Ronse, Delacenserie (city architect, 1870-1892) and later Charles Dewulf (city architect, 1892-1904), the Catholic mayor, A. Visart de Bocarmé, had an appropriate team to carry out his very specific urban policy. With intellectual and art historical support from Adolf Duclos (and his Rond den Heerd magazine) and Bishop J.J. Faict, and with James Weale still in Bruges until 1878, the neogothic plan was carried out with extremely well-honed focus. The Watteyne album, a gift from Les Catholiques Reconnaissants, was an explicitly Catholic homage to the neogothic success story. The fact that it includes only private residences accentuates the civil success: the neogothic had become the standard architecture of the city's inhabitants, not just that of the government and the church.

This photographic homage nonetheless took advantage of a stylistic option of its own, in a strict, uniform presentation of dozens of facades, recorded according to an identical, dry protocol. There are no atmospheric views - such as Berssenbrugge would later produce of comparable facades. There is no attempt at interpretation, just consistent, neutral inventory. The photographer's style is emphatically anonymous. He pinned down façade after façade, frontal and centred in the image. Never is a context implied or indicated, to the left or to the right. Never is a dialogue introduced between different facades. Nor are any of the city's monuments introduced into the picture as a reference point. The result is an impression of the city such as we had thus far not come across in the archives: a scientific showcase instead of a narrative.

The inventory precluded a story, and with it any possible beginning or ending. It is an open series, without evolution in types or theories of restoration, without internal articulation, without hierarchy, but with stock, bureaucratic neutrality. This type of series is fascinating to our conceptualized aesthetic, satisfies our preference for a neutral-value reading and presentation, for mechanical, bureaucratic logic. The figure being referred to here was certainly Atget. Without specifically putting Watteyne in the same category, the synchronization found in Atget's project and a number of photographers in other cities is conspicuous: Watteyne in Bruges, Alexander Simays in Maastricht, August Stauda in Vienna. This was not the sumptuous architectural photography of the prestige publications discussed above. This photography found thoroughness, comparison and neutrality more important than refined selection, subtle analysis or an eye for nuance and complexity.

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