Complete texts

The Participatory Mode: Printed Postcards and City Monographs

In this same period, two further developments were taking place, which need to be seen in mutual contrast: the cards printed by the Nels firm, among others, and the city guides with photographic illustrations, including Promenades dans Bruges (1898), with text by Charles de Flou and photographs by Véron De Deyne and Jean Malvaux. As a product for the masses and by way of their illustrations, printed cards introduced the day tourist. Both the person purchasing the card and what can be seen in the image comprised part of what was taking place in the touristic city. The cards induced a participatory logic, far removed from earlier images, that were ever observing and studious, not 'I was here', but 'this is how it is or was'. The printed cards moreover slipped a number of non-photographic layers on top of the photography, in the form of colouring, text and sometimes collage. They united printing and photography, instead of separating them.

The city guides used inexpensive, heavily rastered photoengraving, published photographs alongside drawings, set images in the middle of the text, often removed the frame of the exposure by putting it in a vignette (giving the photograph a vignette form) and contouring (outlining or following the lines of the motif in the photograph). As a result, the photographs were given an emphatically plastic continuity with the text. In this most impure use of photography, the image ran over into text, and the act of looking became very close to the act of reading. The photographs were 'organically' slipped between texts, imitating the absence of a frame by looking through a gradual and soft transition into the white of the paper. What a contrast to the architectural photography, where the frame was so flawlessly precise, where the tracing of the line of the frame further accentuated its importance, and the sharpness and quality of the printing allowed for no suggestive lack of clarity whatsoever!

Printed cards and city guides therefore were a contradictory step, in many ways, to the typological architectural photography. They cancelled out distances, implied continuities between the tourist and the card, between the image of the city and being in the city. The reading of the city was replaced by forms of participating in the city.

The printed word and photographic images can stand side by side, without effort and enduring for a long while. In the city guides, and also in publications on urban structure, drawings are also found alongside photographs, the two alternating as problem-free equals. In Camillo Sitte's book, Der Städtebau (1889), a photograph of the Roman Pantheon is juxtaposed with a line engraving of the Via degli Strozzi in Florence and a charming art-nouveau engraving of the Wollestraat (Wool Street) in Bruges. For more than a half century after the birth of photography, these two visual languages performed cheek to cheek. They borrowed one another's purposes and effects in a high-spirited and untroubled 'impurity'. Only in the 1920s would there come an end to nearly a century of such 'impurity'.

This visual confusion was determined not only by the technical possibilities inherent to printing. Other ideas about photography also played a role. The photograph was continually being pushed towards the older print form, towards an image that was far less informative and affirmative. This allowed a suggestive, saturated handling of photographs that is no longer conceivable today. With great success, by the way, that tendency became the foundation for the photographic illustrations in Rodenbach's novel. Sharp, precise city images became un-sharp, dreamlike suggestions (see Paul Edwards' contribution to De Witte Raaf, issue xxx).

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