Cities

Photographers

Albums

Complete texts

Characters and Objects

These photographs, produced very slowly by a conspicuous apparatus mounted on a tripod, had an exceptional relationship to the coincidences and the timeliness of the environment and life of the city. The majority of the photographs held contemporary life at bay, outside the image. They did not wish to show what was related to time, only the elements that remained beyond time. They let it be known that the entire tradition saw the city as what remained, almost polemically cut out against the living city - the Trojan Horse of the fashionable, the modern, the trivial. In this material, we see conspicuously little of contemporary fashion, objects, means of transport (no carriages, no horse-drawn trolleys, no trams). It looks like a straightforward censure of urban life and gives an impression of a dead city. A few exceptional and rare pictures show what the city really looked like: lively and vivacious, with ordinary dress quite unlike the bourgeois costumes, with shops and shanties, with different generations of men and women. It could therefore be recorded, but people chose not to record it: their intent was to show the city, not the life of the city.

People had been far more tolerant with lithographic prints, which almost never lacked picturesque personalities in the actual clothing of the day, draping themselves at the feet of the monuments in stereotyped roles in a light and comical tone. This same censure applied to objects: no new building constructions in the photographs (one of Goethals's photographs with building structures emphasizes that obscuration), no advertising (one picture by Fierlandts is a surprise because it does show advertising), no objects in the streets, save a lone element here or there, just set down and looking a little too pretty - a wheelbarrow, a cart, a barrel. These too belonged to the vocabulary of the picturesque. They carry the status of the still life, not real life. The photographer had left or set them in the image to play a specific role. 'If they are in the image, they are only there because the photographer decided they should be there.' (Pool Andries). Their presence is no coincidence, but always intended. They convey meaning and intent.

In a few of the photographs in the Daveluy album, there is a uniformed man, who clearly came along as an extra to provide a certain accent for some of the images. He plays the role of man out taking a walk, his uniform neutralizing several figures standing on the pavement watching the whole picture-taking procedure. He himself stands staring at the Jan Van Eyck monument with potent wonder. At once, you see the theatricality chiselling its way into the image. There are coincidental, 'photographic' passers-by, but the figure on foot, as a role to be enacted, the audience in the image, as theatrical figures, the whole picture, as something that takes place, can all be read as a scene. This detail is a key, in the same way that understanding a certain letter combination provides the key to deciphering a secret code. In the same way that this uniformed man was overacting, so the photographer also viewed his subject, so the customer looked at the picture, and so must I. Here, the viewer was never the local resident, as he would be in 20th-century street photography, where the eye of the seeker synchronizes with the eye of the inhabitant, at the same height, the same speed and tempo as well. That was not the case in 19th-century photography, where a touch of the bombastic was always clutching at the camera and its operator. It is too flamboyant and gaudy, slightly comical (people who did end up in the picture found the photographer intriguing and amusing). The photographic eye cut straight through the perspective of those who lived in the street - indeed, set itself in opposition to them. The photographer's image had nothing to do with any visual activity on the parts of his fellow citizens, and he did not look at them, but was instead looking along with them. He analyzed, they absorbed. He eliminated, they accumulated. He produced an image planned in advance, while they curiously inspected the familiar. Photographers in fact very quickly came to understand that they undermined the grandeur of their observations by allowing that attitude to be explicitly quoted by a character in the picture, which explains the rare character of this very enlightening configuration.

Objects were also problematic. Nonetheless, everyone was familiar with the virtuosity with which, in a painted genre scene or nude, an arrangement of objects was turned into a vibrant still life. The objects were the signal of a realistic aesthetic and preserved intense emblematic potential in their fashionable appearance. When photography introduced objects of city life (often means of transport), the image blossomed with intense, resonant poetry: silent witnesses of city life, of people who lived there, their concerns and their industriousness. This provided an intriguing tension between the implications of a very traditional activity - transportation - with the absence of those who did the transporting. Both the very old labour and the old architecture were indications of a slow history, not a caustic modernity.

This reserve regarding the contemporary, the moderne and fashionable is the basic rule underlying this photography. Late 19th-century prints by Neurdein and Gustave Hermans shut out urban life as much as had the intimate images of the Amateur-Photographe and urban tourist. In contrast, the art of (impressionist) painting had by this time already developed an outspoken iconography of the modern, dynamic city, of its kaleidoscopic city life. In painting, city life and rhythm had become ever more emphatic themes of the latter half of the 19th century, but photography embraced an outlook that was diametrically opposed to contemporary painting. The fictions surrounding the historic urban décor could not be reconciled with contemporary urban living. City life was fashionable, modern and filled with symbols of its instability - in Bruges as elsewhere. Only the decor itself could support the orthodox programme. With extreme reservations where figures and objects were concerned, this photography - this most modern of media! - frontally opposed the contemporary urban iconography of the older media of painting and printmaking. It was practically reactionary in doing this, but in so doing, it - unintentionally - created the conditions for 20th-century photography: strict, radical and modern. By not admitting figures and objects, this photography envisioned itself as more objective and businesslike than it in reality was. It narrated with the drama of buildings, not with the drama of personalities or characters. That drama, however, is far more difficult to feel. Because of the misunderstanding of a neutral-seeming registration, this tradition was a prologue to modern photography. Precisely because it avoided the modernity of its own time, it became perfectly able to legitimize the modernity of the future post-war generations.

Back to top