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On the Structure of the Images

The photographer produced his images, and that producing was a kind of theatrical direction. In it, we distinguish three kinds of decisions: (1) the choice of the motif, (2) the arrangement or disposition of the motif, and (3) the 'approach' to the motif. [2] One first had to decide which city or which monument he was going to photograph, and this was a decision with significant logistical implications. The equipment had to be brought there, the assistant had to show up, and so on. This determined the location. The image was to a large degree the selected motif: for example, 'this is a photograph of the Belfort in Bruges'. Nonetheless, after the choice was made, there remained countless variations with which one might photograph the Belfort.

This explains the second decision: how he arranged the motif - with or without its surroundings, with or without objects and figures, and with what kind of light. This was the subject matter's 'mise-en-place', a direction in the sense of directing the elements around the motif. In urban photography, this decision was of essential significance: it was the crucial moment in which connections or relationships could be established between the central form and the background, between motif and environment. Given that the buildings could not be moved, this 'mise-en-place' was a question of the placement of the camera.

The import of this decision becomes very clear when we walk through the city with a set of photographs, in order to reconstruct the point from which the exposures were made. The various photographs of the Begijnhof bridge and gate, for example, show how, with a change of barely ten metres, here the Church of Our Beloved Lady rose above the bridge, and there it was the church of Saint Salvador, and how trees fell inside or outside the frame. It is always the same characteristic bridge, but crowned with different steeples. It is another image, of the city as well. There are moreover arrangements that regularly reappeared, such as the view of the monument seen through the street: the Belfort through the Wollestraat, Saint Salvador through the Steenstraat. Both are classics. The image assumed a conspicuous, orchestrated depth. Spatially, the monument became a visual solution, placed in the image like an optical objective. This form visualized, as it were, the trajectory of the tourist walking towards the monument.

A third decision concerned how the motif was approached: from a given height, following a given axis. If the first two choices mostly had to do with what was effectively seen in the picture, the third concerned how what was to be seen was shown. This choice installed the optical lines that supported the image, frontal or diagonal, from below or above, with or without something - space - in front of it. This last factor began to play a role around the end of the century (see the photographs by Berssenbrugge and Kühn in the first section of this text, in which this approach had become the core procedure of the photograph). In the majority of the pictures of Bruges, such emphatically optical drama was not employed. The nuances primarily rested in the divergence from the frontal viewpoint, in the subtle approach of a diagonal standpoint towards the monument. A soft landing of the eye on the façade was continually being anticipated. One was never frontally confronted (which makes Watteyne's strategy all the more conspicuous) or dramatically overwhelmed (as in harder framing). We see the façade appear in a slow, ambling rhythm.

By not immediately perceiving the build-up of the image in terms of a two-dimensional plane (hence as a plastic organization), but as the result of concrete actions with a camera, we can indeed walk in the footsteps of the photographer. The image unavoidably reveals something about the process by which it was made: not poetry, but poietica; not an analysis of form, but a reconstruction of decisions, of the creation process. We not only have an eye for the subjects within a photographic framework, but we also develop an attention to a collection of standpoints. In this way, a city becomes more than just the sum of its places of interest. Those standpoints have their own meaning and history. They are the incarnation of the mentality behind the images.

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