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A serious reflection on photography

Like every investigation, this study has been many things at once, elements opposing one another as well as generating one another. In the first place, it is a study of material principally in the collection of the Bruges Municipal Archives, with additional material from the Charleroi and Antwerp Museums of Photography. This means that the rich photographic archives of the Royal Institute for Art Heritage have not been included, and that the 178 Aubry photographs in the Albertina Royal Library of Belgium in Brussels likewise still await study. A great deal of non-photographic material has also not been referred to, including the August de Peellaert watercolours in the Steinmetz Cabinet in Bruges, lithographs by F. Stroobant, prints by L.H. Michael and the earliest lithographs of Bruges, published by Doornik. There is also work to be done in the archives of Duclos, Weale, Bethune, Delacenserie, Ronse and Vièrin, the city's cultural and political protagonists. How did the decision-makers deal with photography? Most significantly, photographs in collections outside the country are yet to be looked at. Bruges was a very popular and much-visited city. It was picturesque, later photogenic. Its visitors took their photographs with them, back to Vienna (Heinrich Kühn), Italy (Francesco Agosti), Edinburgh (John Muir Wood), London (Benjamin Brecknel Turner) and so on. In the various periods, how did they interpret this collection of appealing visual motifs?

This study is a reflection on the concrete history of photography as part of a specific period, location, culture and mentality. What traces of the conflicts and tensions of the period are found in the images? How do the images permit us to illuminate that context in an original way? The international history of photography has a need for local histories, with an open eye to the international context. This international history is often too abstract and too generalized, while local history is frequently viewed on too small a scale. It is important that the crossover of the two be taken into consideration.

This study is unavoidably a reflection on photography as a whole, on the idea, the concept of photography. What did people back then - apparently - think of photography? How do we respond today to this material, from our totally altered ideas about what photography is?

This study has taken photography seriously. It has invested photography with competences that are often denied it, for example, with the capacity to be both a documentation and to also simultaneously provide editorial commentary. This hypothesis on photography as a form that speaks about other forms is the sole hypothesis that has made this study a truly interesting one. A summary of the photographs taken in Bruges would simply be an inventory, but by seeing these photographs as a means by which a given culture of the 19th century expressed itself through one of its greatest problems - the city -, we try to raise the collection out of its status as an 'annex' in an appeal for renovation. We do not think this photography was an 'annex'.

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