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Between Tourism and Restoration - The Material

Scores of old photographs of the Belfort, City Hall, the Begijnhof Bridge: the repetition discourages concentration. For those of us inclined to be allergic to monuments, this unceasing homage to the city's local monuments is no longer comprehensible. Inevitably, the absence of people in the street scenes evokes the melancholy of an abandoned city. These are images of a fossil, not of a living organism. A little later on, it is clear that almost all of these pictures are of historic buildings. There are practically no contemporary neighbourhoods or structures to be seen, no images of the first railway station on the Zand (1841, from designs by Auguste Payen), just a few of the second train station (1879, after designs by Jozef Schadde), hardly any traces of an everyday local life. I find a few images of the neoclassical fish market, with customers, and an extremely rare glimpse of the little proletarian 'forts' built into the city infrastructure. Beyond that, they are always streets of shops with no customers, churches without churchgoers, roads without vehicles. Murnau produced pictures like these of Bremen, ready for the visit from the vampire.

Naturally, the collections of the Municipal Archives in Bruges, the Provincial Archives and the Steinmetz Cabinet are not all there is to say about photographs produced in Bruges during the nineteenth century. There were also numerous portraits (as is apparent in the Guillaume Michiels and Jaak Rau collections and the publications they generated). Any statement about photography in Bruges is always done conditionally, depending on as yet unmade discoveries. Nonetheless, the combined forces of the production and the preservation of the photographs have resulted in a coherent body of work.

The experience that proves the rule for nineteenth-century photography is that it is not seductive. The photographic perspective is unmoving: nor was it intended to move the viewer. Its purpose was description, not inducement or temptation. This does seem to be about a different kind of photography than we know today. It is no real wonder that today, those who work in archives and publicity, who make use of them, do not look at the photographs themselves, but only at what can be seen 'in' those photographs. Urban history uses photographs as vessels for information. The vessels themselves are not a part of that information.

For me, this material is intriguing. I immediately look over the shoulder of this or that monument, to the image and to the photographer. As an admirer from the start of the broad, highly differentiated school of contemporary topographical photography, I try to see through to the sequence within which the choices were made. The stubborn rigidity of this stately photography appeals to me (as a counterpoint to floating images). Its efficient sobriety stands as lofty humility against so much contemporary megalomania, and the attentive concentration of each exposure invites me to stop with these images a little longer. After a few weeks in the archives, through repeated looking at the images, so much diversity became apparent that they lost the uniformity that had made them so banal. What had been a pile of photographs of the Belfort now revealed itself as a very diversified ensemble of very different visual solutions. The humble silver music of these photographs, which so often rings like the sawing squeal of an angry violin, does indeed have a melody of its own. What are the contours of this melody? What are its possibilities?

In any case, I am as aware of the image the monuments produced as I am of the monuments themselves. Here, in these archives, the history of 'image' is as laden as the history of the monument portrayed. The monument itself, as well as its nineteenth-century registration, demanded an aesthetic judgement. Every description is a means of giving form, as well as a judgement made throughout that form-giving. I am in search of the insight expressed here, in this photographic form. If you only look at what is depicted, you are behaving as though the image made no statement about it, when any image is in fact always a judgement, an opinion in its own right. Which accents, which shapes and forms did the nineteenth-century city assume in the work of these photographers? Which sensitivities were being developed, and what was the urban poetry that unfolded by way of the practical solutions of the photographers?

All music is created by friction: a bow on a violin string, the air in an oboe, a drumstick on a membrane. The music of photographs is also the result of such crossing and criss-crossing: of a framework with its subject. Daveluy (ca. 1850), with his morning light on the Bruges City Hall, or the very specific blurring in the image of Bruges by the Viennese photographer Heinrich Kühn (1897-98), for example. All photographic choices are made in relation to a specific motif at a specific moment: repeatedly, the photographs are responses to their subject. Without knowledge of that subject, there are no choices to be made in photographic form. The thing being photographed allows me to understand how it was photographed. I need the idea of the city in order to trace the idea of the photography, but it works the other way around as well, for a specific idea of photography in turn magically reveals a new face of the city. I need the city and the photography together to understand the 'city image' that resulted. From the interplay of photographic form and urban design is created something that goes beyond each when taken separately: the image of the city. A few dozen square centimetres on flimsy albumin paper - it is so stiff as an image, so fragile as an object - but nonetheless, it is all choice. It is about these choices, for photographs do not grow by themselves.

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