Cities

Photographers

Albums

Complete texts

Corpus 1— Two Albums: J. O. Delepierre (1837-1840) and V. Daveluy (1866)

These are exceptional albums of photographs. The older one, the Album pittoresque de Bruges (In Bruges, the municipal library and the Steinmetz Cabinet each have a copy), includes a comprehensive text by Joseph Octave Delepierre (1802-1879) and was published by the Bruges print dealer, Joseph Buffa (1801-1864), with illustrations by A. Tessaro, H. Borremans, L. Ghémar and E. Manche. There are 45 plates, spanning two volumes, which in this regal format comprise one of the masterpieces of Belgian printmaking, including cityscapes and reproductions of artworks. The prints were also sold separately.

The fifteen photographs, without text, in the album entitled, Bruges et ses monuments (Bruges and its Monuments, now in the Royal Archives in Brussels), presented in 1886 to King Leopold II by Victor Daveluy (1846-1886), was not a commercial project, but a one-of-a-kind gift. Victor Daveluy was employed in the lithography business run by his father, Edouard Alexis Daveluy (1812-1894) when, just before 1860, he presumably introduced photography into the company, something that was then also taking place in the Buffa firm. It seemed a breakthrough for collodion photography and albumin prints.

A quarter of a century elapsed between the production of these two albums. Their intentions and their techniques cannot be compared. It is this difference that raises questions, compelling us to make the contrast more explicit, after which we can again examine their continuities. However different they may be, both are about the same city and its associated accents. The Buffa project was produced shortly after Belgian independence and was in part nurtured by that enthusiasm. The Daveluy album creates an impression of established self-assurance.

The Album Pittoresque is as important as it is because its accompanying texts weave an entire complete Romanesque culture around its images, so that we all the more poignantly sense the narrative character of the views. In his introduction to a pocket-sized Guide indispensable dans la ville de Bruges (1847), Delepierre wrote, 'Ne foulons pas ainsi d'un pied rapide ces lieux mémorables; nourissons-nous de souvenirs qu'ils peuvent faire naître. C'est le seul moyen pour que le passé ne soit pas perdu pour l'avenir, dans le cœur des citoyens' (p. 11). Against a background of the historic novel (and its spillover into theatre and painting), these phrases, with their pendulous intellectual, emotional and political weight, sound very much of their day. Without being blinded by rhetoric, each word here is heavy with the density of a deeply experienced state of mind.

What is very conspicuous is the iconographic continuity, as if the Album pittoresque had proposed a number of definitive motifs and forms, which later could only be repeated. In contrast to this continuity are the differences between lithography and photography: between a line technique and a zone technique, between image and exposure. The continuum of evolving grey values in the photographs is something quite unlike the accumulative summing-up in lithographic shadowing. Technically, and hence also aesthetically, their images cannot be compared. The lithograph is always a creation of the hand plus imagination, a combination of observation and an 'ideology', while the photograph is the result of a homogeneous process, with a uniform surface. It is not permeated with imagination. It is a registration.

Did these differences weigh through? Sometimes we have the impression that they did not. Until the end of the nineteenth century, photography and printmaking lent one another a helping hand in every possible way, as though they were not competitors, but fellow conspirators in one and the same project: the telling of the world. It was far less the case that the photographs broke away from the techniques and climate that preceded them than that the lithographic print continued to provide the literary agenda for the photographs. We must not look at the photographs as destroyers of the print, but as their continuation.

Back to top