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In Archives, Photographs are Documents; In Museums, Photographs are Works

Photographs are collected for two reasons, and rarely do the two paths meet. In municipal archives, they are preserved for their subject matter. In museums of art or photography, they are works in their own right. From the beginning, the latter have seen them from a formalist perspective: the photographer gives form to his image and uses its motif as a reason, as alibi. In the former, they are nostalgically exploited: through the photograph, we can effortlessly find an answer to how things were back then. The museum approach discourages any questioning of the role of the subject in the image, while the archive behaves as though the photograph is nothing more than its subject.

For this nineteenth-century material, both approaches fall short of the mark. The photographer was no abstract, conceptual image-maker. He employed a style as an essential response to a subject. Conversely, he was not a technician for exposures bound by a protocol (as were those employed for legal purposes or scientific photography, as increasingly happened after 1870), but a highly professional individual who thought up images that would do justice to their subject in the spirit of the times. The photographer not only recorded his subject, he also had something to say about it. As a photographer, he had to record while he expressed himself, and in order to record, he needed to speak out - in other words, to design, to give form.

Both types of institution project their own logic onto their material. Municipal archives see the photographer as a note-taker. He made documents. He copied. His guidebooks were technical, his ambition bureaucratic, his ideal a judicial neutrality. He executed. His images were derivatives, not statements. By way of what was taken note of, today's user has direct access to the subject matter. The photography is a time-telescoped reflection of the subject. The museum of photography, on the other hand, is interested in works by creators, not in documentation of subjects. The image now becomes autonomous at the expense of the thing portrayed, with form at the expense of subject matter. Form thus becomes the possession of the image, not something that thought up an image for a subject. Subject as an incidental alibi for virtuosity in form is in fact a very meagre aesthetic. Only when we see the form at work in relation to an object - a city or a building - do we achieve a suitable appreciation: as a form for something else, as true design.

If municipal archives irrevocably invite a too local, almost homely attention to photographs, the museum presents a permanent invitation to see the photographs as abstract form. But it was the photographer who was speaking, and he was speaking about something. His images refer to a subject, but do so in a manner that articulates a relationship to that subject. Photographs not only documented the factual characteristics of their theme, but were expressions of a specific relationship to the city and its architecture. They are unavoidably the product of a mentality. These urban images refer not only to facts, but to a way of reading those facts. Facts are constructions of a juncture in time. The Belfort was the same material for Daveluy as it was for Berssenbrugge half a century later, but each gave it a completely different meaning. Photographs of architecture and city sights were never just technical products, but always also stylistic responses. Their style can be poor and naïve or rich and complex, but it is never absent. Scientific photographs were conceived within procedures, architectural photographs were not. Decisions were steered by the spirit of the times, by the fashions and tastes of a period, sometimes by the personality of a photographer, but not by a protocol. There is always that inevitable literary moment of the interpretation of a subject. Without that, there is no standpoint, no vantage point for the camera, no focus, no choice of the moment of registration. These images unavoidably record more than the mere material condition of the monument. They record the spirit of the times that enveloped it. What did photographers want to point out in their pictures, to show, to raise forth? What were they looking at, and what were they looking for?"

Bringing to light this contrast in the photographs themselves enriches our perception of them in an essential way. An outspoken understanding of these pictures allows us to unravel a history of the way a city was perceived. It is our ambition to charge these nineteenth-century images with all the intellectual and aesthetic energy of their time, for the history of a city is also a history of the way it is perceived. What role did photography play in this perception?

What people think of a city is self-evidently expressed in how they envision that city. How people think of a city shines through the image. Here, we give the photographer and his image the largest possible role: photography is capable of thinking, of forming thoughts, of explicitly placing itself within the thought processes of an environment and responding to it. Photography and photographers did substantially 'think' their subject. They presented their subject 'as thought'. The hypothesis of a 'thinking' photography is the first matter of importance.

To understand the thinking of these photographs, one must, as it were, think along with them, through them. This is the door to a true feeling for the photographic media. At the same time, it is essential to also understand the thinking of the time, where the city was concerned, in order to correctly assess the photographic image. People took photographs within that thinking, never outside it.

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