Complete texts

About the Material: the Documents

From the end of the nineteenth century, city archival collections have primarily mechanically printed cards to offer. This is influential material in forming an image of the rise of mass tourism, but very distorting in terms of the intentions of the photographer. Too many photographic ambitions were swept aside by the printing, the format, the printers' graphic interventions. Nonetheless, these cards were the most important source for the emergence of the late nineteenth century's, nostalgic city albums.

These printed cards provided a new element in shaping the image of the nineteenth-century city. Here, for the first time, local inhabitants appeared in a self-evident fashion. Citizens, the proletariat, uniformed and richly adorned ladies reflected the circumstances of the individual purchasing the cards. Both - the person illustrated and the purchaser - traversed the same urban decor. This animation of the hitherto so silent city scene created a radical shift in the balance between monuments and their surroundings. The old urban photography was now fading away. What would later come to be known as street photography was already making its appearance.

In the archives, what are in fact photographic prints are overwhelmingly isolated, undated and anonymous documents - the leftovers of that unending catastrophe that seems to be photography's lot. There are no broken blocks, but grains, entirely lacking the graphic whole of the larger photograph - an archaeological site where now and then, a few images seems to pass one another by. Together, they form a diffuse ensemble in which people can make tallies, but from which it is very difficult to draw connections. Average images cling to one another, forming a collective norm, a quantitatively expressed preference for a motif. In addition, each image is there for its own sake, ready to be admired for its formal characteristics, for its composition, its light. Alas, there is no context that can fill in that appreciative assessment, no biography to open these perspectives.

Very small groups of pictures were brought together into portfolios or albums. These ensembles held a strategic position. They formed a collected whole, a closed photographic text: precisely these motifs, in this order. Alongside the characteristics of each separate image, there was now a sequential logic. A certain mentality of the city was expressed in the selections and their sequence. Each picture corrected the one before it and provided a literary context. The fifteen Daveluy photographs in the Royal Archive album in Brussels, the twenty-five - unfortunately cut out and unnumbered - photographs taken from the anonymous Bruges - Promenades d'un Amateur-Photographe album, in the collection of the Bruges Municipal Archives, and the Emilio Anriot (1826-?) album, with a broad, coherent section devoted to Bologna (in the Biblioteca dell' Archiginnasio in Bologna) are the rare entities that articulate a photographic, printed perspective of cities.

Along with these completed ensembles, the archives also have the 'open' series', a few dozen editions put on the market by some known or unknown firm. These do not form completed narratives, but they are a clear stylistic whole. Their sequence is numerical, not about content. These series' were a commercial offering, not an attempt to provide any coherent, broadly constructed photographic interpretation of a city. In the first place, I think of the images produced by Neurdein, of Paris, and those by G.H. Productions, an abbreviation for Gustave Hermans. I also think of the beautiful work produced by Pietro Poppi (1833-1914) and his Fotografia dell'Emilia (in the Cassa di Risparmio archives, in Bologna). Here, a commercial enterprise spoke as a collective voice in the service of an anonymous tourist market. Other series' were produced as official commissions, such as those by Alexander Simays (in the Maastricht city archives) and Alfons Watteyne (in the Bruges archives). Both of these are inventories. I think of the Bertinazzi portfolio in the mobiletto at the Cineteca in Bologna, a series of photographs devoted to the far-reaching renovations of the Via Farini in Bologna just before 1870.

It is precisely this serial (a-syntagmatic) quality that would fascinate late twentieth-century photographers, printmakers and theorists, more than their completed (syntagmatic) literary value. The series did not propose any future completion, and was therefore not an argument, made no value judgements, no declaration by photographic means, but maintained a consistent distance from its urban and architectural information. Today, this bureaucratic indifference seems to be more fundamentally photographic and graphic than an engaged argument.

The growing perfection of mechanical printing of photographs not only made the printed card explosion possible, but it also gave photography a completely new podium in architectural magazines. Periodical publications proved the ultimate player in the system that commissioned photographers. They were a player, moreover, that fundamentally rewrote the rules. No longer were there merely urban views (good for tourism), for the focus was now the photography of architecture. In these often stunning photographs, in the Belgian magazine, L'Emulation, for example, in portfolios by the Antwerp firm, Jos Maes (1838-1908), in the Historische Städtebilder album by Gurlitz, it was no longer a narrative, historic consciousness that was doing the thinking, but the structure of the typological investigation: not synthesis, but analysis and fragmentation. Here, the photographed and printed subject is a preparatory study on the architect's drawing board, in the thought process of a design studio, no longer the thought process of a city itself. Photography here became an instrument of a scientific approach, no longer the echoing storyteller. A building, moreover, was no longer unique, but was now a model. The confusing density of urbanity disappeared irretrievably in these majestic dissections, intended as grandiose homage to architecture.

Back to top