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Corpus 2 — The Neurdein Album in Prints

The Parisian firm, Neurdein, whose collection was purchased by Roger-Viollet, Rue de Seine, produced numerous photographs in Bruges. They are easy to recognize by the text in white at the bottom of the image: a number, place name, subject and the N.D. abbreviation. The Antwerp Museum of Photography and the Bruges Municipal Archives sometimes have the same photographs in two versions: in large formats with the number '100', and in small, sometimes slightly cropped versions, with the number '200'. (George Rodenbach made use of this Neurdein material for his broad photographic illustrations for the first printing of Bruges-la-Morte.)

These beautiful, razor-sharp albumin prints were the apex in commercial photography for travellers. If the canonized city views seem to have the Delepierre album (which in turn relied on other references) as their starting point, they all seem to have culminated in the Neurdein series. These are stately, almost all horizontal images, in which a panoramic sense of overview dominates the portrait format set up around the monuments. The idea of an urban whole thus makes an emphatic entrance, the city as the sum of entities (as in Daveluy, with primarily vertical images of monuments). The Neurdein images do not acknowledge any individual examples, but primarily express a sense of the ensemble. It is clear that the photographers introduced no hierarchy into their images, nor did they apply unusual accents in their collections. Because of this, there is a certain indifference running through the series, equal treatment of all monuments in their urban setting. A Bruges inhabitant would b unable to repress a greater involvement, while the Neurdien photographer had no bias to burden him. He sought the ideal combination of the monuments he was required to record and the environments that surrounded them. For the photographer and his client, the sensation of the unknown environment he discovered was an essential part of the monument itself. It was no longer a central point as a crystallization of local history, but the impressionistic, total impression of the many reverberations created together by monuments and the homes of a city's inhabitants.

In the older images by Daveluy, Fierlandts and Goethals, we are struck by a kind of gnarly quality. Compared with the melodious charm of the Neurdein images, they seem to be awkward pictures produced in a posture of stiff-eyed greeting. The Neurdein images were produced from the point of view of the belle époque. The patina of the city and the image is elegant, sharp, even a touch cynical. The atmosphere is not nationalistic, but cosmopolitan. The photographer was not wrestling with either his technique or his subject. A somewhat nonchalant self-awareness of the technical and visual perfection is clearly conspicuous. So it seems that one can photograph all the cities of the world this way. It is photographic standardization, but at the highest level. It again offers the city as a décor (the way the world expositions presented them, to then let them disappear).

In this series, Bruges presented itself as the ultimate theatrical fantasy, far removed from the intellectual adventure of those who were restoring it, the conservative, particularistic defenders of a Flemish style. The Neurdein images move through all this with a purely aesthetic and formal sensitivity to the city as an effect in its own right. In these images, Bruges is an abstraction, an international fantasy, more the extension of French bathing spas than the bastion of a British catholic revival.

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