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Corpus 3 — An Anonymous Masterpiece: Bruges - Promenades d'un Amateur-Photographe

This album, now in the Bruges Municipal Archives, is unsigned and undated. All 27 pages, with stitched cardboard covers and each bearing a single photograph, have been cut out, without being numbered. The original structure of the album is consequently no longer recoverable. The pages are now found throughout the entire archive, with the exception of ten images still in the original cover. The photographs were glued in, with a subtle cream-coloured border about a centimetre thick, on a sheet of off-white. An attractive, handwritten title page with the text, Bruges - Promenades d'un Amateur-Photographe, gives us the author's purpose, as well as his intention to remain anonymous. The maker made himself known to be a person who took walks and was an amateur photographer.

With this description, the maker in fact presented himself as a professional photographer with no commercial ambitions, typical of the fin de siècle. Such a position was defended and upheld by such photographic clubs as the Cercle Photographique de Bruges (1887-1922), which would begin publishing the magazine Vers l'Art in 1905. The local elite were members. The designation of the promenade or 'walk' also says a great deal. New photographic equipment was by this time available to the marching photographers. Previously, photography had been a laborious, physically demanding activity allowing no reconciliation with the freedom and the improvization of the casual walk. In this period, the walking tour and the bicycle tour were new recreational activities, a new way of getting to know the city and its surroundings. It was certainly no coincidence that prior to this album, it is impossible for us to find so many images of the outskirts of Bruges, with greenery, parks, gardens and pastures.

These pictures were taken in the summer, in strong sunlight. That atmosphere is extremely rare in the other material. The attention it paid to the parks and greenery of the city permitted a gentle play between stone and trees: the city as a garden (was there some connection with the municipal parks service?). Inside the city, the photographer saw monuments from exceptional perspectives. He redefined the views. He made the city into what was in principle an endless series of possible views, which were as many alternatives to the canonized views of the city. The album shows surprising variations, subtle shifts, new poetic suggestions concerning familiar monuments. At work here was a photographer who used vantage points and framing on behalf of a very intimate declaration of his love for the city.

The images are more often vertical than horizontal. The photographer exploited the 'above and below' arrangement in preference to the prevailing 'next to'. The pictures have a vertical, rearing dynamic, indeed not that of the majestic portraits of monuments by Fierlandts or Daveluy, but in a progressive build-up from below to above, from close by (in front) to far away (at the top of the image), from left or right front to high centre. The photographer cared more about what was in front (low and close to his vantage point) than about the height in the image. For this reason, he emphatically anchored his images in the weave of the city, which was, after all, the primary material for each of his walks.

His promenades were not like those of the tourists, but circled around them. The series therefore did not take over the city and make it its own, but tried to explore and feel it; did not spell out the city's identity in its monuments, but conversed with the city from as many vantage points as hypotheses. It questioned the life in the shadow of its history. This is also the tenor of the work of Khnopff and Rodenbach, but in their work, life had bowed to melancholy. Here, it is sunny and discrete. The album is loving and slightly paternalistic.

The series is unique in the ability of its images to say 'I' - not an authoritarian I, measuring itself as an equal to the subject, but one that mused, experienced these monuments as background. The photographer continually made connections between the place where the walker stood and the monument, as a reference point. This lends many of the pictures a refreshing movement from close by to far away, from the daily life of the city to its historic character. No other series speaks with such grace and charm, nor in such an intimately experienced manner. None of the images is actually naïve. The whole is most of all serene. The series adds an extremely original voice to the canon of our visual image patrimony.

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