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Visual Motif, Spatial Theme

When looking at images, one primarily sees the subject matter or motif in those images purely as a physical given. A city gate is there to be looked at, to be understood from a visual perspective. Clearly, this is a reduction. The visual motif is derived from a three-dimensional object with a volume, an environment of its own, with direction, proportions, materials and textures, but it is most of all a compelling invitation to explore trajectories. What is depicted is not just a visual motif, but is in the first place a strong and very specific spatial theme.

The photographer had to arrange himself in advance – literally. He had to walk to the site, seek an angle, adjust his direction and distance. He had to carry out a complex kinetic plan [8] according to the network of routes which that gate or wall generated, as a three-dimensional theme. Because of the vantage point he took – facing the volume and in respect to the way the light falls – he was essentially absorbed into a sense of space. If we walk around the gates of Maastricht, Bologna en Bruges with the old photographs in our hands, we immediately glean a rich harvest of kinetic and spatial information from these seemingly just visual pictures. We not only see the solutions that were taken into consideration, but also countless other possible solutions that were not considered. An exclusively visual reading of the images shifts the selected standpoint to the forefront, as a sole solution. It thus casts a shadow over all the alternatives and most of all over the fact that the photographer indeed had to make a choice. Why did the photographer’s route end at that vantage, that standpoint? Was it there that for him, the majority of the possibilities for that particular subject came together? What then were the so-called possibilities at that particular moment?

It is striking that the logic or thinking behind most of the photographic material that we have available is limited to the visual motif: people aimed for immediate recognition of the construction. The complex and exciting three-dimensional character and theme of the gates were consequently lost in the background. This would seem to have everything to do with the fact that the walls and gates had fallen into disuse. People no longer knew what they were there for. Without their having any social function, people no longer understood their three-dimensional form, no longer knew why they had been built the way they were. Photographers and their audiences were satisfied with being able to show or see volume, a mass. They were increasingly less able to see their function.

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