Complete texts

Photographic Form

Looking at hundreds of prints unavoidably means looking for means of classifying them, by location, photographer, technique, format and so on. It was my intention, however, to seek to discover the way in which an image generates a visual discourse. To put it differently, how were articulate expressions applied to a two-dimensional surface? Earlier, I noted some of the crucial choices that photographers had: the presence or lack of figures in the image, the nature of the light and finally, what I call the mise en place, or staging, the way that elements were placed in relationship to one another. [10]

In the case of the gates as a subject, I have here concentrated on the selection of the vantage point. Along which side of the wall and from which angle did the photographer or artist produce his image? The image-maker had to choose in advance between two mutually exclusive positions: would he be standing outside the city or inside it? For the identification of the images, this produced such terms as interno and esterno, city side or agricultural side, based on the dichotomy of intra muros or extra muros, so laden with spatial affect. There was, of course, a possible third position, which was in fact very seldom selected. That was the position ‘from the wall’ and ‘along with the wall’. In Antwerp, Florent Joostens made many images of this kind, and in the much more recent album, Brugge Her-zien (Bruges Re-Viewed, 1986) Georges Charlier included one such picture. Verbrugge chose that vantage point surprisingly often, where Goethals did so but once. [11] It was the fortification, the wall itself that created the vantage point and, as a consequence, the wall came into the picture. It is a point from which the circumscribing wall, the city centre and the surrounding grassland can all be seen together in a single image.

If the fortifying wall was allowed to be the prevalent sensation for the illustrator, for adventure novels and adventure films, it was not so for the visual culture of the tourist, nor for documentary inventory. Cavazza, for example, never climbed the walls, even though there were scores of demolition workers at the top, standing there in spectacular fashion. Weijnen also photographed city gates with people on top of them, but did not go up there himself. Today, this is the very first thing you want to do. Taking a position on top of the wall is again giving it some sense – albeit a purely aesthetic one. But what had lost its meaning for society was something people could not immediately perceive as beautiful. On the contrary, such lack of meaning was anti-aesthetic. The vertical axis from the top of the walls – once so crucial – was not rediscovered during the 19th century.

The second choice the photographer had to make was for either a frontal or a diagonal, more angular position. A frontal view meant that he placed himself on the axis looking down – or up – the road beneath the gate, that he took up a position along the route on which the gate had been constructed. If he was on the outside, then he looked into the city, and if he was inside the gate, he would be looking out into the fields. This now usually meant the city’s outlying neighbourhoods. It is striking that this frontal vantage point, which was most in line with the function of the gate, is in fact very seldom seen (21 examples in the entire collection at my disposal). This was no coincidental decision, but a direct censorship, a denial of the city gate as such. Instead, it was the diagonal view that dominated, making the actual structure of the gate impossible to see. The building no longer has an opening, but has become a closed mass. One could not have indicated its semantic and spatial redefinition more strongly.

The third choice was the view from the left or the right. In this respect, it is remarkable that each gate was primarily depicted from only one single angle. You see the standard selection showing up everywhere. On-site verification of this offers no definitive reason why this was the case. That the view of the Gentpoort, from the outside, is not from the left but from the right is explained by the presence of an industrial building with high chimneys on the other side, but in the case of other gates, there is nothing in the pictures or the locations today that leads us to suspect anything of a similar nature. There is a law of persistence at work in this iconography, one that is supported by an exclusively visual reading of the urban subject matter. A certain profile of the Ezelpoort, for example, was necessary to present it in a sellable fashion. A different, unfamiliar profile was not adequate, because although people may recognize the building, they don’t recognize the image – the picture. This explains my admiration for the anonymous Bruges Promenades d’un Amateur-Photographe, in which the Gentpoort has been photographed from the outside left, and half of the image is filled by the massive factory building. Given the prevailing censorship in visual form, this is the expression of an aesthetically and intellectually independent photographer.

The fourth choice that had to be made was the specific angle of the diagonal perspective in relation to the facade, on either the city or the outside of the facade. That angle is almost never greater than 45 degrees. Only in the early 20th century do we see (for example, across from the Kruispoort in Cornelius Gurlitt’s pictures for the Historische Städtebilder, or in a photograph by Henri Berssenbrugge) the appearance of a very small angle. And it was immediately a portent for the new ‘diagonal’ visual language. It was based on an elliptic culture supported by considerable advance knowledge of the motif or subject and it limited itself to a fragmentary, schematic or deformed presentation of that motif: people would recognize it anyway. The motif was thus reduced to a simplified icon and divested of its character as object or thing. It was a game played with an all-too-familiar form, not an encounter or confrontation with a compact object.

From all this, we see that the most ‘natural’ vantage point for depicting the gates, namely that which presents its use, its function and the structure associated with them, disappeared from the standard images when those functions died out. The diagonal presentation – indeed, usually from the same angle on the left, or from the right when the pictures were taken from outside – became the visual norm. It is evident here that the three-dimensional theme has been lost and that only a two-dimensional visual motif remains. ‘Striking’ a most ‘unnatural’ perspective with a very small angle created a shift from the norm and a new spatial dynamic in the image. That dynamic did virtually no justice to the spatial themes of the gate itself, but trapped them into a different optical paradigm, no longer that of military ballistics and transport, but the purely optical paradigm of a free-floating, purely aesthetic visual statement. (In its way, this was a grasping for power, the way the Baroque princes’ ballistic vantage point was also a grasp for power.)

The ‘pictorial’ photographers consequently rediscovered a number of possibilities that people had in fact been exploiting a century earlier. There was considerable attention to the placement of the gate in an environment, the accentuation of a personal vantage point in respect to the gate, the creation of visually exciting images which, certainly in the case of Verbrugge and Schaepkens, revealed very little about the gates themselves. It is moreover not insignificant to point out that the small angle implied a vantage point that was very close to the wall itself. Verbrugge and Schaepkens chose to stand farther from the axis of the road and closer to the line of the wall.

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