Beyond the Document – Contemporary Belgian Photographers / Center for Fine Arts, Brussels

Center for Fine Arts, Brussels

Beyond the Document
Contemporary Belgian Photographers
29.06 > 25.09.2011

The exhibition explores the links between artistic and documentary photography; it includes works by 14 Belgian photographers: Gilbert Fastenaekens, Thomas Chable, Chantal Maes, Philippe Herbet, Christine Felten, Véronique Massinger, Vincen Beeckman, Arno Roncada, Jan Kempenaers, Bert Danckaert, Nick Hannes, Herman van den Boom, Lara Dhondt, and Karin Borghouts.

Jan Kempenaers

Jan Kempenaers The Bunker #1, 2010
Courtesy of the artist
© Jan Kempenaers

Documentary versus art photography

The impact of photography on contemporary (visual) culture is colossal. Photography – and digital image-processing technology more generally – permeates just about every sector of social life: professional, private, artistic, fiction, and non-fiction. The vast array of visual material being produced threatens to devalue the image itself; the choice of photographs to be published tends to be made more on the basis of their likely mediagenic impact than on their content or their documentary value. This means that we are suffering from a strange kind of censorship in reportage, whereby only those images make it into the public eye that meet the requirements of a particular kind of commercial sensationalism . Every image, moreover, can be rapidly and almost imperceptibly manipulated; this has damaged the credibility that reportage photography enjoyed in the past. There is a question mark again over how objectively our images are created. One initial reaction is a tendency to turn one's back on a visual culture that is too all-pervasive and commercial and to advocate a purified minimising of the production of images. What we need, however, is not fewer images, but different images: documentary images with a value that is not merely mediagenic.

Since the 1970s art has also taken an interest in the documentary picture. Artists appropriated the neutral, objective, documentary image as the basis for their work and incorporated it into subjective, conceptual works of art. In photography interest in documentary images owed much to the work of the German couple Bernd and Hilla Becher. Their extremely distilled way of dealing with images of industrial archaeology resulted in extensive series that, because of their approach and concept, were seen as works of art rather than as mere historical documents.

Bernd and Hilla Becher had many followers: photographers who approached documentary images from a subjective, artistic angle – not with the intention of minimising the documentary element, but with a view to adding to its value. Over the last three decades much of international photography has concerned itself with social and historical reality in relation to the subjective, conceptual, or generally artistic. Photographers stage or dramatise reality, situate themselves in it as characters, or make series that take a highly individual concept as a starting point. The old dividing line between the work of art and the documentary image, between subjective interpretation and objective representation, has become blurred. Creative photography acts as an amplifier of the documentary.

Gilbert Fastenaekens

Gilbert Fastenaekens 02 – SITE, Cahier des coins, Bruxelles 1990 – 1996
Courtesy of the artist
© Gilbert Fastenaekens

Nick Hannes

Nick Hannes – Brest, Belarus 2008
Courtesy of the artist
© Nick Hannes

The photographers selected

So what have Belgian contemporary photographers contributed to this great laboratory of “creative images”? As on the international art photography scene, in Belgium too a certain kind of photography has balanced between images with a strongly documentary slant and “tableaux” that are conceptual or metaphorical. The Beyond the Document exhibition looks at contemporary Belgian photography that combines the “documentary” with the “work of 3art” – in which subjectivity and objectivity, fiction and non-fiction, reportage and concept are intermingled in a single image. This is a highly particular selection of Belgian photographs: the exhibition does not aim to present an anthology of contemporary Belgian photography as a whole.

Of the 14 photographers selected, Gilbert Fastenaekens is the one who has been working on this kind of creative production of images the longest. His work takes as its starting point particular typologies, on the basis of which he approaches the reality of a(n urban) landscape. In Beyond the Document he presents eight monumental photo-documentaries about Brussels, each based on a particular kind of city view that, in combination with the others, provides an orchestrated experience of the city.

Equally conceptual in his approach, Herman Van den Boom devised his series devoted to Belgian gardens according to extremely strict criteria on the basis of a sophisticated idea of his own about them.

In his representations of landscapes, Arno Roncada also works in terms of definite concepts such as “loneliness”, “expanse”, and “insignificance”. In the work of Jan Kempenaers imposing debris from building sites becomes a metaphor for “monument”, “decline”, or “history”. In Bert Danckaert‘s extremely measured city scenes, walls have become abstract paintings, seascapes, or exercises in perspective.

In Thomas Chable, Philippe Herbet, and Lara Dhondt‘s pictures the subjective experience has become intrinsic to the photography. Thomas Chable’s La peau des choses combines images from different reportages into a single large visual story on the wall, a metaphor for travel in general and the universal feeling of estrangement. Philippe Herbet’s reportage about Belarus is backed up by a passionate piece of fiction written by himself, while Lara Dhondt documents concepts such as “house”, “protection”, and “security” in her photographs.

The metaphorical can also be seen smouldering subtly in the reportages by Nick Hannes.

Chantal Maes, for her part, attempts to show in stereo images the intangible moment of transition from one situation to another, while the Felten-Massinger photographic duo also tries to capture the transience of time and Karin Borghouts creates pictures in which what is absent is the most prominent subject.

Vincen Beeckman‘s huge installation documents the social reality of a Chinese restaurant, in which he works both with his own and recycled photographs and is himself one of the characters involved. For Vincen Beeckman photography is also a social act.

Philippe Herbet

Philippe Herbet – Two friends, Vladivostok, Russia (series Rhizome Oriental) 2007
Courtesy of the artist
© Philippe Herbet

Lara Dhondt

Lara Dhondt – 24m.00s. Shelters of Refuse series 2009
Courtesy of the artist
© Lara Dhondt

By focusing attention on the metaphorical, the abstract, the conceptual, and the invisible, these photographers teach us to take a more profound look at documentary images. The Beyond the Document exhibition invites us to penetrate a world of contemporary photography in which the objective documentary image and the subjective, artistic approach are not contradictory, as tradition might accustom us to believe, but reinforce each other in pictures with unexpected layers of concept and experience.

Courtesy Center of Fine Arts, Brussles
Images © All rights reserved


Stampfli & Turci – Art Dealers

Disclaimer & Copyright


~ by Stampfli & Turci on July 24, 2011.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: