This latest exhibition brings together 14 photographers at the instigation of BOZAR
and the photography museums of Antwerp and Charleroi. Together, they examine the fine line that now separates documentary photography and fine art photography. The fact is that, since the 1980s, photography has been permanently elevated to the rank of art, but has never been so used in the vast stock of photo-journalism. This documentary and social veneer is brought out in art photographs which enhance the supporting document. Belgian photography does not escape this ambiguity between documentary framework and metaphoric and conceptual narration. Beyond the Document offers a unique snapshot, combining, in a single medium, objectivity and subjectivity, fiction and reality, report and concept, document and work of art. The exhibition Beyond the Document: Contemporary Belgian Photographers is on view from June 29th through September 25, 2011 at the Centre for Fine Arts. 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.
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.
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 art" 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.
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.