Made in Belgium

The interview: Dirk Braeckman

Photography courtesy of Zeno X Gallery Antwerp

One of the most prominent photographers of his generation, Ghent-based Dirk Braeckman’s work has been enjoying something of an increased interest of late, with exhibitions in Leuven (M Museum) and Antwerp (at Zeno X Gallery, which ends this Saturday), artist books (to be published in conjunction with the exhibition in Leuven, and which will include many previously unpublished images) as well as a documentary on Belgian television (aired last night on Canvas’ Goudvis). A teacher at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Braeckman is known for his grey-scaled works that owe as much to his accute sense of composition as to his restrained approach (he sometimes doesn’t develop his rolls years after having shot them). With his exhibition at M Museum spanning his entire career to date (from early-beginning self portraits and later years landscape images to his most recent experimentation with digital photography), Braeckman cements his reputation as the grand-daddy of Belgian fine art photography. We met up with him a couple of days after the opening to talk analogue photography, eliminating colour and working against photography as a medium.

(Scroll to the bottom of the page for an image gallery review of the exhibition, shot by Joke De Wilde)

Photography Joke De Wilde

At the moment there are two exhibitions of your work in Belgium. Do you actually have a say in how your photos are displayed?

Yes. For the exhibition in Leuven – my biggest so far – I wanted the hanging to be very classical. 12 years ago I had a completely different approach: For example I did a show with mainly small prints, all hanging in one row and very close to each other to give it a cinematic feeling. Now, when the moment for an overview of my work had come, I prefer to keep the pictures apart and want to let them stand for themselves – even though there will of course always be a dialogue between the pieces. There is also book, something that is very important to me. It is not just a usual publication to accompany the exhibition. It includes about 350 images, many of which are published for the first time and in the book only – they don’t even exist as prints. It is a piece of art in itself – I see the book as an additional independent space to present my work.

What is your way of working? Do you arrange your photographs or are they more spontaneous snapshots?

My way of working is very impulsive. I never know what I want before I actually start shooting. I don’t arrange the setting. The golden thread running through my work is the autobiographical aspect – but not in an obvious way. It is autobiographical in the sense that I photograph things close to me, what is around me.  And in the end it matters more in which way I print it and how I photograph something than what.

It matters more how I photograph something, not what.

You recently started with landscape photography – can you tell us more about that? Is this the current focus of your work?

It all started with a sponsorship by Nikon. They gave me their best camera on the market and in order to see what it can do I travelled around a bit. That’s how I started photographing nature. But in the end my landscape images have the same feeling to them as my interior ones. For example I kept the habit of concentrating on little details. Currently landscapes are my main motifs and I photograph much more outside. I guess I needed that after 25 years of working in rather enclosed places. But as I said, the looks and atmosphere of the photos stays the same and it is a logical continuation of my work.

Some of these landscape photos are displayed in the exhibition in Leuven.

Yes. They actually refer to the origin of the world and are partly inspired by the same-titled painting of Gustave Courbet. Many people do not recognize this reference though.

Photography courtesy of Zeno X Gallery Antwerp

Do you have a favourite picture in the exhibition?

It’s hard to say, there are quite a few of them. There is this one image though where I eliminate almost everything with the flash – all you see is structure. It’s probably my most secretive picture, the most intriguing, mysterious and abstract. I took it about six years ago and some people even considered it as the final point of my work and asked me: ‘What now?’ It is a very important picture for me.

You almost only photograph in black and white – is there a specific reason for that?

Eliminating colours means eliminating information. It becomes more suggestive. And even if an image is black and white – you can always feel the colours. It is not necessary to display them. Coloured images feel more like illustrations to me. When I do use colour I do it in a rather monochrome way, as an artificial yellow light for example.

In a way I work against the medium and do the opposite of what photography is originally meant for.

You mentioned the elimination of information in your photos – what is the reason behind that?

This is a very important aspect of my work. I delete all references to when and where the picture is taken. In a way I work against the medium and do the opposite of what photography is originally meant for. My goal is to make the viewer guess and wonder. I want the image to stand by itself – a story is not necessary. It could be taken anywhere. I don’t want to show a certain reality, rather a sensation. My pictures are very tactile, they become objects, like a painting – many viewers actually want to touch them.

Who are the people in your photos? Are they people you randomly meet on the street? Or do you work with models?

No, they are all people I meet, some I know well, others just for one night. As I mentioned already, I never stage the setting, but I can still stir it into a certain direction if I want to. But the subjects of my pictures are not important. It is much more about an inner reality, my state of mind, a very personal perspective. Sometimes you don’t see the person on the picture, but they are in the room and you can feel their presence. I don’t want things to be too evident.

Photography courtesy of Zeno X Gallery Antwerp

You recently started experimenting with digital cameras. What are the biggest differences between analogue and digital photography? What are the advantages and disadvantages?

They are two completely different things. With analogue photography you always have this mystery of what will be the outcome in the end, you don’t see directly what you photographed. Using digital cameras there is no process, the result is there immediately and I can’t do the printing myself – something that is very important to me. I’m not a big fan of technology and computers. I need to spend time in the darkroom, I need the physical act of developing the picture myself.

So you never use digital cameras?

Sometimes I do, some of the big prints in the Leuven exhibition are made with a digital camera. I also combine both methods from time to time. For example I take pictures with a very small camera or even a mobile phone and then photograph them again on the screen with an analogue camera. I like to experiment and I’ve never followed the common rules of photography. But yes, I prefer the analogue way – a very nostalgic reaction, I know.

I’ve never followed the common rules of photography.

Is digital photography changing photography as an artform?

Many young photographers nowadays first look at all the technical possibilities and then think about the image – in my opinion that is the wrong approach. I first come up with an idea and then I choose the tool to realise it with. But with all the possibilities opening up through digital technology this is changing into the other direction.

Dirk Braeckman

Until 8th January 2012

M Museum Leuven, Leopold Vanderkelenstraat 28, 3000 Leuven