“I try to charge my images so much, I go to such extremes in that darkness…”
From z.Z(t). Ludion, Ghent / Amsterdam, 1998
Is it really the role of an artist who is still active to talk about his own motivations? As a source, he is suspect. With a view to an ‘endangered’ future, it is probably preferable that art critics, in particular, should be mistaken.
– Marcel Broodthaers, 1975
Dirk Braeckman: I don’t think it’s my place to say how people should look at my images. I make images and they are there. My work is exhibited, people talk about it, write about it, whereas for me the act of making photographs remains the essential thing. I never feel freer than when I’m taking photographs.
Erik Eelbode: What we can try to do with this conversation is to paint a picture of where your work is at this moment—z.Z(t), zur Zeit—as the title of your book says. So that we can try and find a way in via your own thoughts about your work.
DB: I don’t set out with a predefined goal. Everything merges together. In that sense it’s hard for me to talk about ‘where my work is at’ at present. My work isn’t divided into series, periods or subjects; it just goes on, continuously. To some extent you could see my work from around 1992 onwards as separate from my earlier images, but even then there were a number of ‘autonomous’ works that suggested a transition, even though they were incidental to the things I was working on at the time. That photo of the back of someone’s head, for example E-101-92, has become for me a pivotal image linking my recent and early work.
EE: Quite a few texts continually return to the ‘beginning’ of your work: the tormented portraits, the ‘action painting with developer’, the dark side of life and how ‘different’ that has become in your recent work. If you were to put your own development into words yourself today, how would you describe it?
DB: It’s certainly not the case that at a certain point I was only interested in empty spaces, or systematically set about eliminating all the characters from my pictures. Based on what I do now, however, I look at my earlier work in a different way. You could say that the self-portraits and portraits I used to make had something of the ‘document’ about them, whereas now the central theme is more about an ‘experience’. It’s sometimes claimed that my recent works are ‘portraits’ of spaces, but really you could just as easily turn that around: several of the portraits in my earlier work were to a certain extent already images of ‘spaces’, as I now see them.
At the same time, the label that was attached to my photos very early on is proving stubborn. The same clichés keep on turning up in article after article. Admittedly, I still don’t make optimistic, colourful pictures, but I still believe I’m doing something totally different in my work now. Perhaps I’m exaggerating a bit now, but for me there’s even a certain lightness in my work today. Never literally, of course, but sometimes I try to charge my images so much, I go to such extremes in that darkness, that everything starts tilting and is put into a different perspective. That’s my intention, too, and that is almost never mentioned.
EE: You still say that with sincere surprise.
DB: Of course! If you really want to recount extremely negative things, you would make different pictures, surely? You might get more involved in reality, for example, collect harrowing documents, compile horror-reportages. Whereas I still play with reality, ultimately. I have never wanted to shock—never, not in my portraits, not in my nudes, my self-portraits, my architectural images. I certainly don’t go to the last extremes in those images. I keep the negative side on a playful level, in my own way. And I don’t just want to show ‘something’, positive or negative. I try to create an image.
EE: Is it in that sense that you just talked about your photos as ‘autonomous’ images?
DB: I think that’s an important point, which has to do with a great many factors. It even has to do with the locations where I exhibit my work—or no longer want to exhibit—but without any doubt at all it has to do with how my images work, absolutely. I believe more and more in the importance of the autonomy of the image. There is the confrontation with that photo and the rest is really irrelevant.
EE: Your images have to speak for themselves.
DB: Yes. Every image is a unified whole. To a certain extent it stands alone. It functions as an entity on its own, and can in fact be exhibited independently. Think of the photo of the TV screen S.O.-H.O.-96, and especially of ‘The Mountain’ C.O.-I.S.L.-94, in which this problem is perhaps shown most sharply. At the same time, this only applies to a certain extent. The interaction between the images is equally essential. In quite a few of my recent exhibitions, for example, ‘The Mountain’ image functions as a sort of hint for the way in which the other works, which at that particular moment are connected with it, can be seen.
EE: How can or should they be seen in your view?
DB: That’s hard for me to say. I’d rather provide that hint with an image.
“For example, I’ve made five negatives of ‘Bathroom’ B.P.-P.A.-96, and only one of them has it; the other four don’t. But that’s not something I can explain.”
EE: How shouldn’t they be seen?
DB: They are often approached in a strictly formal or purely anecdotal fashion. And there are dangers, in this book too, of a distortion: you not only miss the impact of the large format, the effects of the photo as an object in space—a much greater concentration of photos has been brought together here than I will ever put in an exhibition—but also, a book always suggests a demarcation, that your work will be seen as, say, a part of your oeuvre that is over once and for all—whereas I want to continue seeing my work as provisional on all levels. To counter this tendency, we would have to try to give the book its own open ‘architecture’, in which existing images as well as yet unused negatives are given a place. A book that works more as an object itself, rather than as a look back at an oeuvre.
EE: It could be one of the ambitions of our conversations to offer a few suggestions on how to react to your work. Not a manual for how to view a Braeckman ‘under all conditions’, but a number of tips which emerge from the things we try to express about your photos, about how you think, the associations you make or how you handle images.
DB: It is often just as intuitive as my work itself. You would quite simply have to be able to translate simultaneously, I’m afraid. I can’t put something like that into words very easily. Nor can I explain why I enlarge a given image at a given moment and hang it on the wall in preference to another. For example, I’ve made five negatives of ‘Bathroom’ B.P.-P.A.-96, and only one of them has it; the other four don’t. But that’s not something I can explain. At the end of the day it’s a measured choice, a small movement to the left or right; the light is slightly different, or there’s a nuance which emerges during printing in the darkroom, and all of a sudden there’s a world of difference.
EE: The image of the bathroom is in any event a complex one. It’s not something you would make right at the beginning of your career, but is refined by nearly twenty years of intensive contact with images. Can you say something about the building up of that experience?
DB: That’s hard. It’s a question of intuition. The words I use aren’t sufficient to explain it. I could say, for example, that it has to do with ‘eliminating’, reducing things to a certain ‘essence’, but that all sounds a bit simplistic. Despite my experience, this is still merely a beginning for me; my images are just sketches; it can get much more extreme. Though I do wonder whether those images will still be legible, whether I won’t be making them only for myself, and even whether I’ll ever exhibit them. I’m already doing it occasionally—making pictures effectively for myself only, as an exercise in my ‘image language’. I have a huge number of negatives that I will never print or exhibit, will never dare to exhibit.
EE: But did you mean that when you said that ‘Bathroom’ is a complex image? That it isn’t immediately clearly legible or that the underlying intention isn’t immediately obvious?
DB: You see fairly quickly what it is: a bathroom. In the first instance that doesn’t say very much. Then you can try to place this photo on the basis of your knowledge or expectations. In an unguarded moment you could interpret the flashlight on the tiled wall purely as a narrative hint or as an unsubtle suggestion of the presence of the photographer. You can also take it more seriously and consider the abstract charge of the image, which still accompanies the recognisable subject and which ultimately neutralises it and forces you to seek a different interpretation There is in any event a switching of elements and associations, which can indicate that this is not an image created by someone who has just come to have a look.
“It comes down to a perpetual exercise in looking, in experiencing a space, things, a reality.”
Perhaps I should try to formulate what I’m thinking when I portray something. It comes down to a perpetual exercise in looking, in experiencing a space, things, a reality. For me there’s something very existential about it. Just ‘being there’ and the confrontation with where you are, how you feel something and reconcile it with everything you’ve experienced or seen. How it is lodged in your head, really? Why do I look at this particular subject and photograph it? How it makes a fundamental difference when something is included or left out in a certain way. I don’t base this on any sort of theory or argumentation, I just realise almost intuitively that it plays a role. You gradually develop a more or less accurate imagery, in which all details are present because they are important. You build up an image from a number of elements, or more accurately, you look for ways to eliminate. You are somewhere; you’re standing in a setting and then—at least that’s what I feel when I’m photographing—you start to leave things out. It’s like compressing a film shot to a single image. I stand in front of a building or enter a room, which appeals to me from the first moment, and I sometimes stay there for a long time; I ‘undergo’ the place and try to get to the essence. And that is what I have to photograph, to articulate what I experience at that moment. Nothing else.
EE: What does that essence come down to? The ‘pure’ image, that ultimately refers only to itself, as is sometimes said about ‘The Mountain’, for example?
DB: Well, in any event it’s no longer primarily about what’s in the picture. In reality I can work on anything anywhere, making use of a few real entry points. Things that most people pass by, but that are highly recognisable and which in a sense enable me to show a new reality, without having to manipulate anything.
EE: You also don’t seek out those places or situations; you don’t choose them; they’re just there. What’s the essence then? Hasn’t not choosing in fact become a sort of choice for you? Are there criteria, which your places must meet?
DB: No, definitely not the latter. Then it would be almost like filming, a set that you put together. I really don’t go looking for that, never. It’s the way I am. It’s the places where I always go. It’s not a quest for something that is valuable for some other reason. Take the image ‘Bench’, next to a lift B.L.-N.Y.-94. That is sometimes interpreted in remarkably different ways. There are people who assume that a bench is for sitting on, for waiting and that someone has just got up and walked away, but it’s not really about that literal metaphor. I’m not trying to suggest a ‘literature’ of those spaces as passages, of places where you have to wait and ultimately never stay. No, that bench is that bench; in a bathroom you have a bath.
Perhaps it’s simply my intention to make pictures which are infinitely recognisable—it is a tiled wall, a bathroom wall—but a bathroom whose recognisability simultaneously prevents you from dishing up some other story. The image is an image, separate from those anecdotes, those metaphors, which people seem to find so necessary. Perhaps I do want to make things that can’t be totally fathomed. And for me that’s only possible through photography. You have the image before you; it is not purely formal, but you also can’t immediately define it in some other way. At most you can say what’s on it, but that’s not what matters. I really do want to go to the point where there’s only that image.
EE: An image is made. However that is done, it requires technique. Can we say anything about what you actually do with an image by considering the techniques used in your photos—viewpoint, method of photographing, format, method of printing, and so on?
DB: It starts with the composition, the framing. I will never move something or take up extreme viewpoints. I don’t use a tripod and photograph from wherever I happen to be standing or sitting. To some extent I make ‘bad’ photos.
EE: In what sense? Not a ‘bad’ photo as a strategy or fashionable gimmick, the faked ‘failed’ clichés which today…
“I’m interested in feeling out and playing with certain photographic conditions…”
DB: They’re certainly not anti-images, no. By ‘bad’ photos I mean that I try to ignore the prevailing norms of photography. Without arriving at a new norm. I’m interested in feeling out and playing with certain photographic conditions, the frame, the transience of a small-format photo, the statement of monochrome or colour, the lack of focus, the light. I want them to continue surprising me, that I can never take them for granted. What it’s still about for me is the first impression when you walk into a room. That experience of that very first entrance definitely helps to determine how the image of that place, that ultimate synthesis that we talked about earlier, will be made. And I also want to see that first glance recorded on film.
EE: That takes us back to what Gary Winogrand said; as you’ve quoted him in your first book, he says that he “photographs in order to see what something looks like when it’s photographed”.
DB: That still applies to some extent, although my work has absolutely nothing to do with Winogrand’s, nor with his sometimes literally ‘bad’ photography. That’s certainly not what it’s all about for me; if that’s all it was.
EE: You also don’t make snapshots. It’s not capturing an image on the fly. Your first glance is no longer an ‘impression’.
DB: No. That impression is processed. It goes further. Although my work still fits in more with the register of the ‘impression’—much more than, say, that rigid, analytical technical camera photography from the Becher school or the syntheses which reveal nothing and which are made of places by using very slow shutter times. Perhaps I want to spare the viewer ‘all’ details.
EE: Can we talk a little more about the technical aspects of your photography and the impact it has on the way in which the images function? When printing, for example, do you intervene depending on the ‘character’ of a place?
DB: Everything is really kept quite sec. I print my work as uniformly as possible, irrespective of the intentions of a particular image. Format, surface, grey tints bring everything to the same level, but if you look carefully at the shot, what and how has been photographed, there’s a great deal of difference. I also try to arrive at a certain essence when printing. By keeping it dark and grey or printing out of focus, I eliminate some of the information, which distracts from the core. In this way I try to create a pared-down situation, with which the viewer is assaulted. The key thing is that I continually try to sharpen everything up. I leave tracks that appear to be very vague. They are all places where you can suspect that someone lives there or that a great deal has happened there or something. That that space has withstood a great deal or that people in that place have undergone a lot, but that you will never know.
“A sort of previsualisation? I do that automatically. I know more or less what it will look like in a photo. And that directs the way I take the photographs.”
EE: You’re now back at the character of the places themselves, not the way you portray them. I mean: a place is not enough in itself; you do something with it. ‘Finding’ places that you have an affinity with in one way or another isn’t enough. Because then you would just say: I’ve been here, there was something and I’m now providing evidence of that as clearly as possible. If you’re in a place like that, do you see it straight away as it might appear on one of your photos?
DB: A sort of previsualisation? I do that automatically. I know more or less what it will look like in a photo. And that directs the way I take the photographs. In that sense my shots, my negatives, are the working material I use for the second step in the darkroom. Both steps are in fact very close together. When I’m photographing, I’m also working in my darkroom; and when I’m printing, I remain involved with the moment I took the shot. Those two steps can never be separated entirely.
In the ritual of selecting, eliminating, making a selection from the negatives, printing, building up an exhibition, everything is so closely interrelated. They are all factors that determine the ‘aesthetics’ of my work. By that I mean that my work is presented to the outside world so that it can be experienced in the right way. In that sense aestheticising doesn’t detract from the content, is not a concession to the benefit or detriment of the intention. Working in this way is also in part my rejection of the wild, the artificial roughness in photography, the type of images which are currently so adored. You have to be careful with that approach, I think. That way, every photo can be ‘interesting’.
EE: Because there are no longer any boundaries. Everything is possible and ‘rien ne va plus’.
DB: That’s why I always seek to draw a boundary somewhere in my photography. My boundary, not the boundary. Though as I say, I’m realising more and more that I can obtain the material for an image from everywhere, and of course that’s akin to a sort of lack of boundaries, in the sense that I can photograph everything I see, and even more…
EE: But isn’t that idea of ‘anything goes’ different with you than with a great deal of other contemporary work? It’s not so much about the fact that everything can be turned into an image, or that every existing image can be reprinted. Even though the options are almost endless, you still make a selection, and ultimately it isn’t a random selection.
DB: It’s a question that’s occupying me a great deal at the moment: where is the boundary of my selection? Can I still push it back? That is my intention at any rate; I constantly seek to extend my boundaries. One of the images that I printed purely for this book B.C.-D.L.-98 is an example of that continual selection process, pushing back the boundaries. I deliberately decided to use a less-than-perfect, badly damaged negative of one of my photos. Yet again it’s my way of emphasising that it’s not about the portrayal, but about the area. That it’s not a transparency of reality, not a window. And yet it’s also not just about that. In the same sense, I also broaden my options by integrating image material I have found, for example, or by re-photographing parts of my own works.
EE: On the one hand you have a choice of images which is continually growing, and on the other hand you have your way of handling images, which is becoming more and more closely defined and specific. In the sense that it is becoming increasingly clear how you want to see them and portray them.
“I ultimately would like to ‘scan’ the whole world around me, everything I encounter in it.”
DB: That growing freedom of choice is a result of working more and more with the essence. It does seem like a contradiction. You’d expect that your options would become increasingly narrow and channelled as time went by. On the other hand, it can to some extent be a conclusion of everything that concerns me in my work. That I ultimately would like to ‘scan’ the whole world around me, everything I encounter in it, in my own, almost obsessive way. And that’s how I try to bring order to the chaos that bombards me. Even when I’m not using a camera.
EE: We were talking earlier about the boundaries of your choice. In more than one respect the given of those boundaries turns out to be significant whenever you talk about your work. You move around on the cutting edge of the anecdote, or on the boundaries of the subject; you sometimes explore the limits of the abstraction, occasionally approach the edge of the setting. You play with the boundary between coincidence and calculation, between innocence and experience…
DB: I work without a predetermined structure. Which means I also don’t consciously go in search of ‘boundaries’. If I find myself beginning to do so, I stop. Though that word ‘boundaries’ does indeed crop up often when I try to say something about my work. Perhaps that really is what it’s all about: continually playing with those boundaries. But that’s something you mustn’t take for granted. I want to be careful not to do that.
EE: And yet we could continue that notion of the ‘boundaries’ by talking, for example, about the ‘edge’ of the image, or about what can happen outside the image.
DB: For me, that’s linked first and foremost to the idea of ‘sharply’ framing—once again, therefore, to what’s going on just inside or just outside the image. In the picture of the hotel room H.O.-R.O.-97-K.A.-P.O.-01, for example, you can just see the corner of a sheet or a fragment of a lamp. Two details that were left in and which serve mainly to lead you out of the image. Which take the image further.
EE: How do you regard the edge of your image in that sense?
DB: That’s a very important question for me. It has to do with where the image stops and why it stops there.
EE: Quite a few photographers think about framing, for example, in terms of a delineation, the capturing of a moment in time. You have the frame just before that moment and again just after it whereas they, according to them, have precisely the right frame. Is that what it’s about for you too?
DB: To a certain extent, yes. That may surprise you. Of course it isn’t the ‘decisive moment’ of Cartier-Bresson, but…
EE: More in the sense that a certain place at a certain moment looks like that and not anything else.
DB: Yes. Of course, it’s about fractions of a second. But for me, that moment at that place is very important. Despite the fact that there appears to be no movement, that my images are so-called ‘still lifes’. The important thing is my standpoint, my intuition, and so on, but always at that particular moment. It’s not a still life. I’m not a still life. And yet something happens. It really is about that one moment. Although that is rarely, if ever, associated with my work, because there’s no immediately obvious action. But that action lies in my ‘experience’ of that moment and in the act of photographing, based on that ‘experience’. That’s why both space and time are so essential. And that’s why I don’t believe I could return to a place for a second time, for example, to make the same photo.
EE: Back to the edge of the image, the boundary. You decide to cut off a certain image at a certain point. Why?
DB: There the image is made. The image is formed on the edge.
EE: So do you know where those edges will come, or?
DB: When I’m photographing, I try to keep my movements to a minimum. What I do is make a sort of swaying movement. To extend my experiential moment—my ‘small format’. And then I make a choice, a cutout, from that image area. I never simply look straight ahead. I always look at the edges. I play with the edges. I always look in that way, even without my camera; it’s a continuous urge to concentrate on what’s just next to the image. Maybe it’s a bit paranoid. As if I constantly want to monitor my field of vision.
EE: A sort of mistrust of what escapes your field of vision? You can only see something if you look at it and you can never see everything all at the same time but is that a basis of paranoia?
DB: That runs through the way I live, so it’s also there in the way I photograph. My photos do certainly have a few paranoid facets. In the sense of a constant monitoring of my environment, my biotope. Monitoring that has to do with fear, always. And for me also with boundless power of imagination. Whatever space I’m in.
EE: The suggestion that something might have happened in those places, that people have experienced something there, a sort of ‘crime scene’ idea. Do you understand paranoia in this sense as…
DB: As mistrust and unease, yes. On the surface my images appear peaceful when you look at them.
EE: But they are bubbling and boiling just below the surface. Still.
DB: For me that unease is just as much a force that I need for my work. If you start eliminating at that existential level, you inevitably end up with very primary information. If you reduce everything, it comes up and hits you between the eyes. Sex, death, everything. I know, it sounds like a stultifying cliché, but you have to dare to admit that that’s what it’s about. That force and its destructive side. The feeling and the anti-feeling: it is still definitely one of the principles of my work. Even though it’s sometimes beneath the surface. As far as my images are concerned, that has a very great deal to do with that ‘cutout’. With not seeing certain things. Or precisely the opposite, seeing them.
EE: And what is outside the image, could that perhaps be what it’s all about?
DB: Perhaps, if you think in terms of ‘absence’. In terms of an ‘open’ image. An image that is never definitive, that always contains its own sequel. That’s what I want.
ASX CHANNEL: DIRK BRAECKMAN
(Text copyright Erik Eelbode, all images copyright Dirk Braeckman)