Stefan Hertmans

A Recreation of the Visible: On Luminosity and Composition in Braeckman’s Project for the Royal Palace

Dirk Braeckman: Chiaroscuro, Imschoot Uitgevers, Ghent, 2003

While people invariably refer to the sombre half-light of his photos, Dirk Braeckman is actually an absolute virtuoso of precisely positioned light. Not the spectacular or blinding light that deprives things of their structure or casts harsh shadows, but the light that shows the refined way things which initially appeared vague offer themselves to the eye. The chandeliers in the Royal Palace, the faint gleam on the threshold on which the queen is standing, the reflection on a moulding, a door, the light entering a dusky room, his own vague shadow in the patch of light made by the flash—on every side Braeckman shows how light gives things sense, structure and depth, how the presence of everything he shows is made so insistent by this meticulously rendered contrast. It is reminiscent of the refined light in works by the painters Francisco de Zurbarán and Georges de La Tour.

For instance, the candle bulbs in the chandeliers are an ironic and, as it were, incidental reminder of the small burning candle of Presence in Van Eyck’s double portrait of the Arnolfinis; and the vertical axis formed by the three points of light in the portrait of the queen (cloud, lake, threshold) of the way enchanting grey tints sometimes stand out brightly in Richter’s landscapes (but this faint light over the horizon also reminds us of religious pictures); on the other hand, the dark ceiling areas in one of the photos of the palace interior are reminiscent of the dark room in the background of Velazquez’ Las Meninas, where a similar allusion is made to the impenetrability of the rooms at the Alcazar in Madrid. Braeckman’s points of light determine the whole structure and composition, so that a luminous half-light forms, pearl grey, an astonishing lustre that evokes the light rather than reproducing it, and miraculous sort of dew which his eye lays over things and faces.

This so-called underexposure, which, as he himself emphasises, recreates the miracle of light, intimacy, depth and visibility, has grown organically from his first solarised portraits. In the meantime it has developed into an inimitable quest for what the photographer’s eye does with places and objects previously barely noticed. That which in the past was conspicuous for its intensity is now conspicuous for its attention, persistence and serenity. This approach makes the photos of the royal couple almost iconic.

One can only be amazed at the precision with which Braeckman has made his mark on the tradition of the official portrait, departed from it entirely, and, as it were, ended up back in the middle of it, but now as its master, following his own rules. The restrained calmness expressed in the hands, eyes and postures is masterly, once one is standing in front of the actual portraits (at almost life-size, a well-considered format). These pictures are virtually impossible to reproduce, which is quite a remarkable quality for photographic work. The aura radiated by the craftsmanlike presence, by these extremely matte and yet almost sparkling prints, suggests something irreplaceable. This is in part due to the method: digital photos were first printed, then photographed with an analogue view camera, and then enlarged to the format we see in front of us. This means that pixels were dissolved in the classic grain on matte baryta prints—a partial, technical explanation for the sensory attraction of these pictures. Yet in no respect do they radiate any rhetorical effect; the serene presentation of the models is astoundingly natural and the surroundings (which the position of the camera makes almost symmetrical) are scrupulously balanced.

Over the years, Braeckman has ripened into an extremely meticulous artist of great stature. His method exudes an obvious concentration, which clearly inspired great confidence and inner calm in the royal couple. This relationship too reminds us of the great portrait tradition, without the least need for idealisation. This ethereal calm makes the background to the portrait (the garden at Laken) seem almost artificial; the position the photographer took up—the king and queen are actually standing on approximately the same spot, but the position of the camera was shifted—makes the space seem larger, the city more ideal (certain details in the background appear in the two portraits and lead us to suspect a manipulation of the space), and the singular flat cloud in particular, resting on the plane between air pressure zones, seems to radiate an almost timeless, transcendent atmosphere. Paradoxically enough, it can be deduced from this cloud that the photos were taken in relatively quick succession. The point of light that pierces the clouds diagonally above the queen is just disappearing from view in the picture of the king. The four horizontal lines—cloud, city skyline, lake and threshold—connect the two separate portraits very closely. The vertical lines—the three points of light and the space between the portraits—make them independent of each other.

This pictorial masterstroke means the portraits suggest individuality and alliance but without the slightest obtrusiveness. From this arises an entirely sovereign expression; it is as if the two figures, at rest in themselves, find each other’s gaze in the deliberate images Braeckman has made of the palace interior. The fact that the portraits in this palace setting are again encircled by four photos of the room means that a compelling and yet discrete installation is formed in this setting, a space permeated with photographic meditation. Here too, Braeckman has succeeded, as we have seen in his work on urban views and interiors, in neither blocking anything from view nor gratuitously revealing anything. The triumph of this calmness in no way idealises; everywhere it reflects a great intellectual honesty and reserve. This gives something aristocratic to this series, something we do not have to infer only from the location, the assignment or the subject; it is the miraculous inscriptions made by his lighting technique, which Braeckman has laid over these pictures with the aristocratic and at the same time modest enchantment of his artistic personality.