Isabelle De Baets

Dirk Braeckman: Photography as a Real Allegory

Leaflet to the exhibition z.Z(t). Volume I. (’94–’01) S.M.A.K., Ghent, 18 August – 18 November 2001

With the statement “Les plus réelles magnificences ne sont pas dans les choses, elles sont en nous,” the writer Balzac indicated, in the early 19th century, that our perception is coloured by our mental outlook on the world. In the middle of the 19th century, the realist painter Courbet evidently held the same view when he talked about his productive method of perception. This method involves the direct optical confrontation between the subject and the object, the specific experience of the thing. Courbet’s underlying assumption is that it is our feelings and memories that make the things that surround us appear visible and alive. Courbet’s ‘other’ view of reality heralded the era of modern painting: an art that evolved away from the purely imitative representation of reality. His sharp observation of banal reality went hand in hand with a questioning of the formal and material parameters of painting, which led to a new pictorial imagery. A comparable investigation into the essence of the photographic image lies at the basis of the work of Dirk Braeckman.

Where Courbet wanted to break through the imitative character of traditional painting by making pictures that found their meaning in themselves, Dirk Braeckman, in a parallel way, tries to push back the limits of the photographic image. He does not do that by creating an illusionistic imagery, but by constructing an imagery that charges banal reality with ‘meaning’. That way, seemingly meaningless places, such as an empty hotel lounge, conference hall, shower or bedroom, become places with an alienating and disturbing feel to them. These ambiguous photographic images are created by an interplay of photographic parameters, such as light, tonal values, framing, and a plastic treatment of the materials in the successive stages of the production process of the photograph.

This plastic-pictorial and mental approach makes Dirk Braeckman’s working method rather close to that of a painter or a sculptor. As he says himself: “The painter or sculptor deconstructs existing reality and then constructs a new one, from scratch, starting from the confrontation with the ‘medium’. It is this working method which I feel to be true and which I also wish to apply to photography. Using photographic ‘tools’, I want to construct a new reality from the inside, whereas other photographers concentrate more on the representation of reality, which lies outside them. To me, a picture of reality is only one of the many photographic ‘tools’ that are important in reaching that specific result.”

In his choice of subjects, Dirk Braeckman has acquired unlimited freedom. He used to largely restrict himself to portraits of people in his immediate surroundings. Now, the arsenal of useful visual material has extended to banal reality and even to channels such as the Internet and reproductions of earlier work.

In the successive stages of the production process, Dirk Braeckman interacts with the photographic medium both mentally and physically. After each phase, he assesses the results with detachment. His attitude while taking pictures and his treatment of the negative are good illustrations of his approach. His pictures are never staged. They are the registration of the momentary experience of the artist. “At times, I suddenly start to melt into my surroundings. I find myself in a state of mind that makes me anticipate the surrounding space. I feel the need to register that dialogue with reality, the ‘thought’ in those images.”

About his specific treatment of negatives and the meaning of this treatment for the creation process of his pictures, he says: “A negative is a polyester film with black and grey marks. The whole of the marks refers to something we recognise because we have learned the semantics, or the relations between the marks, whereas in fact, they are only a few tonal values grouped together. After I have taken a picture, I therefore look at the negative purely as itself, an sich, i.e. as a formal and material medium bearing pixels. This implies that I make a complete abstraction of the picture, which also enables me to see, already at this stage, whether the image is ‘right’ or not. In my mind, I immediately translate this abstraction into a photograph, which allows me to make my photographs on a large scale straight away, without the need to make contact prints first. I select from the negatives.”

The whole work process leads to a complex, ambiguous image, in which opposite trends are juxtaposed. There is a subjective pregnancy, which expresses a desire to represent the unrepresentable, and at the same time, an objective striving that is evident in the careful registration and in the tendency to take the abstraction of represented reality to the limits. Because of this, Braeckman’s work seems to balance on the borderline between veiling and revealing the representable. From the early eighties to the present, his work has always revolved around the indefinable and the mysterious, though in the last five years it has become more rarified and abstract.

In his recent work, the dialectic between abstract and figurative representation has come to a height. That is because Dirk Braeckman succeeds in making the figurative element, the element that refers to reality, coincide more and more with an abstract image. The formal duality of abstraction and figuration has reached a greater unity. This has resulted in a number of photographs which function as key works in his quest for the photographic image. For instance, the recent photo E.H.-E.H.–01, that shows only a reflection of light on a piece of wallpaper, is a nearly completely abstract surface. Ludo Bekkers has rightly remarked that Dirk Braeckman assumes such a viewpoint in space here that the subject is reduced to a mere pictorial element, devoid of spatial context. Recognition is pushed to the far limit of perception, so that the photographic surface can play the leading role.

This is the way in which most of Dirk Braeckman’s pictures affect the spectator. First, one is attracted by the transparent view of reality, by what one recognises. Then, one falls back on that photographic surface, the material qualities of the picture, its reflecting nature. There where, in other photographs, one would mainly look at the reality that is represented, in Braeckman’s photos, one finds oneself looking just as much at the surface, a surface which one experiences mainly through one’s senses.