Cherry Smyth

Intimate Handling: The work of Dirk Braeckman

A-Prior N-7, spring/summer

We were. We are. We are one flesh with the night. In the passages, passages.

– Paul Celan, ‘Snow-bed’

The photography of Dirk Braeckman invites you into a mood, seducing you with greys. Dove grey, charcoal grey, velvet grey, grimy grey, mouldy grey, platinum grey, silver grey, granular grey, cumulus grey. Greys softly muted and measured on matte paper. These greys love you. They are forgiving, elusive. They run away and you give chase, investigating meaning through the shades which hover like an army of pale ghosts shifting in the image. But grey is not the thing you will remember most. You will vividly recall brilliant moments of white light, the flare of clean magnesium, a dazzle of bursting stars of reflected, broken light on a glossy wall. You will remember the sheen and lustre, the eloquence of light, a trumpet in the quiet symphony of grey. You will be left with light fingering a white fur rug, gleaming on a varnished door, a flank of brightness on the naked torso of a woman lying on a bed.

This is not the photography of dapple, of the filtered sway of sunlight, an ode to natural shadows. It celebrates man-made illumination, electrical intervention, tungsten wonder. Here the stark, obliterating glare of the flashbulb is painfully central, undisguised and beautifully resilient. Just as it is impossible to see the beauty of skin if it is held too close, too much light on a subject no longer clarifies, but erases detail and persuades you to stand back, reassess distance and where you are coming from. Braeckman enjoys artifice. He accentuates it, drawing attention to the construction of the image by the visibility of the flash, or where there is no artificial light, by the tremble of the camera to blur the image and highlight his presence. Exaggerated light, like a loud laugh in a sombre room, punctuates the series of tenebrous portraits of spaces and the atmospheres held in hotel rooms, corridors, hallways, foyers, bathrooms and doorways. Most of the images are of interiors, places where you find yourself and must make the most of it, bedrooms where the fixtures and furnishings are not to your taste - do not reflect you - and the lighting is unflattering and cold. These places are slightly claustrophobic and unsettling because they strip you of who you are. They reduce you to a body that needs sleep, food, drink, sex. A body, like others, that will move on and die. Not here. Not here. This is not home.

But you find a way to stay, to rest, to insert yourself into the Draylon capability of the drapes, the striped wallpaper, the sorrowful amateur landscape hung at a slant on the wall. Of a snow-capped mountain. A river banked by trees. The landscapes an artist like Braeckman will never photograph. Unless he can re-photograph them, make light do something to them that renders him present in the frame. He will make us see the image as he saw it. Not with a judgemental eye, but with a certain tender empathy. His flash shows it up and reveals something of its simple, awful humanity.
Braeckman finds a way to make the overlooked resonate and become seen. He makes the shiny tiled floor at the corner of the bed alive. He magnifies the texture of a fake wood veneered wall. He secures something lowly and intimate from two twin beds pushed awkwardly together under a large diamond-patterned bedspread. He creates an orb of white light on the badly painted surface of a dark gloss door V.F.-V.F.-01 which draws you close and makes you smile in the way a magician with a disappearing white rabbit makes you smile. It’s about magic and illusion. Not trickery. Not transcendence. More like absence and presence, a sort of: “Now you see it, now you don’t.” But it’s still there. “Now you still see it.” The magic is lasting.

You are present in that room with him. In a Dublin bed-sit, a shared flat in Brussels, a hotel room in Fez, a motel bathroom in Arkansas, a bar in Dubrovnik. You have seen dust and dirt packed under layers of gloss improvement. You can see the wash of chemicals from the printing process, refusing to be glossed over, determined to reveal itself as another layer. Here is Braeckman’s delight: an accretion of time and perception. The dominant temporal form for photography in the twentieth century has been to freeze a moment in time and that is precisely what Braeckman tries to undo with his layering process. For him, the photograph attempts to relate to another dimension of time, the one in which consciousness exists which does not relate to linear time. In the image of the flash on the painted door, the painter/decorator is palpable. The photographer is palpable. The layers of time passed between them and processes of matter are tangible. They communicate with each other and with us.

The spectator moves from side to side before the image of a flashbulb on a varnished door, trying to make the light source vanish, takes a step back, trying to force it off the edge of the frame, to make the image more readable, even, ordinary. But it won’t shift. Braeckman won’t vanish. He’s forever in the mix of silver gelatin, in the room with his flash, seeing the surface of the varnished door for the first time, framing it in his lens, giving us his gift of time slowed and multiplied at once.
The door, like the image is stained, yet the accentuation of the role of light and the traces of the chemical process offer the spectator a sense of accompaniment, a dialogue between the artist’s sensibility and the spectator’s. As the spectator searches, physically mobile, in front of the image, for a way to read around the glare of light, they become aware of the necessity of light itself to create the image for Braeckman and to allow it to be seen by them. Light is what joins us, what communicates the artist’s alienation, his sense of being apart, and allows a gentle, shared humility.

Transparency is vital to Braeckman. There is no sense of concealed illusion. The camera is a machine rather than a tool, its mechanics revealed and underlined. Why Braeckman’s work remains indelibly strong in the mind’s eye is because, unlike most photographs which try to make up for the deficiencies of the human eye, Braeckman re-inserts its fallibility. Rather than being an independent optical apparatus, Braeckman makes the camera register as an extension of himself and a marker of his mental state in the frame. By using the glare to interrupt the perspectival illusion, Braeckman also shows how often the spectator is meshed seamlessly with the view of the camera. While other postmodern photographers have strived to reveal the invisible, disembodied, timeless and all-knowing vision as an ideological construct, Braeckman does so with grace and pleasure.

Braeckman’s titles do not provide anecdotal signposts. Any confusion must be entertained or endured and then allowed to settle. The initials refer to private codes—where the image was shot and with whom, in what year it was shot and when it was printed. This strategy works. It keeps us reliant on our own idiosyncratic entry to the world of his work. It forces us to look and look again. Some images are tinged by something sinister as though they are details from a crime scene. There is no evidence of violence, rather a lurking sense that something ugly has happened in this place. Something unsavoury, indistinct—a small crime of neglect or omission. A failure of love. The spectator, like a detective, hunts the image for clues, much in same way as you look at an image by Irish photographer Paul Seawright who employs a similar starkness to talk about the unseen murders of Northern Ireland.

You may investigate the edge of a hallway, only to discern the corner of a floor brush peeping out, like the reluctant subject in a family photograph. The doorway in B.O.-D.U.-00 is curtained. The curtain is open, enticing. Within the narrow doorway, the flash of Braeckman’s bulb shines centre stage, beckoning. Beyond is another doorway, more darkness.

Unable to bear the idea of eternal darkness, English has a phrase for those who have died: “They have all gone into the world of light.” A place of everlasting radiance. What an intolerable vision! For darkness feeds light, as death feeds life. As Braeckman’s work lights life, understands, negotiates mortality, the consciousness of what is just beyond the frame. The curtained door presents a familiar icon, transforming the photograph into an object in itself, not simply a representation of reality and certainly never a mere documentation of a doorway. It exists as a door into the past, the future, the afterlife and Braeckman’s photograph acts as a continuum between them.

While American photographers of the 1950s, like Robert Adams and Lee Friedlander have inspired Braeckman, he has moved beyond the socio-realist tradition. Nor is his work heroic, or mock-heroic, or monumental, like the current work of German photographers like Andreas Gursky and Thomas Ruff. In Braeckman’s work, the hero has left, or is standing outside the image, making sense of the ocular plane as we must do. Nor is his work anti-heroic. Like the sea portraits or blurred buildings of Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, Braeckman’s work exhibits a narrative ambiguity, a preference for muted monochromes rather than bold colour and a concern with asking us to consider impermanence and our own mortality. Sugimoto too slows down time in his Diorama Series, where he used a very long exposure to film the duration of a movie which resulted in a white screen, self-obliterated by light. Like Sugimoto, Braeckman’s use of light introduces a note of determination, a willingness to live which is very affecting. Both are interested in an inner narrative.

Braeckman’s self-portrait, C.R.-B.X.-00 poses many of the artist’s key questions. Is the image taken inside or outside? Are the lights reflected in the broad curtained window, indoor or outdoor, or both? How do the different tiled surfaces digest or bounce back the ambient evening light and the streetlights? Like a crouching phantom, Braeckman is found off-centre, a vague glass reflection, that somehow anchors the whir of city lights which ride up to the top of the frame like a proscenium arch for a performance of absence, presence, light and shade. The image, composed of four horizontal sections, echoes a classical landscape of foreground, middle and background—land, sea, horizon, sky. This assists our diagnosis of the image and enhances the pleasure of the shift between doubt and conviction that Braeckman so enjoys.

Braeckman’s images are not often peopled. People bring stories. He prefers to be the sole narrator. His chosen characters are his use of a flashbulb or the deliberate tremble of his handheld camera to make the image unstable. Some of the people in the work are subjects of another photographer, taken from the internet or magazines, which the artist re-lights, reframes and re-presents as his. They don’t exude narrative. They’re strangers, uncluttered by personal memory so that their iconic weight and substance can be emphasised. In M.R.-P.O.-99, a naked woman, in profiled silhouette, stands with one breast showing and the side of her head turned towards us. From afar, she suggests beauty and desire. Yet as you look closer, the re-photographing has over-lit her hair and petrified it. It has become pocked, almost lunar as the texture of the paper of the magazine overwhelms the strands of her hair. It becomes thousands of magnified dark and light cells, as solid and inelastic as burn-scarred skin. Her flesh is grainy and mottled. In close proximity, beauty disintegrates, its illusion evaporated.

“It’s a shot from a magazine and as light falls on it, I look for the right angle to have this double effect,” Braeckman told me. “It’s not about this woman—that’s the first layer, the attraction; then you have the paper, the surface of the print which becomes like stone. People don’t look beyond the iconic, but when I point it out to them, they can no longer see it like the first time. Once you see the surface, you can’t go back.” What was substantial—the naked flesh of a pretty, young woman—becomes subordinate to the density of matter, the materiality of the light on paper. Thus the artist alters the focus for us, after the printing, making us re-examine our way of looking, our hierarchical positioning of objects within any given frame. It recalls the graphite drawings and oil paintings of American artist Vija Celmins, who transforms the way we see the night sky and the surface of the ocean with her delicate, up-close renderings.

Braeckman’s method leads us to question the context in which we view a photograph, how that guides us and how art history has shaped our reading of certain icons, such as the nude, the empty bed, the curtained doorway. A nude in an art gallery is read differently from a nude in a porn magazine. Through super manipulation of the image, Braeckman lays bare all former manipulators, not to expose them, but rather to reveal to us our collusion in the way iconic images are constructed. Here he explores the idealised female figure and the fact that human existence needs idealisation to endure.

The beams. They blow us together.
We bear the brightness, the pain and the name.
White what moves us, without weight what we exchange.
White and Light: let it drift.
The distances, moon-near, like us. We build.

– Paul Clean, ‘White and Light’

Although Braeckman’s work is darkly toned, it is not grave. The images do not promise anything as hopeful or assuming as transcendence, rather operate like someone holding your hand in the dark. In R.F.-T.A.-01, a man in a white shirt bends over a woman. Only her foot and ankle are visible. The light hovers on his back in a cone or funnel, giving the image the quality of something that’s coming into being, like a half-forgotten memory or dream that breaks into consciousness later in the day. What the couple is doing is obscure, like an idea emerging from the subconscious.

Is someone ill, giving birth or having sex? It’s clearly intimate, but the intimacy is inexplicit, as though the spectator is a child, unable to read the mysterious actions of adults. It endows us with renewed innocence, a fresh way of seeing, as though Braeckman is re-staging our early memory of the first time such fumblings were witnessed and misconstrued. The image remains tantalising and perplexing. It compels us to keep watching because sexual knowledge is something that must be seen or experienced to be fully understood. It cannot merely be spoken of or read about. It exists in a visual and sentient world.

“It’s important that you feel it’s intimate,” says Braeckman. “I’m not sure I have to say it’s sexual or overt—you feel it. What’s important for me is the direction of the intimate handling and then when you come closer, you see the light and that references a surface. It’s a surface that’s re-photographed from an old work of mine.” Just as we must circle back to the image to fully engage with Braeckman’s concerns, so he circles back over the images he’s collected in the past and re-uses them. It takes time for what he calls ‘the personal anecdote’ to fade away so he can adopt the spectator’s gaze. By re-photographing and re-printing the image, controlling the densities and the grades, he creates a different work, with a different intention.

The shift of meaning through distance and proximity works the same way in G.C.-G.E.-97, the image of a satin-lined curtain hung in the corner of a room. From afar, the light in the centre of the frame shimmers alluringly like a golden flag. The edges glow. As you move closer—which of course you do, for we chase light and beauty, seek the golden fleece—you find a mangy room, with a stained floor, a scuffed wall and a loose thread clinging to the worn fabric of the drape. The scene is dilapidated, the cloth worn, as though deprived of its former glory. It has the mood of an old theatre or bingo hall, once thriving and popular, now down-at-heel, reduced to cheap rentals and cheaper cleaners.

Again, the artist highlights the gap between image and reality, the idealised dream and the concrete everyday we endure. In coming close to the ugliness of the room, the shoddiness of the curtain, we accept the reality behind the imagined, realising that the surface is often illusional. We maintain a fondness for the things that comfort us—a fur rug covering an old settee, the graffiti skyline of a dreamt city—with the knowledge that they can fail, can become hollow if we examine them too closely. In photographing the curtain, Braeckman restores its original impulse to beauty and enlivens that element in ourselves.

While British photographer Richard Billingham records the soiled details of poverty in his family home in a way that shocks and repels, that is not Braeckman’s endeavour. The sordid side in Braeckman’s images is identifiable, revealing to us more of ourselves. Braeckman touches us when he touches on those things in ourselves we hide or cover in glitter or a lame dress, but we know a deeper truth. It is this which Braeckman manages to capture and to transmit its enduring, precarious power.

Braeckman revisits a mood of nostalgia for the 1950s in several images. In I.P.-E.E.(3)-01 a woman, standing posed in a floral frock offers herself to the camera. Simple, appealing, tender, this image conjures an icon of young womanhood, someone nubile and available. It suggests a mother from the fifties, full of an innocent hope and faith in marriage. Closer up, it becomes clear that the woman lies behind a screen which functions like a gauze of memory—soft, indistinct and steeped in nostalgia. It suggests a layer of muslin or the accrued age on a black and white snapshot carried for decades in a wallet.

This photograph of an unknown woman, taken from the internet and re-photographed, elicits both the expectation of familiarity and the anonymity of distance. The texture and grain of the image become almost like charcoal, as if Braeckman is restoring a manual quality to the digital image. This again lends intimacy and immediacy. Braeckman: “With the kind of icons I use, the subject is not so important. The iconography, say of the figure, of the nude, the hotel room in the image, attracts at first sight, then you look at the other layers and when you look for a long time, you find more. The humanity comes from the simple things I use as icons. They’re very human.”

As in the image of the dated floral bedspread B.D.-P.L.-95-01, hung vertically like a dress in a wardrobe, there is a relationship set up between the decorative and the void. Someone is absent. Missed. The floral image suggests femininity and domesticity, since women have traditionally brought these elements into the home to make it pretty and more comfortable. There is a note of longing. The bed seems to represent maternal comfort, rather than the bleaker, colder abstractions of the hotel room. There is a tension between the sexual suggestivity of the shots of the couples and the naked women in the hotel rooms and the non-sexual, though quietly erotic presence in these images which suggest ‘home’. The recurrent floral pattern becomes a fetish, standing in for the vulnerable, female self once revealed in the artist’s earlier shots of the female nude. Braeckman exposes more of himself than when he took these portraits. He says he began to feel uncomfortably predatory when he sought out female models, perhaps because he needed someone else through whom to speak. Now he does it alone and his muted eloquence works through loving abstraction to make him laid bare and present.

While the female icon is represented by the evocative floral bedspread in B.D.-P.L.-95-01, the internet screen in I.P.-E.E.(3)-01 pixellates the image and acts as a barrier between the spectator and the idealised female icon. Notably, Braeckman’s images of women in the most sexually explicit positions are hidden by the male bodies, which also act as ‘screens’. Braeckman as a sexual subject is sidelined and positioned as voyeur.

If Braeckman is outside the image, does that make the un-peopled space feminine and Other? Does it signify his feminine side, which he once explored in more traditional shots of the female nude? We cannot idealise something without identifying with it at the same time. Do these images represent his marginalisation by the power of female sexuality which cannot be ‘seen’? That would mean the crime that has taken place is the loss of the idealised woman—the mother—to the father, or to death. Is the solitude of his work playing out this abandonment? Braeckman’s skill lies in the subtle and ‘intimate handling’ of this universal trauma.

The pleasure of Braeckman’s work relies not on an assertive, determining, masculine gaze, but a gaze that refuses to tell us what to think—an open gaze, which, even though is tightly circumscribed, also permits an emotional presence to have free expression. Braeckman may eliminate traditional narrative visual codes, yet his work exudes a warmth and safety that is lacking in much experimental work. Therein lies its honesty and courage.

Braeckman insists that the subject is not important to his work and yet there are recurring tropes which allow him to explore his themes: the female form, the curtained window or doorway, the tiled surface, the empty bedroom. But more important than the subject is the sensibility aroused by the play of light and shade and the shock of the flashbulb into that stillness, that silent anonymity. That is what remains.

Braeckman establishes continuity in the act of looking, intervening in the field of perception to reconstruct it with vigour and a passionate intelligence. His work offers small communions of transfiguring light and a faith in the power of seeing to isolate and celebrate the lightness of the moment. The work moves between surfaces and depths, creating its own signature, which is neither joyful or exuberant, but attests to the hard-won commiserations of someone who survives.