When we see photographs by the Belgian artist Dirk Braeckman installed in museums, we seem to be looking at photographs that aspire to the condition of painting. They are large—he likes them to be life-size. They are unglazed—he wants no interruption to the eye. They demand as slow an act of looking as any painting. They have the same richness and variety of tones of grey as works by Gerhard Richter or Vija Celmins. Indeed, Braeckman’s most famous photograph, C.O.-I.S.L.-94, was a photograph of a painting. Before printing he re-cropped it so we see nothing of the frame or surroundings. But this is no normal reproduction of a painting: the light catches the bumpiness of the painting, the lines made by the vertical stretcher bar. Every scratch or nail is as clear as a blemish or mole on a person’s face. A banal painting becomes a beautiful photograph, at once meditative and haunting.
Yet Braeckman is seeking neither to be a painter manqué nor to supplant painting. When he talks about photography, he could easily be talking about painting: “A photograph is, in fact, nothing more than a surface made up of blacks, whites and greys. This entirely abstract vision for me dovetails with what is pictured in the photo: a portrait, an anecdote. … It fluctuates, in my own work too, between abstraction and representation; between the object, the material and the representation, the reality behind it, the so-called real image.” 2001, interview with Erik Eelbode for z.Z(t). II
There are few photographers more committed to the specifics of their own medium. Rather, his antipathy to easy snapshots, his concern with the mysteriousness of banal things and rooms, with letting a place reveal itself slowly through time, means his work runs in parallel with certain kinds of painting but retains its photographic status. Like some other recent photographic works, they hang more comfortably alongside paintings than many photographs in the past.