What is Belgium? You must answer this question first before you can talk about their photography. Because, what does a Dutch person know about their neighboring country anyway? How do the Belgians look at their fatherland, and does Belgian photography exist?
To begin with the last question: Yes. In 2005, the Belgian publisher Ludion published ‘Belgian Photographers 1840-2005’ containing images from and descriptions of 160 photographers. The principal difference between Belgian and Dutch photography is the strong influence surrealism had, and still has in the contemporary photography, on our southern neighbors. This is completely in line with the fact that surrealism had a major influence on Belgian painting and literature. In the Lowlands, surrealism was adopted by a few artists but never by a group or a movement. We can also uncover history in the Belgian company Gevaert, established in 1894 in Antwerp, and until recently a world brand in the photographic industry. Gevaert donated a part of their collection to the Fotomuseum Province Antwerp. Partly because of these donations the museum now has the largest collection of photografica in Europe. Belgium already had two photo museums (also the Institute in Charleroi) long before the Dutch had something comparable.
A glance outside
In spite of a rich (photographic) history Belgium struggles with her identity. Johan Swinnen (photography lecturer) in his article for the internet magazine Photoq about the exhibition and book ‘Belgicum’ (Stephan Vanfleteren) sees his country ‘evaporating’. Others observe the language barrier becoming more influential on the focus of the French and Dutch speaking Belgian photographers. These photographers focus more frequently on the neighboring countries south and north of Belgium. A small country internationally orientated through necessity. This international orientation, a sort of world citizenship if you like, could explain the Magnum membership of three Belgian photographers. Magnum is still one of the most influential photo agencies in the world. Two of the three Belgian members were awarded with possibly the most important prize for photojournalism, the W. Eugene Smith Award: John Vink in 1986 and Carl de Keyzer in 1990. Harry Gryaert, born in Antwerp and living in France, is also a member of Magnum, as is the Antwerp photographer Martine Franck. After leaving Belgium at a young age Martine Franck traveled halfway around the world, married Henry Cartier Bresson and adopted a French nationality.
My first in-depth acquaintance with Belgian photography took place in 1995 at an exhibition in ’Het Oog Van Hoorn’ (an exhibition space in a picturesque harbour town in North Holland). I wrote an article about the series of Carl De Keyzer and Stephan Vanfleteren for the monthly magazine Foto. In an interview with De Keyzer he told me he was going to show colour photos for the first time. He had been avoiding this because he felt that colour images evoked a kind of ‘television reality’. On request of the organization De Keyzer invited a young, promising colleague. This was Vanfleteren, who shortly prior to that had published his first photos in the Belgian newspaper ‘De Morgen’ and whose exhibition ‘Belgicum’ had been extended for two months due to great public interest. It turned out to be the most popular exhibition ever organized by the Antwerp Fotomuseum. The book has been reprinted twice since its’ first publication in 2007. All the attention for this project has been remarkable considering Vanfleterens’ rather personal vision of his country. The black and white pictures of his countrymen and the Belgian landscape are rich in atmosphere. In an optimistic mood, you could almost call them nostalgic. This photographer has a gift of being able to give the ever present ‘tristesse’ an association of a timeless bond.
The images of Stephan Vanfleteren have deeply touched his countrymen. Maybe here the same comment that the photography critic Johan de Vos made about the series ‘Made in Belgium’ of Harry Gruyaert applies: ‘a monument for an impossible country that wants very much to be impossible’.