Leenaerts, D. 2009. L’Image de la ville. Bruxelles et ses photographes des années 1850 à nos jours. Bruxelles: Collection Lieux de Mémoire, CFC-Éditions, 182 pages, ISBN:978-2-930018-79-9
Reviewed by Philippe Campays, Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand)
Space and Culture readers will find an interesting contribution to knowledge in social geography in Danielle Leenaerts’ L’Image de La Ville. The author presents a correlation between the development of the city of Brussels and the evolution of its photographic representation through a unique lens.
cc image credit: Un bâtiment sur la Grand-place à Bruxelles (Belgique) by “Romary”
A short introduction and the strategic location of the table of contents at the end of the manuscript engage readers, straight from the first pages, in a literary and photographic journey. In fact, the author suggests that one is a ‘lecteur-spectateur’ (reader-spectator) of an urban journey reflected in this literary excursion. The content of this chronology of Brussels from 1850 to the present day is extensive without being overbearing and is intended for a large audience. It is discreetly partitioned into five chapters, defined by momentous political events. Each chapter offers a carefully balanced dialogue between a textual historical and political account of the defined period and its illustrative photographic record. This is achieved both in terms of content and in the design of the layout where words and pictures have an equal weight. A pleasant monotone black and white or sepia tone rendering is kept throughout the book, probably in an attempt to avoid disrupting the flow from the quality of earlier photographic work. However the transformation of later photographic work could have been more clearly presented to motivate the reader-spectator further.
The relationship between city identity, architectural developments and photography is shown as a dynamic force with varying degrees of cohesion and convergence. In the early part of the book, the photographs are part of an historical account of the transformation of a medieval city to a new modern urban centre. The pictures are more historical records than artistic, intended to form a series of heritage inventory for cultural memory as well as a celebration of new construction sites. Prestigious architectural works (Claine, Fierlant) and common streets destined for extensive demolition are presented (Guémar, Kampfe). The topographical focus on the new monuments is the sensitive work of architect Radoux, while Mascré’s panoramic views reflect the urban design intentions of creating a politically and socially liberal city. According to Leenaert, the following period sees the strengthening of the link between Brussels and its photographic representation where Mayor Buls leads a return to a respect of heritage and existing organic unity of the city. Photoreportage (Hesleven) is born to respond to the need for visualizing political and social events and occurs alongside a new form of artistic work testing the idea of pure photography. The picturalisme movement emerges, motivated by haute bourgeoisie’s interest in the expression of Nature (Van Renynghe). Attention is given to printing processes to present an Impressionist rendering, moving away from the intention to emulation of the real and a focus on urban scape is recalled (Cumont, Mahy, Bovier) in this period.
The author suggests that the debate between tradition and modernity that marked the period between the two World Wars is reflected in the political hesitation in dealing decisively with Brussels’ urban projects, inherited from the past, in contrast to the boldness manifested in innovative developments of its new suburbs. In photography, the same polarity is observed between tradition (now pictoralist) and the call for modernist ideas. The relationship between photography and reality is illustrated in the romantic and subjective filters (Misonne); the Modernists use of artificial light (Champoux) and the photomontages that promote emerging modernist architecture (Kessels). The Subjektive Fotografie movement is strongly promoted in the city and Belgium from 1945. Brussels increasing role as an international bureaucratic centre demands the development of large architectural projects. The emergence of the subsequent growing cultural diversity in its inhabitants, further shifts the identity of the city. Photography becomes more open to the public, more vocal, addresses emerging social issues to describe the social landscape. Some photographs chose to show the Brussels ‘that was’ through social event (Dagnelie) or the emptying of dilapidated streets (Van Ommeslaghe). The reading of the urban space becomes strongly personalised (Klien, DeKeyser, Auquier) moving focus on people’s social context; and at times, in a constructed statement such as Carez and, Eeckhoudt’s work on the condition of new immigrants. From 1980 to today photography is at the crossroads between being a celebrated art-form and its role as representation of the city. The variety of photographic expression (supporting media) coincides with an increasing urban concern with representation.
Leenaert promotes many objectives for her book, one of which is to enable Bruxellois to culturally appropriate their city. Through this well constructed narration and thoroughly documented photographic portrayal of the city’s history, architecture and socio-political reality, the reader-spectator can simply discover a new aspect of Brussels’ cultural account and as such, enrich their understanding of its identity. One can also view this work as a further illustration of the role of photographic art in human geography.