Evolution of the Photobook Belge

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“To date, hardly any research has been conducted into Belgian photobooks,” opens the exhibition Photobook Belge, now on show at FOMU and published as a book by FOMU in partnership with Hannibal. “Photobook Belge provides an overview of the evolution of the Belgian photobook from the mid-19th century to today.”

Including nearly 250 publications, Photobook Belge is divided into eight chapters, looking at areas such as Artists’ Books, Belgian national identity, and the relationship between text and images. Belgium’s brutal colonisation of the Congo, its subsequent relationship with the country, and its often problematic representation of it in images, is given a whole chapter. “Many of the photobooks published since the 50th anniversary of [Congo’s] independence in 2010 oscillate between a more or less overt nostalgia, Afro-pessimism and an aesthetic of ruins,” states the curator Tamara Berghmans. “Most are still the result of a white, male gaze.”

Jacques Bolle, Vrijheren van het Woud [Extracting the Forest], Wetenschappelijke Internationale Stichting, Brussels, 1958.
Photobook Belge ends up with two sections on recent Belgian photobooks, the first of which is devoted to Belgian photobooks since the turn of the 21st century and includes publications such as Stephan Vanfleteren’s Belgicum and Harry Gruyaert and Hugo Claus’ Made in Belgium; well-respected young photographers Bieke Depoorter and Max Pinckers are also included in the exhibition and book. The last chapter showcases photobooks and dummies from the last five years, as selected by 11 Belgian photography academies from among their student cohort.

As the exhibition text notes, photography and Belgium both started at around the same time, with Belgium declaring its independence from The Netherlands in 1931, just as Joseph Nicéphore Niépce and Henry Fox Talbot were making the first photographic images. “Photography and Belgium were born at the same time. In some ways, they even grew up together,” reads the text. “As the new nation state developed its self-image and cultivated its cultural heritage, this upstart technology and nascent art form was on hand to offer support and reinforce national pride.”

Elsewhere, photobooks intersect with Belgium in more critical and more humorous ways. “The Belgian identity, or ‘Belgitude’, is sometimes described as a hollow identity, that is, defined by what it is not,” reads the introduction to the chapter on ‘Belgitude’. “The photobooks on display here are not concerned with harsh political statements, but represent personal views of a paradoxical and sometimes absurd country in the throes of a constant identity crisis.”

Photobook Belge is on show until 06 October at FOMU Fotomuseum Antwerpen, Waalsekaai 47, 2000 Antwerp, Belgium www.fotomuseum.be Photobook Belge is published by FOMU in partnership with Hannibal, priced €59 www.uitgeverijkannibaal.be/photobook-belge

La Catastrophe d’Anvers. 6 septembre 1889. Album contenant 18 planches. Au profit des victimes, [The Catastrophe of Antwerp. September 6, 1889. Album containing 18 plates. For the benefit of the victims] Jos. Maes, Antwerp, 1889.
Georges Champroux, Bruxelles la Nuit. 19 photos inédites [Brussels Night, 19 unpublished photographs] Maison Ernest Thill, Brussels, 1935.
Pierre Baguet, Kurt Klingner and others, Onze vrijwilligers en de beweging [Our volunteers and the movement], NV Volk en Staat, Antwerp, 1943.
Jan Yoors, Only One New York, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1965.
Paul Nougé, Subversion des Images [Subversion of Images], Les Lèvres nues, Brussels, 1968.
Marcel Broodthaers, A Voyage on the North Sea, Petersburg Press, London, 1974.
Michel François, Le monde et les bras [The World and the Arms], La Société des Expositions du Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles, Brussels, 1992.
Marie-Françoise Plissart, Right of Inspection, The Monacelli Press, New York, 1998.
Harry Gruyaert, Made in Belgium, Delpire Éditeur, Paris, 2000.
Aglaia Konrad, Iconocity, Walther König, in collaboration with deSingel, Cologne / Antwerp, 2005.
Lara Gasparotto, Sleepwalk, Yellow Now, Crisnée, 2012.
Thomas Vanden Driessche, How to be… a photographer in four lessons, André Frère Éditions, Roquevaire, 2013.
Geert Goiris, Prolifération, Roma Publications, Amsterdam, 2014.
Lucas Leffler and Benoît de Moffarts, La Belgique vue du frigo / België gezien door de koelkast [Belgium seen from the fridge], Prismes, Brussels, 2015.
Bieke Depoorter, As It May Be, Hannibal, Veurne, 2017.
Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy