Claus Gruyaert © Cedric Verhelst

Belgian Photobook comes of age in Antwerp

Antwerp's photography museum FOMU is currently staging a landmark exhibition devoted to the Belgian photobook. Photobook Belge reveals some startling images from Belgium's past and brings us right up to date on today's photobook. The exhibition curated by Tamara Berghmans is accompanied by the first ever scientific investigation into the Belgian photobook.

FOMU's Inneke Daghelet: "'The Photobook. A History' a three volume work published between 2004 and 2014 set the ball rolling. For the first time the phenomenon of the photobook received the attention it deserved. Martin Parr and Gerry Badger looked at the photobook worldwide, but since then each self-respecting country has undertaken research on this phenomenon and published its own landmark volume."

With ‘Photobook Belge’ Belgium now too joins countries like Spain, the Netherlands and China with its own volume devoted the phenomenon of the photobook. The present exhibition and book is the result of six years of work by FOMU curator Tamara Berghmans and her team.

"We started by looking at the photobooks we had in our own collection. They form a sizeable chunk of the FOMU collection, but we also involved photographers, photography lecturers, museum curators and publishers. We asked them each to select their ten landmark photobooks. Finally, FOMU came to a selection of 250 photobooks, a representative collection of this genre" says Inneke Daghelet.

190 of the photobooks, many from FOMU's own collection but others from the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands and the Africa Museum in Tervuren, which are on show at FOMU are real collectors' items and are on show behind glass, but Tamara Berghmans's team wanted to make the works as accessible as possible. Half of these works have also been digitalised and you can page through them by using a handy screen placed next to the work itself.

Inneke Daghelet: "We really wanted our visitors to be able to touch the books too. The ones that aren't so rare and of which we possess more than one volume can be paged through at the exhibition itself. In this way visitors can really get a touch and feel of what it is all about."

Lara Gasparotto, Sleepwalk, Yellow Now, Crisnée, 2012.

So what's on show?

The exhibition is divided into eight sections. A first section deals with the 19th century and includes some pretty amazing snaps of young Belgium. Belgium and photography were more or less born at the same time and the art has allowed photographers to chart the development of the country!

Historical publications show the marvels of the young Belgian capital: its monuments and historic buildings: the Grand' Place, the cathedral, the upper town with its royal palace. Other photobooks document artistic achievements, the works of Peter Paul Rubens, news events like explosions and Antwerp's universal exhibition in 1894. In these works photos are often used to illustrate a text.

Bruxelles la nuit © Cedric Verhelst

Between 1900 and 1965 black and white photography still predominates. We can admire the landscapes of the banks of the River Schelde or views of the Maredsous Abbey. Brussels by Night shows vistas of a deserted capital in a very atmospheric light.

Many are the photobooks devoted to Congo, the one-time Belgian colony. Initially the books show the contribution Belgium is required to make to build this country, while later on more egalitarian views gain the upper hand. One marvellous photobook shows identical sights in Belgium and Congo. The moral is clear: we need each other.

Photobooks also allowed Belgian photographers to globetrot and explore the world: the US, Japan and China. In Word and Image we discover how if the word predominated initially, word and image soon gain a greater balance before the word often becomes little more than a legend.

The contemporary photobook also receives ample attention. During the noughties the importance of the photobook finally dawns on Belgian photographers. Stefaan Vanfleteren publishes his landmark tome ‘Belgicum’, while other leading photographers like Gilbert Fastenaekens, Dirk Braeckman and Carl De Keyzer recognise the importance of the phenomenon. If photobooks had a hard time finding a publisher earlier, this now changes with publishers discovering an opportunity and a hole in the market. Photobooks become good sellers. The development of the internet and the self-publishing opportunities this brings with it give a further boost to the phenomenon. Needing a photobook goes without saying for younger photographers who see it as a means of breaking through and taking their work to a wider audience.

Frigo © Cedric Verhelst

One of the most entertaining sections is Belgitude. Belgian photographers look at their own country. They see the problem and can take a joke. One tome, the Sky Seen From Belgium, contains shots of the sky above Belgium, while a collection of what we all store in our fridges fills Belgium Seen Through Its Fridges. Germany's David Helbich shows in photographs how Belgians set about sorting their many difficulties, often with humour. But there is more serious stuff too with Sébastien Van Malleghem's volume with photos taken in Belgian prisons.

Belgian photographic academies too have been involved and selected the best photobooks created by their students. Some were published. Others are quite unique as they never made it.

Photobook Belge curated by Tamara Berghmans runs at FOMU in Antwerp until 6 October 2019. The catalogue 'Photobook Belge' is available in English at a price of 59 euros.