Saturday, September 12, 2009


The expo shown above by Stephan Vanfleteren, a promising young, in his mid thirties, Flemish photographer of 'De Morgen' newspaper, has been set-up at an unusual venue... a building in the city of Ghent that used to host a permanent circus, years ago. I always thought that circus set-ups were temporary, arranged in open areas, with huge, centrally built tents and lots of trailers parked around them, hosting animals, clowns, and acrobats. The Ghent building apparently defies that logic. Even worse. That circus used to be called 'the new circus' as there was already an earlier one down the road, naturally known as 'the old circus'. I've been living 33 years close to the city and had no idea that in the not too distant past Gentenaars loved circus-going so much! One learns all the time! In the mid fifties of last century (about when I was born, mind you), the circus was turned into the Mahy Garage for Fiat cars (see picture below) and then abandoned in 1979, 30 yrs ago. All this recent time, it obviously served as a refuge to pigeons and spiders (shown somewhere in the clip above, too). Not too long ago the city decided to create and plan a rather ambitious residential and shopping development project (De Krook) that will cover the entire block, surrounded by the canal and a few streets, but building works have not started yet.

Recently Lannoo, the editor and producer of Vanfleteren's books, decided to use the old circus as the venue for this expo in order to basically promote the photographer's recent work and moreover advertise and sell Vanfleteren's latest book titled "Portret 1989-2009".

My daughter, a college graduate in photography herself, finds his work déjà-vu and doesn't particularly think it's either original or creative. In many ways, I must admit she's right, his techniques are indeed familiar old tricks. Very short depths of field, measured in mm rather than cm or m, black and white dramatic effects with very little detail in the shadow parts, vignetting, often shot with wide angle, rendering some facial details quite extreme, and ultra sharp Carl Zeiss glass eyes and aged skin textures.

Vanfleteren shoots celebs in Flanders. Who are these? Mostly people shown in newspapers, books, and magazines. Like actors, TV celebs, politicians, writers, sportsmen/women, comedians, visual artists, in short all those with whom the common people like to identify and look up to. His book contains 335 portraits but that's not to say that there are 335 different individuals shot, as some celebs are shot multiple times. The vast majority of them are Flemish, some Dutch and Walloons too. The Flemish are mostly known in this country as BVs (Bekende Vlamingen). Not necessarily these folks are any better than the rest of us, but their photographs show-up in newspapers more often than anyone else's. So be it!

As I was checking the shots in his book (which I bought for 55 euros, mind you... true story), I couldn't help recognizing that two classes of people were missing from this celebs catalog of Flanders country. These were a) successful managers and industry leaders (incl. doctors, entrepreneurs, top managers, etc) and b) known university and other school professors and researchers. In fact, those who make it happen... the real thing... the economy that drives and steers our daily lives and cares that we all get some crumbs on the table, to eat and drink. In fact, celebs only deal with the entertaining part of our daily life whereas the leaders in those activities that keep the system running are mostly hidden in the shadow of celebs, entirely ignored by the media, simply doing their business. A cyclist celeb in this country is far more important that Pattie Maes, whom most among the 'high intellect Americans' (yep, that's no oxymoron) consider as one of the top female brains and researchers on the planet! But Pattie is no celeb material as she does her job and being under the spot is the last thing on her mind!

Per the author, there's visibly one key celeb's portrait missing, and the photographer makes a hell of a story about her in the prologue of his book. Belgian ex-Queen Fabiola, the 'Spanish witch'! Vanfleteren sez that he's fallen in love with her hair style and he was probably having wet dreams considering the possibility of shooting her portrait, but her Royal Secretary and Personal Adviser, a dude with a gazillion names -- typical of someone with noble origins in this part of the world -- informed the photographer that this was a no-go. If I was that adviser myself and had imagined beforehand what that rejection would have caused in terms of Vanfleteren's hilarious commentary in his book prologue, along with more comments on TV and other media, I'd have never refused the bleedin' photo-shoot, mark my words. But that's again Belgium. Pettiness and ridicule at all levels, turning the indigenous into targets for 'Belgian' jokes, adored by our neighbors, especially the Dutch and the French.

Did I, or do I like Vanfleteren's pictures? As I am neither a certified expert nor I ever studied photography like my sibling, I... love them. There's a lot of drama and variation. Each person shown takes a pose and uses artifacts that have something to say about his/her character and activity. His lens goes deeper, much deeper than the surface. We see aspects of the personages that are very intimate, very personal. From that point of view, Vanfleteren is definitely quite original after all. For Flanders, his work is as monumental as that of the likes of Yousuf Karsh and Mario Testino. Only difference, the persons he shoots or he shot, with very few exceptions, are only dudes known in an area of max 15K sq km, give-n-take, the Flanders country...

Like I said, so be it!

1 comment:

BBourgonjon said...

Your daughter should get out of her books and into photography if she thinks Vanfleteren isn't original. She'd better listen to her dad's opinion about him. And I'm neither the expert, but I'm pretty damn convinced his work is original and creative.
Give her the book as a present, she can learn a lot from it. I bought it as a gift for myself :)