Stephan Vanfleteren (1969) began his career at the newly founded newspaper De Morgen, which at the time was the embodiment of the new journalism. Many pages were devoted to images and photographers like Vanfleteren gave the paper its own outlook. He quickly became one of the best-known image-makers, with empathetic and thoughtful black-and-white photography, with a sense of nuance and a focus on the human being, with a touch of Avedon here and a little more Penn there. He made reportages in Belgium and abroad on the most important events of the moment, such as the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, the Rwandan genocide, the famine in Ethiopia and the conflict in Afghanistan, and of course on almost all the major Belgian national events.
At the same time, he was also emerging as a portrait photographer: interviews or contributions on the big names of the moment had to be ‘illustrated’. This is where Stephan Vanfleteren really shows his talent: penetrating (close-up) portraits in daylight with a coarse grain, sometimes with a bit of staging, sometimes with a touch of humour, sometimes smiling but always with respect for the subject. The news articles have long since disappeared into the shredder, the portraits remain.
From the mid-2000s onwards, he pursued other personal projects such as Elvis & Presley (a journey across the United States with an Elvis lookalike), Flandrien (about his deep love for cycling), Visscherskoppen (about old fishermen), Atlantic Wall (landscape photography around World War II bunkers), Charleroi, It’s clear that grey is black about the dilapidated industrial city of the same name or Mercy Ships (about a hospital ship performing medical operations on the African coast).
Stephan Vanfleteren has always been a photographer of the outdoors, under the grey skies of the North Sea, or with the Dutch clouds. But in 2015, we see a different turn. The outdoor photographer enters the studio. With ‘Nature Morte’, he photographs dead animals in a discreet and diffuse light. It seems that the photographer becomes aware of mortality – or as he puts it himself:
‘Or how the photograph of a dead animal can galvanise our own memento mori’. The closer death is, the more conscious life is. (Present p454)
Similarly in Corpus where he studies the human body, here with a sense of the beauty of the (female) body, again with reference to mortality. This is a series under construction, and Vanfleteren leaves the viewer with a tension by only showing us the evolution of the project in an incremental way. It is certain that eros and thanatos will form a main theme, but he leaves us in the dark as to whether memento mori will eventually win.
His work continues to be published in newspapers and magazines such as Le Monde (FR), The New York Times (US), De Volkskrant (Holl) and Die Zeit (Ger), and is the subject of exhibitions in Belgium and abroad. The Belgian exhibitions “Portrait” on his 40th birthday and “Present” (with a retrospective of his work at the age of 50) confronted 60,000 and 146,000 visitors respectively with his work, while setting records in the museum world. Publications such as Belgicum (2007 – a voyage of discovery in his native country), Portrait 1989-2009 or Present (2019 with more than 500 images) have become bestsellers and have given a good overview of Stephan Vanfleteren’s work.
One thing is for sure: the exhibition Catching Light, Freezing Time is well worth a visit!
Stephan Vanfleteren : Catching Light, Freezing Time
12 oktober – 10 november 2022
Sotheby’s Brussels Gallery
Avenue Louise 251,
1050 Brussels, Belgium
Monday–Saturday | 10am–5pm
in association with Galerie FIFTY ONE
Books by Stephan Vanfleteren
Some references to Stephan Vanfleteren in The Eye of Photography