Search for content, post, videos

Verhaerenmuseum Saint-Amand : Dirk Braeckman : Les Déboires de l’Âme


Dirk Braeckman is an atypical photographer – he does not adhere to the fetish of technicality, nor to grand theories. He is relatively unknown in photographic circles and at the same time probably the most important contemporary Belgian photographer, and you will notice it is not the only contradiction in the story. He is frequently exhibited,  usually invited by artistic institutions – his curriculum is impressive to say the least: a long list of exhibitions culminating in, among other things, a solo in the Belgian pavilion representing his country at the 2017 Venice Biennale. And his bibliography is also impressive – and this for a person who has always viewed publications with some suspicion because, for him, they represent a distortion of his work.

Dirk Braeckman (1958) studied at the Academy of Ghent between 1977-1981, originally intending to become a painter, but his interest was piqued by the possibilities of photography. One probably cannot ignore the influence of  Richter on the generation of young artists, and most certainly on Braeckman. His first work was rather documentary, but quite soon the existential feeling started to dominate.

Dirk Braeckman argues that one should not look for a story in his images – the legends of his works are codes and therefore not titles referring to people or locations. It may feel like a contradiction or at least a paradox that he equally conveys that you are supposed to see his images as a spontaneous reaction to a situation, an impression. The images are an impression, and come completely spontaneously – the reflection of a state of mind. The work starts from the banal  from there the work develops, the paths to arrive at the body of work develop. He defines the subject as a tool not the essence – or in his own words:

“the subject happens to me, and the images are a reflection of a state of mind, a spontaneous response, a mental document”.

Dirk Braeckman’s photography is a questioning of the medium, and similarly of the gaze. You could say that he captures the moment -not “the decisive moment” as Cartier Bresson defines it- but he strips the ‘moment’ of the temporal and consequently immortalises it.

Today, he does not photograph with tripods, with technical camera or elaborate lighting, but with a performative 35mm camera. He embraces both the ephemeral and the possibilities of digital photography. Braeckman’s creative process is extraordinary. After shooting, the images disappear into an image archive that is enriched with found images. The creation of a work does not necessarily coincide with the moment of shooting, and similarly it is a complex process without a fixed pattern. Images are developed, printed, combined, cut up, re-photographed, adding layers. Incoming light, reflections from a flash, dust add uncontrolled elements.

Braeckman questions the medium because he considers the medium as a lie. We have the impression of freezing a reality that we can vividly imagine , but a dimension is missing, smell is not there and colour is also missing or distorted. His working method is precisely emphasising the unreality, and like Morandi, it is no longer about the image but about the creative process.

The final image expresses a feeling; there is no longer any relationship to the original location, to the moment or the person depicted. He does not create portraits – people are depicted surreptitiously, from the back. He creates a distance. As a result, Braeckman’s work becomes an expression of universal feelings such as desire.

“For me, … restlessness equally means the force that I need for my work… If you start eliminating at that existential level, you inevitably end up with primal needs. If you reduce everything, it comes straight at you. Sex, death. I know, it sounds like an oppressive cliché, but you have to dare to admit that’s what it’s all about. That power and the destructiveness of it, the feeling and the antifeeling: it definitely remains a fundamental layer of my work. … In my creations, that has curiously a lot to do with this essence. That you don’t see certain things, or you do. “

Desires, needs and things missing as a starting point. Need for eroticism e.g. in the series Sisyphe exhibited at the Verhaeren Museum – a series based on images of an old magazine with ‘pornographic’ content.

If the image is completely detached from the original shot, space, context and perception – all that remains is an indeterminate feeling. A feeling with which the artist approached the work, and the feeling with which the audience sees the work. The images become a stopgap between viewer and maker; they do not provide answers but, on the contrary, raise more questions.

There should be no interminable explanation of an image beyond seeing and discovering. Frequently, the photographer says it is not up to him to explain his work. Is Braeckman still a photographer? He is in the in-between space just as his images mostly show the in-between space – Augé’s non-places. Artist certainly, but one might ask whether he is a photographer or a painter working with photography?

Dirk Braeckman is much imitated at home and abroad, but not matched. Imitators usually mirror the external features without understanding the essence. He belongs to the generation of Thomas Ruff (1958) and Craigie Horsfield (1949), there are some points of comparison – but just as many big differences.

In the exhibition at the Verhaeren Museum in Saint-Amand, Braeckman is confronted with Symbolism. Symbolism turns against the ‘superficiality’ of Impressionism, seeks depth in values and norms, and expresses itself in the depiction of, among other things, dream, eroticism, fears, alienation loneliness, restlessness, the metaphysical…

As with Braeckman, in the Symbolists we see solitary figures and empty spaces. Spilliaert shows us in The Restaurant 1904 the empty banqueting hall of a luxury restaurant where a Lynchian tension prevails. So it seems natural to see a connection – because with both the Symbolists and Braeckman, silence, darkness or gloom dominate and everything seems enigmatic – – even if Braeckman himself states that he is not driven by sadness or nostalgia. He says that a positive feeling is important in his work, albeit mixed with a healthy dose of melancholy.

In this exposition Braeckman’s oeuvre is contrasted with the pictorial work of Spilliaert, Rops and Redon, among others, and the literary oeuvre of Verhaeren. The exposition area was probably too small, but if one wanted to explore this track further I would suggest photographers such as Edward STEICHEN (1879-1973), Frank EUGENE (Smith) (1865-1936), Robert DEMACHY (1859-1936) and Anne BRIGMAN (1869-1950) and other figures of Pictorialism.

The exhibition at Saint Amand ran roughly parallel to a fine exhibition at the Frac Auvergne. A decent catalogue was published there under the title Evidences Possibles (with all texts in French & English), which we definitely recommend! Details can be found below

A small but very rich exhibition, and a fine achievement by the deserving curator Dr Rik Hemmerijckx. Unfortunately, all reports of a very successful exhibition must coincide with the unreal news that the museum will merge into an “experience centre” around local culture with local products and a café. Or how culture is increasingly slipping towards consumption and fun…

John Devos


Dirk Braeckman – Les Déboires de l’Âme – Verhaerenmuseum Sint-Amands (Belgium) till 04 06 2023


An extensive collection of texts can be found on the website of Dirk Braeckman

I recommend to read

Illustrated version


From the archive of The Eye of Photography:

Exhibition Auvergne 2023

Dirk Braeckman : évidences possibles

Clermont-Ferrand : Frac Auvergne, 2022, 188p. ill. en noir et en coul. 29 x 23cm, fre/eng

ISBN : 9782907672368. _ 19,00 €

Textes d’Eric Suchère, Jean-Charles Vergne

Exhibition NY 2022


Exhibition Le Bal 2015


Create an account or log in to read more and see all pictures.

Install WebApp on iPhone
Install WebApp on Android