Contemporary Belgian photographer Dirk Braeckman is known for making enigmatic, grey-scale images that obscure their subject in favour of emphasising experimentation during the photographic process. The Ghent-based artist, whose output spans over 30 years, presents atmospheric darkroom-altered photographs of unspectacular subjects—tile floors, curtains, empty rooms and corridors, the sea, and nudes taken in hotel rooms.Read More
Born in Eeklo, Belgium, Dirk Braeckman took an interest in art from an early age, befriending several older, local painters. As explained in Dirk Braeckman's interview with Ocula Magazine in 2021, he first went to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent in 1977 with the intention of studying painting.
Inspired by photorealist painters like Gerhard Richter who use photography to make their paintings, Braeckman chose to study photography and film as a vehicle towards painting. Instead, he became enraptured by the chemical alchemy of the darkroom process, a fascination of his that remains to this day.
Dirk Braeckman's black and white photographs in the 1980s were mainly self-portraits and images of friends. A shift away from portraiture came in the 1990s as a result of a three month stay in New York. Too shy to photograph the people around him, Braeckman instead photographed the inanimate fixtures of his surroundings. This, and the suggestive imagery of 1930s crime scenes in Luc Sante's 1992 photobook Evidence—where the body is absent—led him to focus on images of places and things without people.
Though the human body still recurs throughout his work, Dirk Braeckman's camera is primarily focused on subjects he describes as 'anti-spectacular'—empty rooms and hotel corridors, close-ups of curtains, furniture, and the sea, and cropped landscapes and sunset views. Each image invokes a sense of mystery. Without a distinct narrative, there remain only subtle suggestions of lives being lived. The cropping of the images removes their subjects from any identifiable context, inserting an emotional and temporal distance between them and the viewer.
To this end, Braeckman regularly returns to his significant archive of negatives to select images to develop that he has often forgotten about for some years. Removed from their setting, Braeckman pairs images such as these with contextually and thematically unconnected photographs to draw out new narratives.
Presenting his work on behalf of Belgium at the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017, Dirk Braeckman's installation included imagery of small, glittering waves on the shoreline beside billowing silk curtains, generating an emotional dialogue between disconnected moments.
Braeckman continually expands on and draws from this archive. For his 2021 solo exhibition at Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp, titled FERNWEH—a German term that describes a longing for distant places—Braeckmen displays some of the fruits of his archival exploration during the Covid-19 pandemic.
His engagement with his archive presents itself in book form too. Dirk Braeckman's Roma publication in 2011, part catalogue raisonné, reversed the conventional order of artist publications by presenting images from his archive that had not yet been printed—blurring the lines between a photography book and survey publication.
While Dirk Braeckman's personal archive, amassed over the decades, is not translated into a painterly output such as in the work of Richter, he takes a painterly approach to processing his images. His intention is not to tell a story like a documentary photographer, but to create an image as an artist does. Treating the dark room as an artist's studio, Braeckman uses various tools and techniques to manipulate the original photograph into an autonomous creation. Often, the original image is obscured by cropping and layers of texture. Through these manipulations, Dirk Braeckman's editions—often printed to a large scale—evoke a sense of tactility by inferring physical sensations of touch, sound, smell, and spatial presence.
Recently, Braeckman has also adopted video as a medium. Applying to it many of the same principles of his photography, he presents close-up videos without sound or colour, so that these too may be inferred by the viewer.
Dirk Braeckman's photography has earned multiple awards and has been exhibited widely across Europe and in the United States. Dirk Braeckman's photographs can be found in significant public collections including Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst S.M.A.K., Ghent; Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels; Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris; Centraal Museum, Utrecht; and the Centre National des Arts Plastiques, Paris.
FOCUS: Dirk Braeckman, The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas (2019); Dirk Braeckman, BOZAR, Brussels (2018); schwarzschild, S.M.A.K., Ghent (2014); Dirk Braeckman, De Appel, Amsterdam (2012); Dirk Braeckman, Museum M, Leuven (2011); Additional Photos, Museum De Pont, Tilburg (2004); z.Z(t). ('94-'01), S.M.A.K, Ghent (2001); Travaux récents, Contretype, Brussels (1990).
noWHere, S.M.A.K., Ghent (2019); Still Life, Obstinacy of Things, Kunst Haus Wien, Vienna (2018); The Importance of Being..., Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro (2014); The State of Things, National Art Museum of China, Beijing (2010); A Story of the Image: Old & New Masters from Antwerp, National Museum, Singapore (2009); De Opening. De verzameling, S.M.A.K., Ghent (1999); La photographie belges des origines à nos jours, Centre National de la Photographie, Palais du Tokyo, Paris (1991).
Michael Irwin | Ocula | 2021