By Marc Steculorum.
Published by Camera Work, Antwerp.
A Where, When, And Why Book.
“Whereabouts” tries to capture in words and images some of the magic of photography. The aim of the book is to clarify what sets photography apart as a medium for reflection and discovery. It shows photographs that have been made by Belgian photographer Marc Steculorum over a period of more than thirty years. However, the sequence of images is not chronological, nor thematic. It is the interaction of text and images that determines the structure of the book.
On “WHEREABOUTS” by Marc Steculorum:
I call it a “where, when, and why book”. It’s about the kind of photography that I love, and it’s the kind of book that I wanted to read when I was a student, trying to find my way. There isn’t an introductory essay by an art historian, and there aren’t any intermediaries between the reader and the photographer. You only read the words of the photographer. That is why it is a bit like a workshop: not in the sense that I go over the rigid technical aspects of lenses or photoshop techniques, but instead because I try to explore the philosophy behind taking photos – why I take pictures my way and no other.
Generally, there are two types of photo books. You have the overarching books that give a total picture of the oeuvre of a photographer. Alternatively, there are books that are limited to one specific series, one subject, or one period in the photographer’s lifetime.
My book isn’t one or the other. It shows photos that have been made over a period of more than thirty years, but the sequence of the images is not chronological, nor thematic. The text determines the structure of the book, not the images. I use the photos to clarify certain aspects of photography.
I want to be very careful with combining words and images. In an ideal world, images should be able to function without text or explanation.
Of course, a good text written in a clear language can enrich a photo, maybe even make the viewing of a work of art more complete. What I do not like, however, is the fluffy art language that conceals rather than clarifies, and that tries to weave a false impression of profundity and importance.
I start the book with a photo of myself as a very young photographer. It’s the only photo in the book that I didn’t take. It’s a photo without any pretense – just a snapshot was taken somewhere in the 70’s on the porch outside my family home. In it I’m standing with a little camera on a tripod, gesturing to the four people standing next to me (my parents, my aunt, and my uncle). It’s the kind of photo that everyone has, but in a way it says something essential about photography. Namely, that photo’s show us another time and another place. The person looking at the photograph lives within the here and now, but through a simple picture they can access a there and then. It’s one of the aspects of photography that really spoke to me – that moments and places could be saved from oblivion.
I didn’t want to write about every kind of photography. I was interested in talking about my own photography as well as that of the photographers I feel a connection with. Within cinema, there’s something called a ‘cinéma d’auteur’ – it’s a particular kind of film in which the director has complete autonomy over every aspect of the filmmaking process. Through the book I wanted to explore a similar kind of photography – the vision of one person, unconstrained and uncensored by commercial interests.
With my photography, I want to show things that might not be seen otherwise. Photographs that encourage people to look at things differently, if only for a moment. We are all so overwhelmed by images that want to force something on us – images of elusive luxury, of artificiality and emptiness, images of misery and doom, photos of extreme situations and places. Images that want to promote a certain kind of beauty, a beauty that is often far removed from what we experience every day. Images reared by extreme views and techniques in post-production. With my photos, I want to go against that, give a kind of antidote. I want to give photography a calmness, let it tap into silence, without becoming boring of course.
You often hear art students say they don’t want to know anything about the history of their medium because they want to stay “pure”, unblemished by influences of any kind. They assume that the new, the unseen, is the greatest goal and that they will lose it if they know too much about the history of their medium. I doubt that strongly. You have to understand that you are part of a tradition, that the others who came before you did interesting things, worked in a way that can give inspiration upon which you can respond and continue to build. Somewhere in the book I quote the Russian choreographer Balanchine, who started from the credo: “There are no new steps, only new combinations”. In other words, you rarely invent something real when you try too hard.
The result often leads to effect hunting and to sterile style exercises. On the contrary, it’s okay to feel related to a certain atmosphere in a work, a shared way of looking at things. It doesn’t matter in which period that the artist worked or in which medium the work was made.
Another thing you can’t ignore is that the cameras that a photographer uses over the years partly determine his work. The Japanese photographer Araki once said: “If you want to take other photos, take a different camera.” The speed with which you work and the things you can photograph depend on the device you use. In my early years, I photographed static subjects – landscapes, buildings – with a camera that was completely suited for it: a camera on a tripod that gave a negative of 20 by 25 centimeters. It also made me work slower, taking only a handful of photos a day. For someone who wants to get to know the medium, that is actually ideal. You start to think about what you do, about what you find important in a photo. Later I started using that heavy camera in situations that seem less suitable for such a device, in situations with many people, with a lot of movement and action.
Whatever camera you work with, the essence of photography remains the same. Every photo is a cut in time and space. You determine what is shown in the frame and at what point in time. Taking photos is not only registering, but also transforming. You adjust reality to a certain extent. Photography is very easy and difficult at the same time. Easy because it’s so close to looking and simply recognizing what you see. It’s also difficult because you have to choose, and the difference between failure and success can be very subtle.
You – but also the viewer – need to have an eye for that subtlety.
The simplest, but also the most correct description of photography (or better, of my kind of photography) may have been made by John Szarkowski, former head of the MoMA photo department: “A photographer is someone who points out and says this is worth seeing”. Everyone can of course just point to something (that is the easy part), but doing so with precision, originality, and relevance, is truly difficult.
A chapter in the book describes the years that I had my own exhibition space in Antwerp, a gallery for photography. We opened the gallery in 1985, with a lot of ambition and little money. Back then that was still possible.
The intention was to make exhibitions that were small in size but with quality work and care for presentation. Big names from photo history were shown, alongside work from relatively unknown photographers, both local and abroad. Although there was no internet and social media then, we wanted to try to get people to look at photos in a different way.
We also introduced the idea that photos could be “difficult”, and that looking at photos was more than recognizing beautiful images. That there is a difference between taking a picture of something that is beautiful and taking a picture that is beautiful.
Photos are everywhere nowadays, it’s almost overwhelming. The urge to show off and cause a sort of “shock and awe-effect” typifies most work.
I thought it would be useful to take a step back and ask what is typical about photos, what makes them unique as images, and what is often no longer recognized as a quality. I could say that the aim of the book is to clarify what sets photography apart as a medium for reflection and discovery. For me, good photos are at the same time very simple and complex, free from any form of demagoguery, The intervention of the photographer has to be precise and with authority, showing things, plain and direct. In this way, making photos and looking at photos can be an exercise in concentrated viewing, a quality that is in danger of being lost nowadays.
This “where, when, and why” book can be read as a kind of autobiography, one written in the form of a workshop experience. It is aimed at students as well as anyone with an interest in visual art.