Admittedly whenever I enter Belgium I am mostly on the way to somewhere else, usually France. Even so I have always been fascinated by the way things change as soon as you cross the border between Holland and Flanders. Not really noticeable or defined by anything as dramatic as a large river or an impressive mountain ridge, still unmistakably a crossing from one culture to another.
Endlessly fascinated by the view from the train, mostly of things going rusty, rotting, decaying or falling apart in any possible way, but ever so charmingly, I never could find a word to describe exactly what this Belgian quality is, that sets it apart from the rest of northern Europe. Then at last, a few weeks ago, just as I was coming back from one of my short highly enjoyable Parisian stints, it hit me: “ Belgium is Vanfleterenesque”. I am of course referring to the Flemish photographer Stephan Vanfleteren and his recently released major opus book succinctly entitled “B”.
Stephan – I am using his first name, having met him a few years back in a Amsterdam café’, although this would be too thin a connection for me to actually call him by his first name to his face now that he has deservedly become a celebrity – has done something quite exceptional and very good: he has developed an original black and white photographic signature of his own, a style, and created a unique body of work that touchingly portraits the moving poetry of his country and his people, mostly seen from the angle of the poor, the old and the sick.
Never for a moment are we left to feel other than sympathy and respect for his subjects, those up to now mainly unsung heroes of a tough life and hard times, and the streets and landscapes that make up their world. Vanfleteren’s subjects are met mostly in café’s and approached with endless patience. Not by a prying intrusive paparazzo but a fellow human being, an empathic poet, a deeply sensitive person. All these qualities obviously are felt by his subjects and repaid with the trust and acceptance needed for his extremely close up way of working.
The old Rollei 66 SE is at the heart of his medium format approach. Eclectic choice this is, in many ways, but one that allows Stephan a few of his personal stylistic traits. Not only does he shoot from bellybutton height, holding the camera against his stomach to “work with my gut feeling” as he himself puts it - exploiting the low angle - but also not having a camera in front of his face at the time of shooting makes it easier to stay in touch with the subject while working. Furthermore, the 66 is the only 6x6 handheld reflex camera that allows tilting the lens upwards or downwards on his built in bellows, allowing either extended depth of field (Scheimpflug) or restricted selective focus. Quite a few of his beautiful square photographs rely on this creamy softness around the main point of interest. When in 35mm he tends to be the faster, quick snapping photographer one would expect from a photojournalist. Stephan is equally proficient in both styles.
So why is his work full of sentiment and never soppy? How does he get away with so much drama without seeming concocted? Why is he successful where others are merely boring, how does he see beauty where others see only squalor? I guess there is only one answer to this: Stephan is an artist of the camera.
Paradoxically, the fact that his book and his exhibition are met with so much acclaim and success by his fellow countrymen seems to me, regardless of how sad his images of Belgium can be, a very hopeful sign for his presently troubled country and a credit to its people.