A merely two hour drive from Amsterdam, the fair city of Antwerp is the fastest way to feel on holiday abroad for us, with the added thrill of being able to speak and understand a somewhat common language, while enjoying the differences in tones and expressions. Off we were on this last weekend of August, to stroll along the promenade on the river Schelde, having paid a visit to Rubens’s house, after a good lunch, vaguely in the direction of the museum of Photography –was it over there? How far? Can’t remember but I seem to recognize this parking lot. –
A fine building on the Vlaamse Kaai, with the sort of clean white grey interior that is becoming typical of photography museums all over it would seem, causing a sense of potentially weary familiarity in the otherwise happy displacement of travel. Obviously the lay out, the glass walls, the huge elevators, are all very practical, expedient and good looking, so it stands to reason that they should be generally adopted. True international style really, but the collection surely will be different? Well, yes and no.
This museum struck me many years back as being very good at giving an idea of the history of photography and also a basic understanding of the medium, with a collection of old cameras, and working models of camera obscura boxes and other gadgetry for visitors young and old to fidget with, while having a very solid show of vintage prints by all the great masters. Then on the ground floor, a huge space, contemporary photo shows were put up regularly. Martin Paar was on when I was there for the first time – young, enthousiast, embarassingly thin by todays standards –twenty odd years back. I had enjoyed the visit immensely and regretted that no such institution was to be found in my home town. Now in a way it is, and isn’t.
It seems as if in time the two cities have grown closer, the three cities rather as I would like to count Rotterdam in the number of prominent photo museums. They have much in common, so much that there is a risk of blending them in one relatively uniform experience. This is strengthened by travelling photo exhibitions that move from one location to the other making it possible to land on the same place over and over – photographically speaking – if you happen to plan your visits wrong. – Guy Bourdin? Again? - I guess we could call this globalization too.
Some sense of place could be kept by a few local authors, or maybe a specialization in some aspect or other. Acquiring the Agfa collection is bound to produce an impressive display of old cameras once fully organized, in Antwerp, that can hardly be matched by others even if they should want to. The first pieces on show already fill a large floor and are more than I could cope with in one session. Still I hope that this museum will absorbe some of the typical aspects that make this city and all the Flemish culture so interesting, charming and unique. It can only be through their own distinct politics of aquisition and display, and the original use of whatever floor or space can be spared from the more commercial travelling shows that seem unavoidable in todays international photo retail mass exhibitions crowd pleasing tit showing market.
With talents like Stephan Vanfleteren around, Belgian directors have more than a fair chance to succeed.