Practising photography as ‘soul work’
I just published a new book.
I refer to it as a cahier, which is French for ‘notebook’. 64 pages, 24 images, and 2 poems from my own hand. The modesty belies its long period of gestation. It’s the first rounded product I’m putting out into the world since in 2007 I published the record of my journey through all the capitals of the European Union.
I started to practice photography in earnest more than 20 years ago. I knew how to handle a reflex camera since my teens. But photography became a calling as a result of a confluence of two important events: in 2001, a few days after 9/11, I had a most intense and intriguing dream which I accepted as an invitation to explore new means of expression. My initial hunch was to go into painting, but an assignment in 2002 in Mongolia set me on the photographic trail. The first years were devoted to an intense exploration of the medium.
In 2007 I met Italian photographer Lorenzo Castore at a workshop. He became my mentor for many years. As a result my engagement with the practice became existential. Many questions were raised which I didn’t know how to answer. As a result of the inquiry my craft deepened and I honed my photographic language. But I didn’t seem to be ready to give my work a tangible shape. In 2020 Lorenzo told me he taught me what he could and suggested to move on, as friends, “each with his own limitations.”
As my practice had developed in a masculine community, I started to look for a feminine source of inspiration and advice. I ended up in a masterclass with French photographer Claudine Doury, which led to an onward contact with curator Isabella Brancolini. Isabelle told me to stop starting new projects and to work hard on the presentation of my work. I took her advice to heart and connected to Paris-based curator Valérie Fougeirol, who has been helping me these past two years in this trajectory. The work is mine, the ideas are mine, but she’s providing me with a sounding board, necessary encouragement, and pointers to sources of inspiration beyond my horizon. In the spring of last year I set up an ambitious exhibition in Antwerp, and the present publication is another product of the collaboration with Valérie.
Maggia emerged from a month-long writing retreat in the Swiss Alps in February 2021. I took my analog Bronica rangefinder along, but it broke down on day 1 of that sojourn (sadly, it still hasn’t been fixed). So I had to rely on my mobile phone as a visual note taker. I photographed casually, had the pictures regularly printed at the local supermarket further up in the valley and created a moodboard on the kitchen wall of my cottage. The images started to live in my subconscious. After my return I continued to look and tinker and my desire grew to put them into some kind of form. At that point the narrative underpinning the collection of images had not yet appeared.
And a single narrative is unlikely to appear. But I appreciate now better some of the layeredness of this compact, classic body of work.
There is a unity of time and place. I kept my iPhone lens trained on motives in the Valle Maggia. As it forges ahead from the Lago Maggiore to the Lepontine Alps in the north it branches off in a tangle of wild side valleys. Human beings have lived there at least since the late Neolithic. Signs of devotional practices are everywhere. Maggia for me also started to rhyme with the Virgin, Maria.
The early winter of 2020–21 had been rich in snow and cold, but temperatures rose in the latter half of January. When I arrived the lower parts of the valley had been cleared of snow, while the shoulders and peaks were still under a thick blanket. This seasonal in-between — winter retreating to make way for spring — is another key element in my experience of the retreat. Metaphorically it can be easily amplified to encompass key questions around the transition between phases in adulthood, or even around the societal transition we are currently engaged in. The in-between is a liminal phase with faint and unreliable landmarks to guide us. The two poems in the book, which I wrote during my sojourn in the valley, suggest related tropes of navigational uncertainty.
The portfolio modulates between peaks and vales, snowy heights and wild side valleys thick with unruly vegetation. I started to appreciate the potency of this in-between through reading the work of post-Jungian psychologist James Hillman, particularly his book Senex and Puer. The peaks are the terrain of the puer aeternus, the wingled godlike imago in each of us that clambers up to the realm of spirit, to the place of eternal truths where we can transcend our history. In the valleys the view is constrained and the underbrush is thick. It’s the domain of soul, of introspection. This is also what the epigraph in the book, borrowed from Hillman, talks about: “It is so much easier to transcend history by climbing the mountain and let come what may than it is to work on history within us. (…) Change in the valley requires recognition of history, an archaeology of the soul, a digging in the ruins, a recollecting.” Spiritually the challenge is one of finding synergistic connections between the puer’s drive upward and the soul’s clouded, constraining embrace.
Two people have an oblique presence in the book. They are good friends, have a complicated relationship with one another and with that particular place. In Maggia they brush shoulders, unaware of each other’s presence.
But beyond these perhaps rather obvious layers of meaning, I can’t quite put the finger on why these images continue to fascinate me …
Which is how I’d like to keep it. Photography has for me increasingly become Hillmanian ‘soul work’: an invitation to let conceptual interpretation drift on the waves of a polytheistic imagination, to talk to existential confusion and ambivalence in the language of the image.
“The image is always more inclusive, more complex than the concept.”
Text and images by Philippe Vandenbroeck
Publication date: 11 February 2023
Series: Genius Loci, Vol. 1
Book design: Annemie Mermans (Meer Wit)
Printed in Belgium via Indigo Projects
Edition: 25 copies