Many voices are one voice

By Jan Baetens

hymns and qualms

Peter Cole

Hymns & Qualms (Poems and Translations, New and Selected)

New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2017

ISBN-13: 978-0374173883

Internet culture has made copy and paste, sampling, “uncreative” or “unoriginal” writing, as Kenneth Goldsmith or Marjorie Perloff like to say – in short all kind of modern day versions of imitation – fashionable once again. However, the success of this way of writing should not prevent us from understanding that real imitation always involves a high degree of admiration and awe, but not fear, and this in many cases is the most challenging way to authentic poetic expression. Just as there is something like “deep time”, there is something like “deep theme” as well as “deep form” in poetry, and ambitiously imitative takes on writing are perhaps the best way to address these issues in both modern and sustainable ways.

Born in Paterson, as, among many others, the hero of Jarmusch’s Paterson (see my review:, Peter Cole is a deeply multilingual and multicultural poet, whose work in English is nourished by his knowledge and translations of Hebrew and Arabic. Dividing his time between New Haven (CT) and Jerusalem, he is the author of one of the most remarkable bodies of poetry in English today. His new book, an anthology of old and new work as well as old and new translations that reuses the title of a previous collection from 1998, seamlessly brings together texts from three different languages, many cultures (it would be absurd to reduce the Arabic and Hebrew traditions to monolithic wholes) and a wide range of periods (the book contains translations of texts from late antiquity and the 11th century till very most contemporary creations). In that sense, it is much more than a personal anthology offering wonderful examples of the modern lyric, which in a very accessible but always sharply formulated language blurs the boundaries between the local and the global, the personal and the political, the descriptive and the meditative. The most striking feature of this multi-voiced and multi-layered book is its incredible unity. Not as the result of a modern and subjective streamlining, but as the outcome of a poetic inquiry into what authors, languages, cultures, and epochs may have in common in spite of their welcome differences, the very discovery of what humans share, which only poetry can teach them that it exists.

Hymns & Qualms is a once in a lifetime book for his author, a work of great maturity one can only publish every two, three decades. Readers, don’t miss it!

Photo-Lit – The Belgian photo novel

By Clarissa Colangelo and Jan Baetens


In May, “PHOTO-LIT – The Belgian photo novel: local reuse of a European cultural practice“, a research project funded by the BRAIN-be framework, has started; today its website is online:

The photo novel is a form of visual narrative with staged photographs, generally printed in magazine format, and was the dominant popular form in postwar pre-television Europe.

At the crossroads of film-novel, comics, melodrama, and serialized romance, the presence and impact of photo novels were unequalled, and its adaptations and re-appropriations in later periods remain an exceptional example of the dynamics of creativity and heritage, where they instantiate the visual turn in the transformations of reading and writing today.


The Belgian contribution to the photo novel, important and very diverse, has been completely overlooked by the existing scholarship. In a joint effort, professors and PhD students of KU Leuven (Jan Baetens, Fred Truyen and Clarissa Colangelo) and of ULg (Michel Delville, Luciano Curreri and Valentina Duminuco) together with professionals from KBR (among which head of digitization Frédéric Lemmers) will study the Belgian photo novel and disclose its form, meaning, relevance and history as an exemplary case of modern heritage in the era of mass media culture and technological modernization.

Don’t miss out on this new, exciting project: surf to our website and subscribe to the newsletter to follow our research and be updated on our future discoveries!

Europeana Photography: vintage photography revisited

By Fred Truyen

In May, we launched the Europeana Thematic channel on Photography – “Europeana Photography”. Cultural Studies Leuven was responsible for the curation – being a member of Photoconsortium, the expert hub on photography for Europeana. The channel opens up the richness of photographic heritage in Europeana by telling stories from a point of view that combines a sense for history with a deep understanding of the materiality and the photographic techniques, and how these interact with the way photographers used the medium to produce their magic. Photography is and will always be this raw, “in your face” medium, that directly imprints in the brain a compelling, unescapable “image”. Even though photographs have lied and deceived in so many ways, it is hard to resist their immediacy and supposed “realism”. Photographs have actually shaped our views on “facts”, events, news items and perceptions of conflicts throughout history since their invention in 1839. In Europeana Photography, curator Sofie Taes brings you an insight in the development of this medium and art through the centuries, by telling stories in the form of virtual exhibitions, such as “The Pleasure of Plenty” – in fact a series devised in different seasons as you might expect in the Netflix age -, galleries and so-called “browse entry points” or predefined queries, like the one on “cartes de visite”. Of course, if you are not afraid to browse through thousands and thousands – we can safely say more than 2.3 million images – just use the search box!

But for this blog post, let’s discuss some old photo techniques and how they define the character of the photograph. Let’s go from the oldest to newer ones. It is still very difficult to do justice to a Daguerreotype, as it is the result of a process that gives amazingly sharp images, with a typical silver brilliance. As it required a sealed glass encasing, Daguerreotypes in their frame are nice, precious objects. However, there is almost no shadow to be seen – Daguerreotypes are only sensitive to ultraviolet light. It has a rather dull, even tonality. This gives the images a kind of clinical, lifeless feeling. The object has a charming “metal” gloss, mostly improved through a gilding process. Often they were coloured in, as the example shown. A Daguerreotype (named after its inventor Louis Daguerre) is normally a mirrored image, although it was possible to reverse this by using prisms. It is very shiny and appears only when viewed from a certain angle.

What a contrast with the process developed by Louis Daguerre’s rival John Talbot, the calotype, which is a two-phased process with a calotype paper negative used to make salt print positives, by direct contact, exposed in the sun. The Daguerreotype produces a unique object, by contrast the calotype/salt print process allows for multiple copies to be made. What a warmth the sun gives to this all, and the paper negatives bring high contrasts and shadows, but also some blurriness and a soft feel. While the Daguerreotype quickly became the photography of science, the calotype won over the hearts and minds of the general public, offering dreamy impressions rather than naked facts.

My favourite photographic process is without any doubt the wet collodion process, commonly called wet plate photography. Collodion is a brownish, viscous fluid, to be poured on a hard support – can be a glass or metal plate –  that contains silver halides which can be sensitized when put in a bath of silver nitrate. That’s why it is “wet” when you take the photo – the whole process taking on average about 15 minutes for one shot. This procedure superseded the older techniques from about 1854 onwards. While it combines the sharpness of the Daguerreotype with a certain ease of use, it is the absolute king of contrast, producing a deep silver black and a richness in shadows.

Combine this with the properties of the big cameras used to make these photos – glass or metal plates sized 5×5 up to 14×14 inch and higher – and the big lens with an abhorrent large opening and the resulting very narrow depth of field, you get extremely forceful portraits, as Julia Margaret Cameron showed with such prowess, thereby defining portrait photography as an art in its own right! While the contrast is high, the dynamic range is rather limited, about half of that of digital photography, which in its turn is also not really a champion. A wet collodion photo is brutal: it reveals every detail in a face, due to its sensitivity for ultraviolet light, of which the short waves can perfectly map the slightest irregularities on the skin. A wet collodion photo on glass is called an ambrotype, when it is on a metal sheet it is often called a ferrotype or a tintype. The reproduction below however is a paper print.

Wet plate photography is increasingly popular with current portrait and landscape photographers as it is a relatively safe procedure and adds an astonishing level of detail and quality that are difficult to match by digital cameras.  This is not only the case for professional photography, but also for artistic photography where photographers such as Sally Mann have made decisive contributions to revive the genre.

The subsequent silver gelatine process would become the standard monochrome process in the later nineteenth and twentieth century, until the advent of course of digital photography. This easy to use, safe and scalable process would establish analogue photography. It is super clean and has all the good properties, but to me – and to many vintage enthusiasts rediscovering early photography – it cannot compete with the raw force of the wet collodion based ambrotypes or tintypes, let alone with the poetry of the salt prints. But then again its ease of use – dry plates or celluloid film – and higher sensitivity – resulting in shorter exposure times – boosted the creative development of photography, opening it up to sports, action, movement, depth of field etc., where older photographic techniques were essentially constrained to rather static portraits and landscapes.

A cyanotype is a specific process producing, as the word says, a “blue” image. There is a nice gallery of those on the channel. As this was an easy process, it was often used to quickly make prints to verify photos before making the actual commercial print. It was also used for the so-called “blue-prints” of designs and drawings. In fact the process was discovered by Sir John Herschell, one of the founding fathers of photography.

A last technique to mention is an early colour technique, developed by the brothers Lumière. It is the autochrome. In fact, this is a kind of diapositive. Onto the glass plate a layer of coloured starch grains – red, green, blue – is attached, which filters the incoming light. This layer stays with the photograph, which is then shown by backlighting. You get a kind of pointillist effect, and the colours produced have a special warmth that you usually do not find in current, more blueish and colder colour techniques.

Is the growing popularity of vintage photography yet another pointless surge of nostalgia in a world of digital banality and immediacy? A kind of allergic reaction to the emptiness of the selfie? Or is the photograph indeed something else than just the light information captured, but a magic that occurs in the chemistry of the material object that is the vintage print or plate ? This is for you to decide, but hopefully only after spending some hours on Europeana Photography!

A new comix autobiography

By Jan Baetens

Jean-Christophe Menu

Krollebitches. Souvenirs même pas en bande dessinée

Brussels: Les Impressions Nouvelles, 2017, 176 p.



KrollebitchesCOUVUNE-707x1024Jean-Christophe Menu is one of the major voices of alternative comics in France, both as an author and as the co-founder of L’Association, the leading publisher of French comix in the period of his 20 years editorship (he resigned a couple of years ago). He is above all a living paradox: the angry young man of the French bande dessinée scene, he is also the holder of a PhD on the subject (moreover an excellent one, frequently used and quoted in academic research: La Bande dessinée et son double, 2011); the living example of authentic visual thinking, he is also an author who does not make any real distinction between his drawings and his writings. His new book is the perfect yet open synthesis of all these forces and tendencies.

“Krollebitches” (literally: small curls) is a neologism coined by the Belgian comics artist Franquin that refers to what in English is called “emanata”, the small but highly significant symbols that can surround characters in comics and that represent either a movement (speed lines) or certain states of mind (surprise, interrogation, bewilderment, etc.). These “krollebitches” are one of the most typical features of comics as an art of drawing and as such they are the perfect title for a book that aims at disclosing both the specificity of comics as a visual language and the passionate relationship between maker and work as well as between work and reader.

Krollebitches is a vital contribution to comics culture for many reasons. In the first place, it is an autobiography of one of the decisive figures of alternative comics of the last 25 years, who succeeded almost single-handedly to bridge the gap between underground comix and traditional publishing without ever abandoning the creative vitality of the punk spirit. Autobiography in comics has become a cliché nowadays, due to the autobiographical turn of the graphic novel and the rising market of interview books. Krollebitches, however, offers something else: not a graphical novel, but a real text, complemented –rather than illustrated– by a permanent flow of perfectly appropriated emanate (the author himself has been in charge of the book’s layout, which is a stunning example of clever layout). Moreover, the book is not the work of an interviewer or a ghostwriter, but of the artist himself, who proves to be as efficient and surprising a writer as a visual artist. In addition, Krollebitches does not claim to tell it all: it focuses on the formative years of Menu, and one will notice that these years start early since the author was already reading comics before he could actually read. In that sense, the book is an astonishing but very authentic and convincing tribute to some old masters –I already mentioned Franquin, but Menu’s knowledge of the field is breathtaking and his tastes are much more eclectic than one might suppose.

Yet next to the documentary value of the book, which is an ideal introduction to the world of comics as seen through the eyes and the personal experience of a great artist, Krollebitches is also an exceptionally well written piece of literature. Menu is in perfect command of his very direct as well as sober style, which exemplifies the surprisingly classic ideal of “aptness”, and this applies to everything in this book: vocabulary, syntax, rhythm, word and image interaction, touch and feel of the object.