By Jan Baetens
Curated by Tamara Berghmans and still on display till Oct. 6th, the FOMU (Antwerp Photography Museum) exhibit on the Belgian photobook is an absolute must see. As a specific photographic host medium, the photobook is definitely not new. Actually, the first pictures by Fox Talbot were published in this format and the rapid shift from unique and non-reproducible daguerreographs to positive-negative types of photography capable of being reproduced and hence (more) easily reprinted in book format, represented a kind of silent revolution, the consequences of which have not always been taken seriously. In recent years, the famous trilogy by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger on the photobook as an independent branch of photography culture has dramatically changed this perception and helped challenge the false idea that photographs are only real or serious cultural artefacts when they are seen on the walls of a museum or gallery.
The Anglo-Saxon approach of Parr and Badger does, however, come with a price in terms of corpus (including genres) as well as temporal, geographic and cultural limitations. Volumes 2 and 3 of their trilogy already addressed these issues, but many questions are still open. What about “minor” cultures in a photography field that is so heavily dominated by the Paris-New York axis? What about genres that are underrepresented or ignored in “major” contexts? What about the very idea of word and image relationships when photography becomes a practice that is aimed to circulate in book format?
The FOMU exhibit offers many new answers to questions like these, and it does so in a way that is both highly attractive for a large audience and very rewarding for the more scholarly interested public. The museum showcases a large variety of often fascinating and always very surprising objects, which can not only be seen or admired, but also actually read, either in analog form (many books are on display and can be freely accessed) or in digital form (with the help of tablets and touch screens, all of them using high quality scans). Text panels and captions are exemplary, that is sober and well written, and guide the visitor to the exceptionally well-made (and relatively inexpensive) scientific catalog, which combines detailed descriptions of all items on display and in-depth analyses of thematically structured transversal issues.
In addition, this exhibit is a great opportunity to further reflect on the meaning of the word “Belgium”. The Belgian photobook is radically multilingual, while the differences between Flemish and Francophone cultures are much smaller than one might expect, and it is open to artists, curators, critics, and writers coming from all over the world. In that sense as well, this exhibit is a necessary complement to larger debates on culture and identity in Europe.