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Bruno, Grande Rue
Gelatin silver print
Provided by the artist - Carl Uytterhaegen
Auchel, A Curse, A Camp, A Ghetto
A bewildered documentary photo essay by Carl Uytterhaegen
Recently, I have seen those pictures again about the Northern French coalminers' village Auchel. They still are as shocking as when 1 saw them the first time. They are really pictures about a camp, a ghetto. The picture are made with so susceptible feeling behind a tight objectivity, that you cannot comment on them without having a feeling of shame and respect, misery is calling for. They are frightful images with sometimes also rare memories of beautiful and real things such as a smiling child, a flower, playing children, a young woman, Yet, these are exactly the things which make Auchel a curse....
The pictures, dealt with in this article, are only a limited selection out of thousands of pictures which Carl Uytterhaegen, photographer and professor in photography at the Koninklijke Academie voor Schone Kunsten (Royal Academy of Fine Arts) in Gent, Belgium, has made about Auchel between 1975 and 1980. On his way back from a holiday in Southern France, he discovered this bewildered scenery. During the next 5 years, he returns to Auchel more than 50 times to photograph there in all seasons. He really becomes obsessed about this strange and bewildered environment where people stayed to live.
This selection of his pictures, gives a good survey of the quality of this kind of photography. These pictures remind one the ones Sander made about war invalids, gypsies and beggars, and which clearly show how Sander met those people and how he talked with them. In the selection of Uytterhaegen's pictures, you get exactly the same impression. Auchel is seen and felt with humility and pity.
This is a portrait of what is called, 'La ville d'Auchel', where 411 mining operations ceased after the Second World War. Yet, the heaps of stone and slag as wall as the typical coalminers' dwellings are still there as was the case in 1920. The aspect of the region did not change very much after the closing of the mines. Yet, poverty did enter because besides the mines, there was no other industry. People who actually found jobs are commuting and have to leave their homes at 3.45 a.m. to get to their job by 7.00 a.m.
A lot of people is unemployed at Auchel. The village lives in an atmosphere of indifference under a regularly on blowing sulphurous smell. The children play on the stone and slag heaps between waste. Young people are drinking in small local pubs or are playing at cards for money on the porches of their modest houses. Women are at homes looking T. V. or taking care of their families. Once a week, they can afford to buy some meat. Next to physical and spiritual poverty, there are also a lot of physically and mentally handicapped people living in Auchel. They all live closely together and have developed a strong solidarity amidst their great misery. They live in rubbish, inadequate wooden sheds between bicycles, carts, secondhand and repaired motorbikes broken toys, dogs and cats, chickens and duckier graffiti on the walls, etc. etc. And then, there are the children, sometimes with a flower or cuddling a pet to get some warmth, pathetic faces, with their Sunday suit or dresses, which makes it still more worse.
Yet, there is also a boy with a balloon (remember 'Le Ballon Rouge'!). Occasionally there is also a rare tree to be seen. How in heaven's name has someone deserved to be born there?
This valuable series of pictures (in which every foreign publisher would see a project for a highly esteemed photo book), is an example of documentary photography vs. commentary photography. The traditional commentary photography in indeed photography of (maybe very recent) events, of situations which summarize these events and (if possible, depending on the photographer) which explains these events, giving us at the same time some knowledge about the background or the range of influence of these events.
Documentary photography is far more illustrating photography, as such that it is prepared with scientific care or dealing extensively and in depth with a subject in all its different aspects, in view of objectivity; subjects are mostly sociological themes, as is here the case with Carl Uytterhaegen.
His extensive photographic work about Auchel is very much in line with what documentary photography stands for. Only the preparative study is complemented here with good knowledge of the subject, i.e. a society of people who you can get acquainted with only after several meetings as Carl Uytterhaegen has done in a most friendly, patient and attentive way.
(The historical survey about the development of Auchel from an agrarian village to a miners' town, is summarized from a "Histoire de la Ville d'Auchel, written in 1930, of which the bibliography is missing).
In the five years, Carl Uytterhaegen was working on this project, a systematic pattern in his dealing with the subject can be observed:
- The landscape with stone and slag heaps to the horizon and the rhythmical repeating of the coalminers' dwellings constitute the general setting of the small town
- The total view of the streets of the coalminers' quarters, with left and right a looking, playing or running figure. The total aspect of the surroundings.
- Small groups of playing children in the landscape who show the proportion of the people in this environment.
- People in the streets, groups who show what kind of people is living here (sociological) and how they arc bored, having a strong solidarity at the same time.
- People in the setting of their daily life: a small courtyard, back premises; lonely people surrounded by waste which works very symbolic here. Individualizing of social problems.
- (Mostly young) people sitting for their portrait who were asked by the photographer to look into his camera; pathetic faces of people, having surmounted their distrust to discover that friendly attention in given to them. This is a form of intimate contact with the outside worlds another world.
That this is exclusively black and white photography is quite evident. The same can be said of miniature photography, but we stress that theme pictures are only completely developed negatives. We distinguish some elements of shaping which Carl Uytterhaegen clearly prefers:
- First of all the light, which remains gray and which is only rarely sunny.
- The horizon which is almost never captured in the picture, and when it is, it is seen high in the right corner, resulting in a closed landscape picture.
- A lot of outdoor pictures are taken between the stone and slag heaps in 'plongé' (from top downwards) resulting also in the same closeness.
- If there are sitting persons in front of the picture, they are set very near the viewer, the scenery which dominates everything nl the background.
- The squarely right position of the camera on the street scenes stresses the loneliness of the setting.
- There is always a distinguished relation between the persons and the background.
- A lot of standing people are set in the rectangle in such way that they are out off at the height of their knees, by which they come prominently into view.
This is indeed a very efficiently constructed photography which is dominated by a great intuitive accuracy and technical subtlety.
When talking with Flemish photographers, the same theme is always coming forward a disappointing and discouraging (sometimes) rage about the lack of possibilities in Belgium. This is related to the fact that we do not have here yearbooks, nor markets for artistic photography, no publishers who publish present photography (as photography), no great magazine nor review exclusively for high standing photography. So no money is available.
As such, there are many young photographers having many plans and good ideas who are very promising photographers but who also find out in the end that it is not sufficient to have good ideas or to make good pictures only. There has to be market for them, which is seldom the case.
The cause of this situation is not always due to pure Mercantilism shortsightedness or reactionary mentality. We do live indeed in a small linguistic community with all restrictions attached to it. Compared with what is spent to photography in the U. S. A. or in the German Federal Republic, the situation in Belgium is dramatic. It remains a frustrating business for a Flemish photographer who is already happy having the possibility to publish some of his pictures f. i. in the 'AVENUE' magazine.
A progressing cultural integration of the Dutch speaking community as a whole might help these photographers in the future, especially if this integration would be combined with forms for commercial cooperation.
Carl Uytterhaegen belongs to this group of photographers with the negative experience of not having their work published. He recently informed me that his Auchel pictures will be on exhibition in June in Cardiff (Wales, U. K.) and in the Fall in Gent, Belgium.
Because of the skeptical situation in Belgium as far as photography is concerned, a Center for Creative Photography has been established in Gent (with Carl Uytterhaegen, Walter De Mulder and Johan VaIcke as promoters ) to force somewhere a breakthrough.
I would like to add something to the curriculum vitae of Carl Uytterhaegen within the scope of this article and to give his pictures and personality some more backing.
Carl Uytterhaegen comes from a family of four, and studied after his humanities, pedagogy, French and history. Very soon, he took up photography, in which he discovered himself.
He photographed gypsies, Jazz musicians, made concepts of photographs series, sometime in cooperation with artists in plastic arts, landscapes a very interesting series of landscapes with traffic mirrors (about which he wrote very keen commentary himself) a series about the Olive Trees of San Donato, the mining district of Wales, street portraits which he called 'contact portraits'. Carl Uytterhaegen is very much involved in everything he undertakes his work, his teaching, the renovation of his house, his neighbourhood, his town. He is active in a neighbourhood committee and is very much involved in the problems of town renovation and protection of the environment. He considers Vietnam and Cambodia as great dramas being however comfortably too far away.
His activities in the neighbourhood Committee are partly based on the fact that he himself has renovated a house, he bought in the Old Beguinage actually the very center of the renovation and living dispute of that beautiful historical city of Gent.
When you enter Car1Uytterhaegen's house, you are immediately impressed by the very personal decor of a very personal artist. Steps and levels, works of art on the walls, beautiful light everywhere, a lot of pebbles, rocks and wood, all playfully ordered, a nice interior to feel oneself at home.
On top of that, there is an incredible silence in the very heart of that busy city. A silence which sticks to you, also when you have left the house, thinking about Auchel and the people who are condemned to survive there together with their children.
Karel Van Deuren
'Foto' (NL) 8-1981, p. 52-59