Circumspect innocence
Addendum to Debby Huysmans’ photographs

To photograph reality is to photograph nothing.
Duane Michals

It really isn’t such a big deal. Nevertheless, at the same time, the closer you look, the more you appreciate the overwhelming power of life on Earth, our peculiar existence on the edge, once of glory, then again of doom. And in between these enormous force fields we merely saunter about, washed ashore, trying to cope, but, oh, the tenderness, the fathomless perceptions in the fraction of a second. These are the reflections of Arjen Mulder in his Het Fotografisch Genoegen , where he furthermore contemplates somewhat recklessly that if photography has a purpose, it is indeed that of evoking the awareness that if life on Earth revolves in natural cycles of appearance and substitution. “After a flood the water withdraws, after death there’s life, after motion immobility. And photography demonstrates better than any other medium that life can merely be found in the smallest unit: the individual. The more accurately a photograph captures the overall characteristic features of humanity, the more universal the corresponding perception of the spectator becomes. Photographic innocence means not only to have mastered a technical medium, but also one’s own presumptions. Innocence is a universal human right. Every generation should reinvent it with its own resources, old and new. The natural unity, to which we belong, just like all those before us and all who will follow, is one of immobility, an immobility accomplished time after time with the necessary attention and effort, but which is indeed self-explanatory. Innocent photography captures the non-contingency in an occurrence.

So, unwary. Innocence as imagery language, not as an excuse – these images by Debby Huysmans are not your average innocent, naïve images where everything is possible and a bonus – the maxim of many contemporary photographers. This here is innocence as a mentality, light-hearted but sober. At our best – sober – and in the most suitable circumstances we create images of what’s in front of the camera, to honour what’s bigger or more interesting than us. We have never succeeded in this flawlessly, even though in return we receive something perfect – the feeling of belonging. In this manner, our subject redefines us, and becomes part of the biography through which we present ourselves. That way photography doesn’t prove servitude to anything except itself – although this doesn’t mean that it can’t make a statement about (an experience of) reality, that tenacious inevitable basic assumption of the medium. The opportunity to, at least temporarily, achieve cohesion, to be together instead of being alone, is maintained in that materialized instant, the photograph. The moment of this more or less casual connection between the photographer and the world around her becomes vivid once more and can be explored, the anonymity of the ‘other’ worlds dissolves. A perception, to follow a notion, to approach the ‘environment’ with the biggest possible yearning and imagination, and to transform distance into proximity for a while and hold on to it, to form a union with these strange yet familiar places: this is what Debby Huysmans’ photographs narrate in sensitive, yet sensible colours. The quiet, almost obvious way that characters and things appear as images is indeed significant. Rather experienced than crucial. Rather participating than confronting. That explains this keynote of intimacy, of an astonishing confidence (for these days). And it shows. From that point of view, Debby Huysmans’ images are diametrically opposed to the secret, coarse-grained voyeuristic photography of for example, Merry Alpern who, with her gigantic zoom lens, shoots photographs in toilets and dressing rooms, or flatly opposed to the clinically anonymous tapings of security cameras, or even of the parallel discourse that falls back onto this dispositive. Photography as mean to control and power, that impersonal, examining eye of the photographer. The photographer as predator. People in Debby Huysmans’ images are not reduced to casual, unresisting preys, which end up on a photograph without their knowledge. In her case, they look back.

If there is a denominator that can be placed under a big fraction of the photographic orientation and practice of the previous decennium (and probably even beyond), than the notion of aesthetics of the ordinary (‘esthétiques de l’ordinaire’ – André Rouillé) will surely be taken into consideration. These photographs are part of the mutation of a perception of things and of the world, of a revival of the photographic forms, and of a change in the thematic register. This œuvre explores sectors of reality that have been ignored up till now, because of their exaggerated (alleged) triviality, their unacceptable banality or their ignoble ‘presumptuousness’. These photographers – bearing in mind that Debby Huysmans is one if them with her particular démarches – abandon deliberately the formal effects used to draw attention and raise gratuitous emotion. No brilliant nor subtle lighting, no original nor sophisticated compositions from spectacular or unusual angles. That way, an intentional neutral and subtle photographic statement is presented. Depicting the ordinary in an ordinary manner. Although this aesthetic position dissociates from themes and forms that are exceptional, peculiar, unexpected – in one word extra-ordinary – it nevertheless distinguishes itself from the spontaneous activity of the amateur. Rather than presenting itself as prime meridian of the photographic statement, this approach indicates nonetheless a certain stylistic subtlety and a way of rejecting the naïve sophistication of an art photograph, as well as turning away from the imagery language of the media. By focusing on notions such as local, ordinary, individual, and on an experienced authenticity instead of mirages of those ‘other’ and unreal dreams of the commercial and advertising flow of images. In other words: photography as one of the last resorts where one can get in touch with, question or simply describe, what is, what we are, what we live, what really happens, averse to the ‘events’, the peculiar, the exceptional, in “what returns every day, the banal, the quotidian, the evident, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background sounds, the usual”. (Georges Perec).

In his Why People Photograph, the unparalleled photographer and ‘aesthetic of the ordinary avant-la-lettre’ Robert Adams focuses his unseemly attention from the very beginning – and even before it was considered en vogue – just like Stephen Shore, Lee Friedlander or even Ed Ruscha, on the apparently unsightly, the ordinary, the edge…, but never as a gimmick: “When we think of pictures in the documentary style we think of views that tend to be frontal, that are made from enough distance to put the subject in context, but then again not so far away as to reduce the scene to an abstraction of oriental planes, and pictures that are printed so that they are not difficult to retranslate back into life. There are, to be sure, as many varieties and degrees of this style as there are photographers who use it, but its distinguishing characteristic is always the same, restraint – an avoidance of bizarre camera angles, extreme lenses and formats, and exotic darkroom manipulations. The rationale is respect, a deference for the subject on its own terms, a deference afforded naturally to what is itself eloquent. The photographer’s chief effort is to be fair. “Fairness towards the people and the places and the things on the photographs is intended, but above all towards oneself and the uniqueness of his / her medium. And the way it is managed. Debby Huysmans does it with no capitals, frankly, straight-forward and without hubbub. That alone is an accomplishment. How unspectacular are images (still) allowed to be? So that they don’t need to impress, don’t need to make a statement or display technical refinements. So that they are what they are. Stoical. So that they indicate, rather than dictate. Images that leave breathing room. Room for itself – to evolve further, as an image, a œuvre. Room for the spectator and most of all for what’s been photographed. A sanctuary for the apparently insignificant, the unsightly glimpse of something else which – without photography – doesn’t seem extraordinary. So it is photography’s fortune to focus on details.