Hans Theys is a twentieth-century philosopher and art historian. He has written and designed dozens of books on the works of contemporary artists and published hundreds of essays, interviews and reviews in books, catalogues and magazines. All his publications are based on actual collaborations and conversations with artists.

This platform was developed by Evi Bert (Centrum Kunstarchieven Vlaanderen) in collaboration with the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp (Research group Archivolt), M HKA, Antwerp and Koen Van der Auwera. We also thank Idris Sevenans (HOR) and Marc Ruyters (Hart Magazine).


Jan Kempenaers - 2001 - Birth of a Photograph [EN, essay],
Text , 5 p.


Hans Theys

Birth of a Photograph
A Few Words on Jan Kempenaers’ work

Three ways to speak about a work of art

Broadly speaking, there are three ways to speak about a work of art. One can discuss its texture, the artist’s intentions and one’s own projections.
          Jan Kempenaers’ photographs are colourfast and sharp. They are taken with a technical camera on a tripod, preferably with diffuse daylight, using large negatives and printed mostly on half mat paper in the format 100 by 136 cm and covered with a half mat foil. They are often shot from a distance and from above, as if the photographer delights in miniaturising the world.
          In fact, we only know one of Jan Kempenaers’ intentions and that is his ambition to take very sharp pictures. He has a liking for blow-ups which show just a fraction more than can be seen by the naked eye.
          I think of his photos as if they were paintings which not only show a scene, but also an image created in paint. Sometimes they make me think of the rustling blossoms of a cherry tree set against the sun, when the little white leaves seem to turn black in contrast with the sunlight that eats their contours, and when we think for a moment that the images we project around us quiver on the edge of noise.

Three projections — three ways to look at these photographs

Jan Kempenaers’ photographs do not attempt to please. They are retreating images. The usual anecdotal approaches are absent. The photographer tries to keep distance. There is nothing funny to be seen. We are not shocked. It is as if the image immediately turns to dullness, forcing us to look in a different way. But what are we supposed to see?
          Johan Pas pointed out that the images created by Jan Kempenaers invite us to see them as abstractions. I would like to add that they also invite us to observe the birth of a photograph. The graphic effects divert our attention away from the subject and lead us to the minuscule cracks where the image originates from the contrast between the grain and the paper. Finally, I have to admit that, for me, this birth of the photo is a repetition of the eternal birth of the image that seems to surround us.

From objective registration to abstract composition

In January of this year, Jan Kempenaers exhibited photographs that he had taken of the expansion of the Antwerp harbour, necessitating the destruction of a small village. He had been invited to do so by the Antwerp Museum of Photography. He could have used this invitation as an opportunity to make a number of socially-aware portraits. This is not what happened. He put his tripod on the embankment which protects the village from the river Schelde, and he tried to capture it in its anonymous smallness. The architectonic details strike us as futile and vain in their concept. Nothing in this village seems worth keeping. We look but we do not understand. Our gaze is thrown back because of the banality. In this tragedy, we only feel the hopelessness of the villagers’ protest. The villagers themselves are missing in these pictures. We only see their houses. Their frame. Then the village disappears from our view and we see the scars of a landscape being destroyed and ripped apart. Here, different beings with different frames pass by. Here and there we find signs of a demonstration. We watch from a distance. We feel that the photographer is part of what is going on but that he tries to approach the events from a different angle. He takes pictures, but not pictures as vehicles for sentiment, that we see in the media, but which tell us something about the process of taking photos, about the function of frames, about creating images from reality, about shaping reality and about the slipping away of it. The photographs try to measure up to banality, without trying to escape from it. They accept everything ugly and uninspired. The only visible decisions of the photographer relate to the frame, the colours and sharpness.
          Jan Kempenaers’ photos often show urban landscapes. Sometimes it is hard to understand why a specific landscape was photographed. We get the feeling that there is nothing interesting to see.
          The photos illustrating this best are those taken in Sarajevo in 1998. They were taken from an elevated perspective (a hill or the roof of a building) and show images of a suburb of old single-family houses and blocks of flats. The composition of the photos corresponds to the layout of the buildings. Kempenaers often uses cityscapes as a starting point for his compositions. His photos put the cityscape into a new frame, disengaging the image and making it more abstract.
          Moving on from our first impression of the Sarajevo photographs, we are struck by the pattern created by the windows in the walls of the blocks of flats. An even closer look reveals that some of these windows have been replaced by wooden partitions. Finally, we also see the holes in the wall, the result of incoming mortars.
          Observing these details, I came to believe that they function as a kind of event horizon from which the observer may witness the birth of the photo. The frames of the walls seem to be an enlargement of the photo’s texture. The bullet holes are like deranged grains, black holes in the picture, where the image looms from the white of the paper or where it slips back into the night that hides behind our image of reality.

The birth of the photograph (Aunt Nicole’s motionless yard)

Jan Kempenaers is not a romantic. He does not deal with Night. He limits himself to copying the visible reality. But he does this in such a way that the act of copying becomes apparent. He makes me think of the painter Michel Frère, whom I met a few months before his death, and who confided to me that hardly anyone realized how difficult it was to make a good painting. Michel Frère attempted to make paintings whose quivering images were created by placing thousands of colours next to each other. Those colours were not supposed to be put on earlier layers of paint; they had to originate from the matter from which the image was created. One stroke of paint had to have twenty different colours and it had to end at the right spot with the required little blob of purple. No matter how successful the final image was, it would always remain subordinate to the paint and the process of painting, which, at the same time, created the painting and coincided with it. In my opinion, this is also the case for the photographs of Jan Kempenaers.

Monday, 8 October 2001. This morning, while taking my son Maurice to Aunt Nicole’s, there was so much wind that the world seemed to be falling apart. Now and then, the cloudbanks rushing by burst open, letting the sun strike the trees and grass with patches of bright light. The wind tugged at the swaying crowns of the trees. The strong slanting light made the leaves flutter in a feast of black and white.
          Sometimes the world obtains a graphic aspect and everything surrounding us seems to be nothing but flimsy, luminous membrane stretched between ourselves and the night. The fluttering leaves, with the alternating of blinding and black spots, seem to reveal this membrane. With every gust of wind, together with the strong slanting rays of light, our image of the world seems to unravel in the rustling crowns of the trees, just to recover instantly.
          Everything we see becomes visible through a similar blinking of billions of radio waves we call ‘rays of light’, reflected by various materials. We are surrounded by vast clusters of colourless atoms, which, through a fascinating play of light and the simplified functioning of the brain, fall apart in readable surfaces.
          A photo consists of a similar interaction of dots and empty spaces. A photo which is being developed emerges from the white of the paper, quickly turning into an illegible brown or black. Every photo is an arrested shifting to the opposite of itself. Every photo is a frozen twinkling. Sometimes though, the twinkling continues.

“I always try to make my photos as sharp as possible”, says Jan Kempenaers. “I like it when details imperceptible to the naked eye, suddenly become visible through sharpness and enlargement.”
          What fascinates Kempenaers is the image popping out of the details. The format of the pictures is an indication of this, never exceeding the limit where the texture would blur the details again. The enlargement is measured to allow just a slightly revealing effect.
          Artists always commute between matter and image. They plunge into matter; they take distance to oversee the whole image; and then they return to the texture. The beholder repeats this process. First, he looks at the painting from a distance; then he gets close, often slightly stooped. Probably this behaviour reflects an old erotic scenario in which one aspires at the same time to disappear into the flesh of the loved one and to be able to appreciate the same loved one from a distance, turned into an image. The image saves us from matter and its confusions. (The mirror was invented to enjoy matter and image at the same time.)
          When Maurice was ten months old, Aunt Nicole told me that he could sometimes stand for an hour at the little fence which separated his playroom from the yard. He was just tall enough to look over the fence. Aunt Nicole was surprised that he stood for so long while there was nothing to be seen. The only thing Maurice could observe was an empty driveway, part of a patio, and, ten metres further, a brick building and a small flowerbed. This still background, however, provided exactly the right conditions for Maurice to really observe something. Undoubtedly, there was a lot to be observed, made visible and distinguishable by the motionless background: a slowly moving patch of light, a swaying flower or a sparrow flying back and forth with little straws.
          I think this image of a motionless yard can help us appreciate Jan Kempenaers’ work. Babies and toddlers cannot distinguish rustling shrubs from the silhouette of a grazing horse. Without their names they cannot discern different surfaces or objects. It is impossible for them to give meaning to the world surrounding them. A baby does not see meanings, it sees light. The more motionless the frame and the image, the more a baby can see.
          Perhaps Jan Kempenaers’ photos want us to see light rather than meanings. Maybe they try to suppress the more trivial image and reveal other, hidden structures. Sometimes these are abstract compositions, sometimes they are urban or rural structures and sometimes it is the way in which the image looms up from the grain.

          While selecting photographs for a book, the publisher was struck by the fact that Jan Kempenaers was inclined to select very similar photos. When someone pointed this out, Jan Kempenaers remarked: “But that’s the purpose, that’s how you get a lot of information.”
          In my opinion, Jan Kempenaers’ seemingly unchanging and monotonous images provide the framework for infinitesimal visual events.
          Those who have met Jan Kempenaers, preferably in the company of people he likes, know that he has an unusual dry sense of humour, prompting him to question the most common conventions with curt and precise remarks. Kempenaers does not like sentiment. This does not make him insensitive. On the contrary, it seems as though an unusual sensitivity or vulnerability restrains him from taking into account the sensitivities and conventions of others. He has thought out a personal, rigid frame within which he wants to function. The charm of this is that he does not try to impose this frame on his surroundings, but he pushes it out in front of himself, using it in a funny way to profile and comment on himself and others. Perhaps this frame functions in the same way as Aunt Nicole’s motionless yard, which allows a ten month-old to observe separate and maybe even new things. Perhaps we could interpret his photos as similar frames, which, in their non-anecdotal and unsentimental way, teach us to look at a photograph in a different way.

The birth of the photograph as a repetition of the large photograph separating us from the night

In fact, we live in the midst of a large photo which we project as a huge, luminous setting on an instantly ordered and interpreted grey whirling of atoms. We can only exist because our brain has been able to create an image which makes it possible to deal with this whirl. Since Kempenaers’ photos seem to occur at the edge of their grains it feels as if they try to coincide with this invisibly scaly and extremely thin membrane of quivering light. Kempenaers seldom makes close-ups. The larger the distance and the wider the view, the more the photographic image coincides with that thin, imaginary curtain where our reality is created from the encounter of rays of light and surfaces.

Montagne de Miel, 14 November 2001