Glass plates. magic words and magic deeds. The camera was set up, a glass plate was carefully selected from a wooden box (they were 9cm x 12cm as a rule, occasionally 13cm x 18cm), coated with collodion—a highly inflammable but light sensitive syrupy substance—in a darkened tent, and the plate was slid immediately into the camera while it was still wet. after the shot was taken, the photographer had to develop and dry the plate on the spot. it was a time-consuming process,
but the results were often astonishing: a sharpness that the era of analogue photography rarely equalled.
Carl de Keyzer is in his spacious and splendid attic, relaxed and busy.
The dogs have joined him upstairs. The bigger of the two peers down the steep flight of stairs it just climbed and doesn’t dare to go back down. it makes its way with a gentle whine from the desk with the computers to the table where the prints are laid out and back again. The creature spins around, looks down the stairs a second time, and lies down with a sigh.
“The whole remembrance industry . . .” says Carl. “brochures, cycle paths, regional tourism. Can you imagine us doing that with auschwitz? ‘Come and visit! The landscape is beautiful! and when you’re done you can drink to your heart’s content!’” he shows me photographs of the ravaged Westhoek, monumental prints made using old glass plate negatives by arthur brusselle, a photographer from bruges who travelled to the Westhoek immediately after the war to capture
the damage on behalf of the government. What’s the superlative of ravaged?
Carl shows me photo after photo, and to avoid creasing the prints, we lift them together. heavy photographic paper, leaden history. rubble. mud.
The yser river. Grey.
Can the First World War still disturb us? Can a war that has been caught in pictures still affect us, dislocate us? Perhaps it has been “remembered to death.” Commemoration has become a hobby, something cozy to do by the fireside.
The horror has become kitsch, a product. maybe we’ve drained history dry.
The First World War needs to get dangerous again; it’s turned into a labrador
of late. Commemoration should chafe, irritate. “We have to bring the war closer,” Carl tells me. “We have to rethink remembering.”
When Carl de Keyzer was doing his military service, he found himself engaged as a young photographer by the belgian army’s history office. he was asked to make reproductions of photos from the belgian Congo and the First World War
for publications no one ever read and exhibitions no one ever visited. but the seed had been planted.
he has examined tens of thousands of photos in recent years, from French, belgian, German, british, and even australian collections. “it’s strange: when i
was working on my Congo Belge en Images project, i discovered 40,000 glass plate negatives in a single collection, that of the africa museum in Tervuren,” he tells me. “but photographic archives of the First World War are much fewer and farther between. many more glass plates from 1895 found their way from boma to brussels than from the somme to Paris in 1914.”
“sadly, almost all of the originals from the First World War were destroyed. While chests full of glass plates were transported in Congo by sailing boat, steamship, and even by human porters, photographers at the front were often forced to wash away the negatives to recover the silver content contained in the emulsion. The first print was considered the most important thing back then. once it was made, the original could disappear. but we now know that photographic paper doesn’t render the same level of detail and grey scale as the original.
yet everyone still uses the same prints, time after time. almost no one goes to the trouble of exploring what’s still in the chest.”
Collodion. emulsion, silver. Chests. even more magic. The twentieth century started as a conjuring trick.
Prints have an additional disadvantage, Carl explains: they age. “at the end of the process, the image was placed in a fixing bath. but the salt solutions intended to stop the darkening process never succeeded completely. The image was never fixed one-hundred percent and that hasn’t changed.” a past that’s never completely fixed is still alive: can we use that as a metaphor?
While Carl de Keyzer spent a week in Paris examining 30,000 images, and then proceeded to bruges to hold arthur brusselle’s original glass plates up to the light in the city archive, i made my way to the Westhoek and found shelter for months in a farmhouse overgrown with ivy, where the slugs crawled over the old kitchen floor in the dark of night.
something was bugging me. West Flanders, i thought, is commemorating on
a grand scale the many young lives lost between 1914 and 1918 at a time when the province is recording the highest suicide figures among young people in europe. is there a connection? Probably not. is that a problem? yes! While the young dead of the past are the focus of everyone’s attention, the young dead of today are the elephant in the room.
how can we illuminate this distant past with the blinding spotlight of the commemoration industry, while resigning our difficult present to the shadows with such wilful determination? because in those days it was an entire generation that marched off to death and nowadays only a few? but is suicide really only
a question of individual cases, no matter how unfortunate they may be? since
the publication of emile durkheim’s Le suicide in 1897, the study that gave birth to sociology as a science, we know that such an intensely lonely and individual deed as suicide is also and always a societal reality.
This idea continues to preoccupy me: who is sick? The person committing suicide or the society that makes suicide possible on a grand scale? and if the latter is also true for today, what then is the difference with society of the past that, albeit on a much larger scale, drove thousand of young lives to their end? is it only a difference of scale?
We’re inclined to argue that a world capable of birthing such a monstrously immense and absurd conflict as the First World War must have been insane,
and we thus tacitly affirm our present world and our present times to be normal. but such an assessment would then see suicide as little more than an irritating anomaly, an occasional grain of sand in the gently humming machinery of our times, and certainly not a systemic issue. Cannon fodder? That’s a thing of
the past! or is it?
Perhaps it’s something else. Perhaps the taboo surrounding suicide has become a device for maintaining the illusion of a normal society, for blinding us to the insanity of the present? it’s easier to honour the victims of the past than to do the same for today’s dead. it’s even comforting. Commemoration is the opium of today.
but then we have the statistics.
according to estimates, more than one million people die each year as a result of suicide. since the year 2000, that means fourteen million. That’s more than
the people who died during the First World War, soldiers and civilians together.
“Fields of clay, such thick silence,” are the words Peter vermeersch used recently in his book Ex (2014) to describe the landscape of the Westhoek. in a study from the beginning of the twentieth century, i read that the nineteenth- century Flemish countryside had an “außerordentlich geringe selbtsmordfrequenz” —an extremely low suicide rate. The suicide rate in Flanders today is 1.5 times higher than the european average and double that of the netherlands. West Flanders far outranks everywhere else. in the same region in which the First World War once raged with such intensity, a silent and invisible conflict is raging today. The trenches have dug their way inside and a no-man’s-land now groans in the minds of many of our young people. no more war, we say, but we don’t seem to want to know just how intense and lonely the battle can often be.
i interviewed psychotherapists and social workers, the director of a center for student counseling, and a priest. i talked to the bereaved in large numbers: parents, partners, and relatives, sometimes with people who had lost not one but two loved ones. i sat at the dinner table with pig farmers from reninge;
i talked with the father and sister of a young fisherman from zeebrugge; i met an accountant who had lost his son in Torhout. i talked to a mother who had lost her husband and son to suicide, and with parents who had buried two of their three children in the space of six months. i pitched up in places like houthulst, dikkebus, merkem, Westvleteren, hollebeke, Westouter . . . illustrious places where the soil had been receiving young bodies for a century.
a few weeks before his self-chosen death, a young man who lived close to the old front wrote the following: “i thought about the young soldiers and cursed myself for screwing up the freedoms they had won.”
slugs on the kitchen floor. Photos that are never completely fixed. some metaphors are correct even if you don’t really know why.
since the year 2000, more than 3,500 people have committed suicide in West Flanders.
since the year 2000, there has been one suicide attempt for every 30 inhabitants of West Flanders.
since the year 2000, someone younger than 30 has died every ten days as a result of suicide.
The same region, one hundred years on.
The british historian alan Clark described the First World War as a “suicide
of empires.” he was referring to the demise of the austro-hungarian empire, the German empire, and the russian empire. and indeed, the same downward spiral, the same sinister logic, the same blind destructiveness characterized politics in those days as they do individual suicide today. and back then too it wasn’t about small, melancholic, cowering empires, but, as is often the case in the suicidal process, about dynamic, creative, and vital elements. The ones you least expect. . . .
in Carl de Keyzer’s attic, we twin photos with texts. our interaction with the war? shameless actualization. let it chafe, let it irritate. There’s been enough glossy commemoration.
Carl has selected 100 glass plate and celluloid originals from 10,000 archive images. They’re spread out in front of us: bigger than they were ever intended to be, without a scratch, creepily close, some even in color. as if it were yesterday.
according to Carl, the process of making it seem “as if it were yesterday” proceeds in three steps.
one: select strong, unexpected images with reasonably well-preserved originals. Two: digitize and restore the selected original. remove thousands of flecks resulting
from poor development or where the emulsion has come off. remove scratches (making sure not to include telephone lines), restore the sky, which they used to get rid of by applying red paint to the glass plate, correct exposure errors. and do it all with the greatest possible respect for the original photograph,
as you would remove a layer of varnish from a memling or a van eyck. Three, and perhaps the most surprising step: print it in a monumental format. “enlargers didn’t exist back then,” Carl explains. “The print was always the
same size as the original shot: a few centimeters by a few centimeters. none of these images were ever intended for exhibition.”
The result is impressive. The characters are real, people here and now, and the war is no longer something miniscule in sepia. enlargement exposes details that were never intended to be seen, dead souls we had forgotten.
The German occupier bent on immortalizing a belgian cathedral or baroque facade had entire squares cleared of people for this purpose. only now can we see the few individuals for whom an order was clearly not an order.
The French army was proud to show how efficient the production of mess tins and shells was in the factories along the rhône and the loire. in the deep black background, the contours of workers emerge that have never been noticed before.
The village photographer of vottem who made portraits of a few fallen belgian soldiers never intended to print the faces of the people holding up the corpses. now they’re together for the first time, the dead and the then still living.
“it could have been us,” says Carl, as he peruses the historical series and brackets the moustaches, the caps, and the aprons. “you and me.”
but every image is a work of creation. Photos were manipulated and staged back then just as they are today. The war approaches then edges away. i peruse the pictures taken by the French army photographer Jean-baptiste Tournassoud. his photo from 1917 of a French artillery unit crossing the oise plunges you
into the past the moment you look at it: it’s almost a copy of John Constable’s The Haywain from 1821, perhaps the best known british landscape ever, better known today through its reproduction on placemats. i look at isidore aubert’s photo from 1916 taken in the munitions factory in saint-Chamond. an apron,
a drab wall, the unruffled motion of a retiring woman. This is vermeer’s Milkmaid at a time of industrial slaughter.
While some photos disappear into an even deeper past, other images anticipate the continuation of the century. The photo of a dead German soldier in his white shirt taken at the yser Front by the antony brothers looks as if it were taken a few seconds after robert Capa’s “Falling soldier” from 1936. Their image of a patrol
on the offensive, wading through the water and the barbed wire of Pervijze, is a powerful foreshadowing of the pictures Capa took during the normandy landing.
Coating the glass plate with potato starch instead of collodion made the first color prints possible. but in contrast to what one might expect, these so-called “autochromes” don’t automatically bring the war any closer, at least not according to the criteria we would use today. sometimes, they even push the war further away—in the direction of seventeenth-century genre painting, staged tableaus,
or what we might consider the kitsch postcard. Those of us conditioned by the ideals of photojournalism are reminded of Paulus Potter’s cows, vermeer’s alley, rembrandt’s anatomy lesson. The mischievous nineteenth-century gypsy girl, the comical toddlers are there too, and in abundance. but was this how people still thought of and imagined the world between 1914 and 1918? What do we actually know about different times beyond a handful of clichés we use to tame them? Paul Castelnau’s 1916 photo of a bullet-riddled mail van in dunkirk is so brazenly contemporary, so hypermodern in terms of theme and composition, that it appears to be a lot younger than edward hopper’s Freight Cars, Gloucester, which he painted in 1928. Castelnau’s image could have been a Jackson Pollock, even a Tuymans.
remarkably enough, the battlefields themselves remain monochrome, even in color.
The forgotten images of a war drag the past into the present. They disconcert us, upset us. but they don’t travel alone to the here and now; they point forward and backward, signal right and left, to art and photography, to world history and poetry. We don’t draw the past forward to the present as if lifting some cumber- some catch from the dark waters of time. no, we are the ones who descend, sucked into the depths by a distant world. We are the catch. The past scuttles
off with us in its jaws. and what’s left of us? air bubbles, nothing more.