On a photograph by Max Pinckers and Quinten De Bruyn

Text by Hans Theys
First published in HART, nr. 204, 17 June 2020, Belgium
Translated by Helen Simpson

Dutch version

I would like to write something about the photo Yoyo (2011) by Max Pinckers (b.1988) and Quinten De Bruyn (b.1984). I saw it for the first time in 2011, when Pinckers asked me to contribute a text to his first photo book Lotus (2011), dedicated to the dream that some young men have of becoming a woman.

What immediately struck me about this work was the beautiful light on the skin of the two photographed people and, of course, the disarming pose of the central figure, with the wonderful, mysterious hand gesture. I was also struck by the delicate balance between the meticulous preparation (lighting, staging and composition) and the fleeting nature of the captured moment. Until then, I had only witnessed this in some of John Cassavetes’ films, who rehearsed intensively with his actors until his cameramen were completely apprised of their movements. He would then allow the latter to move about freely and shoot whatever they wanted. As a result, the cameras move and circulate in extraordinary ways, often capturing the most exquisite moments of acting because their operators knew exactly when they would happen.

I was also touched by the concertina-like space and how the background recedes along the diagonal, which I had never previously seen in a photograph. To me, this background suggests that the interior is simply a ‘set’. Furthermore, the space in the photograph seems open and malleable, as though there is still an exit point. There is breathing space. Moreover, the decor corresponds to the artificiality of the lighting, the latter of which can be deduced not only from the divergent shadows, but also from the delicate appearance of the people themselves. In this way, in addition to capturing a human moment, the photograph also becomes a reflection on photography and on the fact that people consciously or unconsciously base their behaviour on models and allow themselves to be guided by images or things they have seen. Several of these images can be discerned here: a fake Kermit the Frog, bed linen with Disney characters, religious images and a flower arrangement. The photo makes visible, in a very legible yet refined way, that the dreams these people are trying to realise are inspired by images, just as the photographers strive to actualise a dream by taking these pictures.

Here, Pinckers and De Bruyn have given shape to a new form of documentary photography, one that aims to be both accurate and manifestly subjective. (De Bruyn subsequently pursued another path: he is now a painter.)

I would like to explain how Pinckers and De Bruyn arrived at this approach and the ideas that lie at the basis of this renewal. First of all, it is important to note, in my opinion, that they were thirteen and seventeen respectively at the time of 9/11. The event must have shocked Pinckers. His approach to documentary photography seems to have been determined by the bizarre circumstance that this atrocity was probably planned like a film scene, in the hope of creating an iconic image: pious troglodytes striking at the heart of capitalism. In 2001, Pinckers was living in Singapore, where his father works as an advertising photographer. His mother was living in India. I think these circumstances might have contributed to his reception of the event.

The efficient, visual character of 9/11 contrasts with the intellectual doubts about the power of photography, as expressed by people such as Susan Sontag, Allan Sekula and Martha Rosler. When Pinckers became acquainted with these theories as a photography student at the KASK in Ghent, they were reinforced by his discovery that famous photographs almost always resemble well-known paintings or other famous photographs. This made him desperate to be able to actually penetrate an ‘objective’ reality as a photographer, or to take photographs that would genuinely reach potential viewers rather than remind them of a familiar aesthetic.

When he travelled to Thailand with Quinten De Bruyn in 2011 to make a documentary about certain young men’s dreams (and implicitly also about the brutal way that sex tourism and poverty thwart, fuel and pervert these aspirations), he intended to exaggerate the disadvantages of documentary photography to such an extent that they became visible and thus neutralised. These shortcomings were, on the one hand, the claim to objectivity, the lie of the ‘snapshot’ and of trying to grasp ‘le moment décisif’, and, on the other hand, the constant pursuit of a predictable, photographic aesthetic (‘golden hour light’!), which often seems at odds with the subjects photographed.

After attending a lecture by Erik Eelbode on the work of Dirk Braeckman, Pinckers understood that he also had to make himself visible in his photographs. He decided to do this by combining the working methods of two photographers into a new form. Jeff Wall makes staged, artificially-lit photographs based on existing images or his personal observations. Philip-Lorca diCorcia photographs real situations, actual street scenes, but his photos seemed staged and theatrical due to the use of flash light. Pinckers and De Bruyn formulated a new middle ground between Wall and diCorcia: working on location with real people, dramatically lit, staged, sometimes re-enacted, at other times directed, trying to capture spontaneous moments in a prepared setting.

By largely controlling the circumstances of a photograph, for example on the street, Pinckers creates a framework that allows for unexpected and fleeting incidents. In this way, he gives new weight to the moment, while simultaneously exposing the ‘lie’ of objective registration and paving the way, once again, for a liberated aesthetic approach.

Slavoj Žižek’s Welcome to the Desert of the Real (2002), written in response to 9/11, begins with a joke about a man leaving for Siberia and agreeing with his friends that he will use blue ink in his letters when he is telling the truth and red if he is not. His first letter, written in blue ink, communicates that life is fantastic in Siberia but there is no red ink. Žižek argues that the man’s friends can still correctly interpret his letter, even if it is written in blue ink, because he refers to the agreed secret code in the letter itself. And this is exactly what Pinckers does by making visible the subjectivity, staging and mixed lighting of his photographs.

Over the past nine years, this approach has led to various elaborations, not all of which can be elucidated in this text. The most important thing, however, is my initial reaction upon encountering Yoyo: namely that Pinckers treats the people he photographs with the utmost respect. He approaches them with tenderness and they seem to retain their personality or self-esteem. All his photographs have something deeply human about them. They reach me. They touch me. They seem to escape the loop of our habitual approach of things, even though Yoyo might unconsciously remind us of Botticelli’s Venus. (I’m just teasing. But if anyone’s a Venus, then it’s Yoyo! )

And thus Pinckers’ oeuvre not only accords with the photographic ‘citizenship’ of Ariella Azoulay (b. 1962), who argues that anyone can make a politically relevant photograph and thus contribute something valuable to the world, but is also in keeping with the great tradition of artists who succeed in making old things visible in a new way, thus granting us an occasional encounter with reality or the Real (Lacan’s ‘le réel’) before sleep without end closes our eyes forever.

Montagne de Miel, 23 May 2020