The real life of photos
When you are great at what you do, you often serve two functions: deliverer of work to the world, and teacher of all those who come after. Open up any Flemish newspaper today, and you will find the influence of Walter De Mulder.
Groundbreaking photojournalist Walter De Mulder on view at Sint-Pieter’s Abbey
De Mulder was not part of the 1980s wave of photographers who changed the face of photojournalism in Belgium by mixing media and art in a way that reflected a more human side of stories. He came before all of that. But looking at his work at this exhibition in Ghent, you see a little revolution of photography in every shot.
De Mulder was born in Ghent in 1933 and was heavily influenced by German photographers when he served in the army in Germany in the 1950s, the heyday of subjective photography. He worked for decades as a photojournalist, winning many awards. He eventually taught in both Ghent and Sint-Niklaas.
His body of work is enormous, and the abbey has wisely chosen a limited number of photographs, grouped according to three major themes. They've also boldly chosen themes that make this a real artist's show - and yet, in so doing, are offering the visitor the chance to peek inside the closed doors of the art world.
De Mulder, who still lives in Ghent, was well known for his photographs of the world's top conductors, and the first section is dedicated to these. Interestingly, the dates alongside the photos are not when the photo was taken, but the birthdates of the conductors, placing the emphasis on them rather than the photographer. The photos often reveal the pure nature of the subject - the elusive quality you can't find in a concert hall. De Mulder takes photos that ascribe personality and character, and that is the joy of them - whether or not you are familiar with the artist in the photo.
Conductors are often caught at their most emotional. German conductor Eugen Jochum, for instance, has his mouth wide open. Is he giving orders? It certainly appears so. Polish conductor Jerzy Maksymiuk's mouth is also open - but this time it's clearly a matter of conducting euphoria. Sir Georg Solti wears a huge smile. He is one of the few conductors who gets two photos in this show, and the smile appears in both - a sign he was usually sporting it.
The second portion contains De Mulder's photos of other photographers. De Mulder goes into their homes and workspaces to create what is essentially a history of modern photography.
Here you find Robert Lebeck, one of Germany's most famous photographers, tumbling around the living room floor with his child. In a later photo, Lebeck is much older - but no less jolly. The Hungarian photographer and filmmaker Gyula Halász, better known as Brassai, who wrote Conversations with Picasso, is in his office, looking a bit tired and uncomfortable in his old age. Conversely, the German Peter Thomann is rosy-cheeked, with ice skates hanging over his shoulder.
The great Jewish-American photographer and filmmaker Man Ray, meanwhile, is pictured not as a dashing young man flitting about Paris, as many like to remember him, but not long before his death in the 1970s. In a dim room full of equipment, the old, round wooden table holding his cigarettes and books, he crouches with his cane, cigar in hand, looking like some kind of beleaguered cross between George Burns and Woody Allen.
The final part of the De Mulder exhibition is a selection of photos he took of Ghent artists with a particular focus on the 1970s and '80s. The highlight is a shot of painter Pjeroo Roobjee alongside plastic and graphic artist Fred Bervoets (pictured). Not only does it contain the retro-surreal elements of a Coen brothers film, it also emphasises how the look can make the man. Bervoets is only three years older than Roobjee.
Until 6 September
Sint-Pietersplein 9, Ghent