I try to make my photographs as ‘value-free’ as possible.
They are about seeing not interpreting.
People perceive their surrounding through their mind’s eye.
They don’t always see its irrationality.
Over the past year [in a thematic series of interviews for PhotoWorld, China] I have interviewed photographers who explore many different ways of thinking about the domestic. What is a house? a home? the relationship of those who live there? In many cases those domestic spaces were found on the edges of society or constructed as private sanctuaries. These were spaces for living within. Their exteriors were either hidden or so ordinary as to pass unnoticed.
In marked contrast, this last interview addresses the way in which Belgians build and modify their homes to advertise their personal tastes and aesthetic aspirations to all who pass by. Belgium is situated on the western coast of Europe, bordered by the Netherlands, Germany and France. But here the approach to domestic architecture is in marked contrast to the modernism of the Dutch, the functionalism of the Germans or the traditionalism of the French. Belgians have a strongly individualistic temperament. Indeed, in a country of less than twelve million people, there are three separate linguistic regions. The largest speaks Flemish (the language of the Dutch), most of the rest speak French, with a small corner of the country speaking German. This is not a place where people strive to fit in but rather to stand out, each proud of their individuality.
Herman van den Boom has been cataloguing the domestic architecture of Belgium for forty-five years. In particular he has focused on the idiosyncratic way in which semidetached houses are renovated and rebuilt by different owners so that, while the two homes form a contiguous structure, each half speaks a totally different architectural language. Is this a celebration of human diversity or a descent into architectural chaos? Perhaps both. It depends on what we consider the nature of domesticity to be: to be a part of a coherently collective group or one of a collection of eccentrically varied individuals.
Alasdair: When did you begin to make photographs?
Herman: In the 1960s. Initially, I studied industrial design in Eindhoven [in the Netherlands] and in Stockholm [Sweden]. But two experiences were to make me change direction. The first was an exhibition by Bernd and Hilla Becher [two German photographers who established a rigorous approach to systematically documenting industrial machinery arranged by function and industry as ‘typologies’]. The second was an exhibition of work by the Belgian surrealist painter James Ensor.
Those two exhibitions made me quit the Stockholm design academy and enrol at the Academy of Fine Arts in Enschede [the Netherlands]. I started walking around the streets of Enschede, taking pictures. I roamed freely, I had no subject matter, no ideas; I just photographed people and things as I encountered them. I documented the world as it presented itself to me. There was no subsequent editing or manipulation of the images.
How did your practice develop?
Later on, I went to Antwerp, Ghent, Paris and London to wander the cities and discover images. In London I visited the Photographers’ Gallery bookstore, which stocked all the exciting new photography publications of the time. Then, in 1973, my images were published in the legendary British magazine ‘Creative Camera’.
In 1976, I went to the USA to present an exhibition in New York. While I was there, Cornell Capa selected photographs for the collection of the International Center of Photography (ICP). Later, I drove four times across the breadth of USA from east to west coast photographing billboards and drive-in movie theatres.
The first of your work of which I became aware is the series ‘Neighbours’ depicting bizarrely incongruous architecture. While semidetached houses are found in many countries, they usually form a single harmonious whole. How did the houses in these photographs come into being?
There is a saying that ‘every Belgian is born with a brick in his stomach’ … As soon as they can, Belgians will start to build their own house. The Belgian psyche is very individualistic. Traditionally, most of the houses built here are private property. There is no collectively owned property, no big housing corporations, and hardly any social housing.
Do these strange double-houses arise from some peculiarity of Belgian planning regulations?
Not really. The building regulations in Belgium are, in principle, much the same as those in the surrounding countries. It is Belgian individualism that makes these houses so different. Belgium has been occupied by many foreign regimes over hundreds of years… we have learned to be very creative in interpreting rules and regulations!
For example, the original building in the image above was probably a small farm, which may date back as early as the sixteenth century. Later it was split, and the two parts sold separately. The regulations did not allow the building to changed too much from the original, because the houses are situated in a rural environment. However, in choosing very different building materials and colours, each owner was able to express their individuality. The result becomes a bizarrely beautiful surreal object.
What made these houses interesting for you?
I was born in a semidetached house on a street which spanned the border; one part of the street is in Belgium and the other part is in the Netherlands. My grandfather was a Belgian architect who didn’t like Dutch architecture. My father was a Dutch architect who didn’t like Belgian architecture. My grandfather built a Belle Époque style house; my father built a modernist one. I think it is in the blood!
Do you see this series as a kind of scientific taxonomy?
These frontally composed images go beyond simple documentation, they are a multi-layered artistic exploration of society in terms of personal space. This is architecture as an expression of history and culture and not simply individual tastes in design. It reflects an attitude to life. People want to build their personal paradise.
Do you think that is a particularly Belgian trait?
Belgium is a rich country. Belgians spend a lot of money on their houses and use expensive building materials. In general, houses in Belgium are bigger than they are in neighbouring countries such as France, Germany or the Netherlands. This scale only serves to magnify the extreme Belgian individualism. The results are domestic structures you could hardly dream up. But don’t forget that Belgium is the home of the great surrealist painter René Magritte (1898–1967). We are living in the land of Magritte and here reality is surreal!
Do you interpret these houses as the result of defiance or tolerance?
These contradictory and irrational architectural partnerships are born of chance. While these double houses are stuck together, they were never planned as a pair. Every house is the expression of an individual will and taste. Therefore, they are monuments to tolerance.
Tell me about your series ‘Wachtgevels’.
These are houses seeking a partner for life. Wachtgevels is the official architectural term for the wall of a house awaiting connection to another house to form a semidetached pair. Since it will be connected to another building, this wall has no windows or doors.
These blank façades create a kind of absurd sculpture in the landscape. They wait blankly for a partner that will bring an even more absurdly idiosyncratic dream reflecting the aspirations, aesthetics and philosophy of its owner.
The little farm in the image above is set in a romantic landscape reminiscent of the paintings of Pieter Bruegel (c1525–1569). The farm was built in the nineteenth century. All along one side is a blank façade waiting for a neighbour to come. But that will never happen, because the planning regulations nowadays do not allow any new building in this rural area.
In ‘Arcadia Redesigned’ you explore the ways in which individuals mark the perimeter of their property and the landscape architecture of gardens and forecourts that strive to give the domestic a personal signature, an aesthetic sign to the outer world of who lives here.
This is how people deal with Nature these days. The traditional landscapes that dated back to Roman and Celtic times are being completely renovated. It is not simply the big forces of urbanisation, globalisation, and pollution, but the individual actions of amateur gardeners who each shape their own notion of Arcadia. Native oak trees that are centuries old are cut down to make way for new imports such as a Japanese Ginkgo tree. Authentic vegetation is replaced by fashionably contemporary plants. The new garden will be decorated with imported rocks, imitation Roman amphoras and faux Egyptian sculpture.
The patina of age is sandblasted away. The landscape is modernised. History becomes simulation. Here you experience the landscape as a surreal illusion of nature, where everything is out of context.
What is it in particular that attracts to you to the scenes you have photographed.
I don’t capture an image; the image captures me. These images are discovered not made. Through them, the unreal character of everyday reality is brought to the surface. In that respect, my work is conceptual. It offers insight converted into form; the underlying thought process provides a structuring dynamic.
You can see this conceptual contradiction in the image above. As I have said, Belgians are very individualistic. Privacy is very important for them, but they are also very curious. For me this picture reflects this duality.
The images do have a strongly ironic quality…
I just select something which is already there. If the pictures are ironic, that is not my fault… [laughs]
Bruno Chalifour has suggested that your photographs should be “approached as metaphors questioning the way we are and live as human beings.” Is that how you intend them to be seen?
Yes, that is certainly one way of looking at them. I try to make my photographs as ‘value-free’ as possible. They are about seeing not interpreting. People perceive their surrounding through their mind’s eye. They don’t always see its irrationality. All Belgians know these semidetached houses, when they see them in my photographs they recognise the absurdity. Actually, it can be the first time they consciously see it.
You have said that you do not think like a photographer. What do you mean by that?
My thinking about photography is related to Belgian surrealism and conceptual art. My photographs are objets trouvé and readymades. They are intended to function as art objects rather than sociological documentaries or political studies.
These are not technically difficult images to make. Everybody should be able, with a minimum of technique, to make my pictures. I don’t stand on a ladder or get down on my stomach to look for an interesting angle. I do not use Photoshop.
I am like a flâneur. [Described by the French poet and art critic, Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867), the flâneur is a person who strolls around the city with no particular aim, enjoying the life and sights of the street without judgement.] Baudelaire described it this way: “To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world…The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.”
What kind of response to your work do you get from the public?
I hear from people that, because of my photographs, when they drive through Belgium they look at our country in a different way. There was a documentary on television about my photographs of Belgian houses, so my pictures are widely known. There is already a kind of ‘van den Boom’ style, photographers advertise and sell look-alike pictures on the internet.
What is the most surprising response you have had to your work?
In the Netherlands urban planning is very uniform and the houses there are actually quite boring. Dutch regulations are very strict and there is not much room for differences in interpretation. My father was the director of the architectural department of Philips (the electronics company) and they built sixty thousand houses in the Netherlands, all practically identical.
A lot of people protested against this severe uniformity. One of the Dutch political parties was in favour of changing this strict urban planning policy. They said that Belgian houses could be seen as an example of just how beautiful the Netherlands could be. However, another opposing political party argued that the kind of Belgian domestic disorder was the very reason they did not want this.
At the time, I had just published my book ‘Neighbours’ showing the strange pairing of styles in Belgian semidetached houses. Ironically, both parties ordered the same book to show to the minister as evidence of their opposite points of view. One party saw the book as demonstrating the Belgian imagination while the other party saw it as evidence of chaotic disorder. I thought it was hilarious!
Do you think your work has a satirical dimension?
In 2011, I made a series of images about drainpipes. About the way they are constructed in Belgium, running alongside the houses. I thought one could perhaps think of them as a metaphor for Belgian politics. This is a country made up of two parts, each with its own language: French in the south and Flemish in the north.
What are you working on now?
The most recent series is about Dutch watch-towers [left]. They were constructed in the 1950s during the Cold War so that the authorities could stand there with binoculars, looking out for Russian aeroplanes. In twenty-five years of looking, they spotted only one Russian aeroplane and that had lost its way returning home from an air show in Paris. Originally there were three hundred towers, now there are only seventeen that remain. I have photographed each one.
You have photographed in many countries over many years. What, through the making of images, have you learned about yourself that you would not otherwise have come to understand?
Crossing borders is part of my culture and artistic approach. What, in one culture, is considered to be an important issue, fact or belief can, in another, be viewed as hostile. This is what I learned through my encounters: “The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.”
Herman van den Boom was born in Essen, Belgium, in 1950. A photographer, artist and designer, he became a professor of photography later in his career, teaching at the Academy of Art and Design, Enschede, Netherlands (1978–1980); the Higher Institute for Fine Arts, Antwerp (2002); and at the Academy for Fine Arts, Maastricht (2003 and 2005). His images are held in many prestigious public collections including the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam; the City Museum of Den Hague; the Museum of Photography in Antwerp; the Museum for Photography in Charleroi; the International Center of Photography in New York; and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Rio de Janeiro. He has received a number of important awards including the Sony Worldwide Photography Award for Landscape in 2010, and for Architecture in 2014, while in 2013 he received the Prix de la Decouverte of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.
This article was first published in Chinese, in the December 2018 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. The theme for the year was The Domestic.
First published in English at Talking Pictures January 2020.