Brussels

Not photographing people

We’ve had fabulous weather in Brussels this week, frosty and clear with low winter sun creating one long ‘golden hour’ from nine in the morning to four in the afternoon. I’ve used it to do something I haven’t done in ages — take pictures of buildings. I’ve criss-crossed the city by bus and tram and on foot, and have really enjoyed myself. It’s amazing how exhilarating it is to look at fresh subject matter, entirely different from what you usually shoot.

A couple of weeks ago I received a commission for four large mounted and framed prints of buildings in Brussels as decoration for a client’s office. I asked my client for feedback on about 20 images from my catalogue in order to get a sense of what she was after. This turned out to be architectural studies without any dominant human presence. Apart from that she was very open — whole buildings or details, art nouveau, art deco, modern, post-modern…

I don’t like using a tripod — it makes the tiny last-minute changes in position that determine the angle and framing of each shot almost impossible. So I was shooting hand-held, mostly with a 135mm f/2.0 Nikkor, which is a lovely lens but lacks image stabilisation (or ‘vibration reduction’ in Nikonese). And since I knew that some of the photos would be printed at 90 x 60cm I used my Nikon D810’s base ISO of 64, which always produces a startling leap in resolution and dynamic range by comparison even with ISO 100. Happily, the day was bright enough that I could shoot almost everything at 1/250 sec or above.

Of course, I couldn’t resist the temptation to include people in a few of the photographs I took. How many can you spot?

Street art in Brussels

Soon after I first came to live in Brussels in 2004 the great street artist Bonom burst onto the city. His enormous creations bloomed regularly on the sides of buildings all over the centre ville — elephants, a human foetus, dinosaurs… If you know where to look, you can still find a few of these artworks, but most have at least been preserved in photographs.

Apart from the town council’s flaccid tributes to Tintin, Spirou and other Belgian comic book heroes, and Pencil Man’s ubiquitous outings, Brussels’ streets have remained relatively artless since Bonom was shut down by an extraordinary and aggressive legal action in 2010.

In September this year a disused Delhaize supermarket on the Chausée de Waterloo was taken over by Strokar, a collective of street artists from all over Europe, to create Strokar Inside, a magnificent collection of works, still in progress, which will premably survive only until the building is torn down or renovated. It’s open from 11.00 to 18.30, Wednesday to Sunday, and entrance is €8,00.

I had a fantastic time. The individual works themselves are impressive, but what I specially enjoyed was the interaction between them and the carcass of the supermarket that they inhabit. If I was the CEO of Delhaize, I would be trying to commission the artists to decorate all my stores.

Walking around Brussels

When you walk around London or New York, and probably any other city of more than 5 million inhabitants, you feel as if you were shrouded in an invisibility cloak. As soon as you leave your own front door, you assume anonymity. When occasionally you do bump into a friend, you fling your arms round each other. "What are you doing here?" you both ask. "How small the world is!"

With a population of just over 1 million, Brussels is a big village. I started recognising faces on the street within a couple of weeks of arriving here in 2004. Now, I very rarely go out without meeting someone I know. Social, cultural, professional and local networks overlap and interconnect. Distances are short. Friends knock on one another's doors in the hope of a cup of coffee, but are not disappointed if there is no one at home.

I walk around the city a lot, and I always have a camera with me. I am not sure if the photographs I make count as street photography, which seems to have strict rules. I take pictures of people, but also of buildings, signs, street art, or anything else that catches my attention. Brussels is strong on whacky charm, so there is no shortage of subject matter.

Chaussée de Wavre, Matonge

Chaussée de Wavre, Matonge

Rue de la Concorde, Ixelles

Rue de la Concorde, Ixelles

You can find more of my street photographs here.