Feeling the light. Or, Flanders, bicycles and the photographs of Harry Gruyaert

Last time out in this irregular ongoing series of landscape explorations we were talking about tangential connections and made mention of James Brooks and his Land Observations recordings. On one of these (2014’s ‘The Grand Tour’) there is a piece titled ‘Flatlands and the Flemish Roads’. I am unsure if Brooks intends this as anything more than a glancing reference to cycling, but its is entirely possible given that Appliance once recorded a piece called ‘Derailleur, King of the Mountain’. Certainly anyone remotely interested in the sport of cycling will immediately think of the likes of Omloop Het Volk (or Het Nieuwsblad if you insist), Scheldeprijs and the Ronde Van Vlaanderen when they see a reference to the roads of Flanders. That this immediate synaptic connection is to bicycle races rather than the WW1 fields of slaughter says much about cycling fans.

Harry Pearson says much about cycling fans, and Flemish cycling fans more specifically, in his new book ‘The Beast, The Emperor and The Milkman’. Subtitled ‘A bone-shaking tour through cycling’s Flemish heartlands’ it pretty much does what it says on the cover and is certainly entertaining in a semi-skimmed pocket-history travelogue kind of way. Hardcore cycling fans may find little new in the book but they are probably not the target audience anyway, so it’s perhaps a moot point. Certainly there were few names and anecdotes about Belgian cycling I had not stumbled on previously. What are new to me are some of Pearson’s musings on the history of Flanders, and if a little effort is also expended in an attempt to expand our knowledge of both this and of “famous Belgians” beyond Herge and Simenon it is an effort that is, to paraphrase the great honorary Flahute Sean Kelly, one that is carefully calculated.

It is certainly a shame that Pearson makes no reference, even in passing, to the great Belgian photographer Harry Gruyaert. Surprising too, for Gruyaert is famously fond of cycling and one of his quotes graces the back cover of the excellent ‘Magnum Cycling’ collection published a few years ago by Thames and Hudson and edited by Guy Edwards. There is a chapter of Gruyaert’s photographs in the book documenting the 1982 Tour de France and they are typically great shots. The best of the actual cyclists is surely one of the peloton peddling up a slope. Everyone is en danseuse apart from the man in the yellow jersey, Bernard Hinault, who sits resolutely in the saddle, leg muscles almost comically etched and bulging. Hinault too is the only one making eye contact with the camera, his piercing glare so sharp it’s a wonder the lens hasn’t cracked in terror.

That said, my favourite of Gruyaert’s cycling photographs is the last one in the book – a lovely shot of an elderly gentleman photographed against a wooden fence, from which dangle a couple of disembodied feet and lower legs. It’s probable that these feet (one in a Puma sneaker, the other in what appears to be something like a Hush Puppies desert boot) belong to young lads perched atop the fence watching the end of the first stage of the 1975 Tour and it’s an unusual Gruyaert shot because the gentleman (sharply attired in suit, tie and overcoat) is (like Hinault) making direct eye contact with us. Even more unexpected is that the photograph is in black and white, a startling shock given that Gruyaert is such a master of colour.

We looked at some of Gruyaert’s photographs during the year-long 50/50 project in 2016 so I will not dwell much longer on his photographs in the ‘Made In Belgium’ collection apart from to say that whilst they may not be landscape photographs per-se they are certainly images deeply suffused with a sense of place. Pearson makes the observation in his book that Belgium, and Flanders specifically, has transformed in wealth in the past few decades. With that in mind it seems clear that Gruyaert’s photographs are of a different Belgium, an older Belgium. They do remind me of Raymond Depardon’s Glasgow images and perhaps there is no surprise in that, for both collections are certainly now as much documents of historical, social and cultural threads that perhaps have unravelled, their frayed edges already misplaced amongst the murky mementoes of our pasts.

Today my favourites of Gruyaert’s photographs are the several shots which contain battlefield re-enactors. Here a cavalier atop his horse, the red of his jacket and scabbard an underexposed wound against a drab green hillside; there a row of riflemen with shouldered arms beneath the glowering grey of a sky that smothers the horizon. Elsewhere again there is the shock of ranks of marching figures in what, since this photograph was made in Waterloo, must be Napoleonic uniforms, backs to us crisscrossed with white straps and, in the gap between ranks, a motor car parked on pebbles, its yellow-green paintwork supremely evocative of the nineteen seventies/eighties. A small patch of sky shows in the background, this time the colour and texture of a Magritte painting. These are not soldiers, it seems to say. This is not a motor car. But this is, assuredly, Belgium.

On another day again my favourite photographs will be the ones made by the seaside, specifically in Ostend. The emptiness of the beach shelter and it’s electric red neon signs a back to front scrawl of light against the steel grey of the sea; the pale yellow columns and (again!) the reds of chairs in (yet again!) the void of a spa hotel; the nearly but not quite empty stretch of beach punctuated by the sharp imposing verticals of lampposts and a figure plumb centre looking out at the (yes, yet again!!!) concrete grey sea and a massive sky that blackens and breaks to cast a light that is almost apocalyptic. Anyone who has grown up by the seaside in the northern hemisphere can surely feel the bite of the wind in this photograph; can feel the whip of the sand as it skitters across the paving stones and into streaming eyes.

Gruyaert’s landscape photographs then are not landscape photographs, and this is their strength (analogous to Winograd saying that the key to being a great street photographer is not to call yourself a street photographer). They are instead photographs which show Gruyaert to be remarkably adept at seeing the essential qualities in the spaces around him and in capturing those essences within what would be, if he were a painter, a few deft brush stokes and decisive marks of colour. He makes landscapes out of details and details out of landscapes. He feels the light the rest of us barely see.

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