There is a long and important tradition in photography that often gets forgotten, remains unnoticed or is underexposed. It is the tradition of making long walks (usually through a city) with the camera in a search to find the 'right' images. This tradition is crucial for so-called 'street photography', but photographers that walk around a lot are not necessarily always street photographers. They can be documentary photographers, photojournalists, and perhaps even nature photographers. With some exceptions, the idea of walking around comes from the fact that they do not know exactly what they will photograph until they see it. Of course they have their particular interest, or they are working on a particular project. It is likely that they have a rough idea in their heads about what kind of pictures they are going to make. But the final decision is not made until they see it before their eyes. This can be a particular situation, an event or a grouping of people and or objects. The image that appears within the frame of the viewer 'fits' somehow the mental image, even if it concerns something totally new and unexpected. Or it belongs to a series of previously imagined images.
But usually it is the other way around when they decide to actually make a photograph. They know it is the right image only an instant before they press the button. The actual making of the photograph is thus often a very fast and intuitive action, based on an extensive experience of looking and seeing, but also on what can be called quick 'visual thinking'.
André Cepeda's series on the city of Brussels reminded me of this practice that is so typical for the medium of photography - whether you consider it an art form, a cultural practice or a very personal urge. Cepeda walked around in Brussels in 1999, during a commission within the scope of Brussels Cultural Capital of Europe. His task was to make images that would somehow reflect the cultural identity of this city, or at least question this identity in an intelligent way. This meant he could not (nor did he want to) photograph the obvious touristy cliché's, nor the even more obvious 'official' expressions of bureaucratic power that are to be found in the 'political' architecture of the European Union. Instead, he chose to focus on the fleeting life in the streets of the city, and on a number of 'non-places', locations that were almost too banal to be even noticed, let alone photographed (Brussels is particularly strong on that point).
If one could acknowledge two groups of 'walkers' - the 'witnesses' or 'bystanders' versus the 'researchers', 'philosophers' or 'analysts' -, André Cepeda clearly belongs to the latter group.
Professional photographers a have a large collection of images stored in their memories. They recognize all kinds of images by photographers whose work they've seen in books, magazines, exhibitions, and billboards and the like. It is possible that while walking the streets they 'see' here a Robert Frank picture, there a 'Winogrand', 'a Doisneau' or 'a Cartier-Bresson'. In our image saturated world, to make a new photograph means to a great extent NOT to make one of the thousands and thousands of already existing pictures that your memory keeps reproducing - but at almost the same time trying to forget those pictures, to be 'blank' when you actually take the new photograph (or to consciously include, in an intelligent way, visual references to other historical and/or contemporary images). This is a very difficult practice, linked to the same process of quick 'visual thinking' that I mentioned before. For professional photographers, it is a basic part of their creativity. It is interesting to see how Cepeda's Brussels series works in the light of what I have just described. Avoiding cliché's as well as obvious references to any already existing photograph that may or may not be stored in our collective memory, he makes a photograph like the one of the four girls standing together, more or less facing each other. Of course this image belongs to a series, it shouldn't be looked at separately. But still it is interesting to look at an image that has hardly any documentary value - in fact the scene could be anywhere in any city. It is a transitory moment, and certainly not a 'decisive moment'. What, then, does it mean? Why has Cepeda photographed this? Did he think the scene was aesthetically pleasing? Or did he like the girls? Does he know them? Is he playing the male hunter? Are they tourists or local students? Are they discussing something? Is it about politics, art, fashion or just where to go next? The look on their faces is quite serious (though we cannot see the face of the girl closest by in the image, we only see her from the back). We cannot really figure out what the photograph means. Actually, when we think about it, is it unlikely that Cepeda wanted the photograph to have one singular meaning. The image is open to different interpretations and mental projections of various symbolical or allegorical meanings, like 'youth' (Brussels has a future) or 'conversation' (as a civilised act and, when it comes to the exchange of ideas and opinions, the basis of democracy). But it could also be a statement about photography and the act of making a photograph: the voyeurism (we as viewers are excluded from the group but we are peeping over a shoulder), the hunting act of the male photographer, the fleeting moment (suggested by the sunlight on the shoulders, arms and the faces of the girls). Cepeda's wandering through the city finds its counterpart in our mental wandering through the image and along its possible meanings. His artistic achievement is that he provides us with very interesting and exciting ones.