I spent some time looking for this quote in Moyra Davey’s Index Cards: “To do without people is for photography the most impossible of renunciation.” When I found it, I realized Davey was quoting “George Baker quoting Walter Benjamin.” Later on, I came upon the same quote again in Quinn Latimer’s Woman of Letters, where Latimer also talks about the way “critics adopt Davey’s unique literary style when writing about her work.” For writing to do without repeating the words of others is clearly an impossible renunciation.
Davey, who had internalized the critique of representation in the 1980s, describes the set of circumstances and coincidences that led her to photograph people in the subway after years of self- imposed restraint. For photography to do without people is not impossible, but merely hard and conceivably lonely. Until recently, Kristien Daem’s photographs mostly did without people. It took the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing obligations for her to feel the urge to photograph fellow artists. Daem has most often aimed the lens of her camera towards the quiet architecture of her native Belgium. She spent time researching and unearthing the unrealized works or forgotten projects of artists such as Fred Sandback. And when documenting the work of others, she tries to turn the task into a trade of her own.
Kristien Daem’s approach to photography is akin to the practice of a translator. Like “epic poets and pop artists [people who work] with the mythical material as it is given” to quote Quinn Latimer quoting “another critic” in her poem on Nicéphore Niépce. Daem’s work shines light on photography as “a little art, as Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter called [the work of the translator]” reports Kate Briggs in her book named after the same formula. Naming, quoting, translating and repeating are in essence the primary activities of a photographer. Not unlike translation, and in spite of its relative acceptance as an art form, photography will always remain something of a small trade — un petit métier, similar to those of the people portrayed in the eponymous series of photographs by Irving Penn.
Throughout its short history, photography has continuously struggled to prove its artistic worth in regards to painting, sculpture or cinema, like a skinny kid trying to compete with its older or more spectacular siblings. Displayed along with publications and printed matter directly related to the women in her portraits, Daem’s pictures call on photography’s unparalleled ability to honor people and to conjure up the world and the work of other artists, musicians, publishers and performers. Honoring and conjuring; two qualities rarely discussed in ontological terms when it comes to photography. Too evanescent, too feminine for the history of the medium — a history that wouldn’t be as ‘short’ if the women that make it up were to be invoked more often: Lucia Moholy, Grete Stern, Germaine Krull, Tina Modotti, Ilse Bing, Florence Henri, Dorothy Norman, Pati Hill, Barbara Morgan, Lynn Cohen, Sarah Charlesworth, Jan Groover, Carrie Mae Weems, Sandra Semchuk, Janice Guy, Ming Smith, to name only a few and conjure up others.
Essay by Emile Rubino
An edition of 200 copies published by the artist
Authors: Emile Rubino
Book design: Saskia Gevaert
Printing: Cultura Wetteren