Tomas van Houtryve: “Lines and Lineage”

Finalist 2019: Tomas van Houtryve

What meaning do photographs play in shaping our collective memory? The Belgian photographer Tomas van Houtryve offers an unusual answer to this question in the form of his series “Lines and Lineage”. In this work he takes current photographs and, using a process from the early days of photography, projects these images into the past.

There is a blind spot in U.S. history concerning the border between Mexico and the United States, which was not always located where it is today: it was pushed 1100 kilometres further south, following the war of 1846–48. An American myth claims that European settlers occupied empty land on their way to western areas of the country. There is no visual documentation, however, that reveals the original state of the region before the arrival of the European settlers – the original photographic process known as the daguerreotype presented in Paris in 1839, only became popular in the U.S.A. some years later.

“I think that of all the artistic mediums, photography is the best one for the purposes of memory.”

With the aim of visualising this invisible era, Houtryve photographed descendants of early western inhabitants. He used a 19th century plate camera and the so-called collodion process that preceded the darkroom, applying it on location, because the glass plates needed to be fixed immediately after exposure. The resulting photographic creations are presented as diptychs, with a haunting portrait on one side and a landscape or piece of architecture from the formerly Mexican region on the other. The photographer’s series seems to discover and reveal, with surprising sensuality, a suppressed piece of history. By creatively employing this technique, Houtryve conceptualises not only the region’s identity and history, but also refers indirectly to the USA’s current political position, defined primarily by contempt, discrimination and the construction of a wall.

Tomas van Houtryve

Born in California in 1975, the Belgian photographer studied Philosophy, Photojournalism and Photography at the University of Colorado. In his extensive work as a conceptual artist, photographer and author, he combines questions of identity, memory and power, and uses a diversity of processes to do so. His first monograph book, “Behind the Curtains”, published in 2012, is dedicated to revealing the reality found in countries governed by communist parties. That series earned him a Leica Oskar Barnack Award finalist nomination in 2011. Van Houtryve is an Emeritus Member of the VII Agency. He currently lives in France.

Portrait: © Justin McKie