Jozef Emiel Borrenbergen

Jozef Emiel Borrenbergen

Hidden treasures of the Belgian photo history

Jozef Emiel Borrenbergen (Antwerp, 1884 - 1966) was an amateur photographer from Antwerp playing an important role in the pictorialist movement in the beginning of the 20th Century.

Having his daily professional activities in the Antwerp Harbour, he was also an active amateur photographer, as were most pictorialists.  He was amongst others the president of the photo society “Iris” and the drive behind many photographic societies of those days.

He published in international publications in the Twenties and Thirties.  The Antwerp Fotomuseum dedicated an exhibition to Borrenbergen in 1984 and published for this occasion a catalogue of his work.

Contrary to his comtemporary Léonard Misonne, Borrenbergen was wrongly a little forgotten in time.

The themes in Borrenbergen’s photography

In his early years Borrenbergen focused mainly on the simple rural life of the Antwerp Kempen, which was slowly disappearing due to the industrial revolution.  But at the same time he photographed the upcoming activities in the Antwerp Harbour, which was his professional habitat.
Landscapes, city views and still lives were the typical themes of the pictorialist photographer.  Borrenbergen gave a very unique and personal interpretation of these themes.

His work is characterised by an extreme focus on composition and light.  He was the master of print, preferring the bromoil, one of the most difficult alternative processes.  A bromoil is a photographical technique based on oil and pigments.  An artisanal technique giving the photographer a lot of freedom and creativity in the print of the photograph.

Even in the Fifties, when others had already given up the bromoil, he remained convinced of the value of this technique.
But this didn’t prevent him from experimenting with modernist techniques and his photographic language evolved in time.

Being the president of the photo society “Iris” in Antwerp and the published of the magazine carriying the same name, he influenced an entire generation of photographers.

Magnum opus

Borrenbergen’s magnum opus certainly is his portfolio Rivierenhof made in 1926.  A collection of 30 large print photographs on the Antwerp park Rivierenhof.

The portfolio is not a documentary of a location of a sample of Borrenbergen’s photographic talent.

The portfolio shows the park in all seasons.  The eye catchers are certainly the landscapes in the snow.

Characteristic are the largeness of the prints.  Usually the prints from this period were rather small in size due to the technical limitations.  It must have been a real challenge for Borrenbergen to produce 30 magnificent prints of 30 x 40cm.

One of the top prints is number IX, De Tenisspelers.  The subject is so atypical for the pictorialist period which was mainly static.  This photograph is a snapshot put in a pictorialist setting.  The light in the fence and the subject are modernist whereas the finish is impressionist.
The photographer’s point of view and the balanced composition add a voyeurist element to this image.

The combination of these puts Borrenbergen on the level of the great French, German, English and American pictorialists.

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