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Bart Kuykens: A Tradition That Runs Fast

The world never stops running, even during a pandemic, and we are always in a hurry, trying to be perfect, high-performing and reliable. Every time I feel overwhelmed, I like lying on the couch looking for some good stories in a book, or in a photograph: and it was during the lockdown, on a lazy afternoon spent looking for new stories to tell, that I found Bart Kuykens on Instagram. He is a Belgian photographer that shoots analogue and black and white.

Photo by Bart Kuykens (IG: @bartkuykens)

The first time I saw his works I was particularly struck by their power: every single picture is dark, rough, a bit dirty, but at the same time so full of grace.

We are so used to shooting tirelessly with our smartphone that we have almost forgotten what it means to wait for our roll to be developed, and to see our photographs for the first time already printed.

This is a good lesson of slowness we should all learn, and Bart is an outsider in today’s ever-changing digital work.

He had never dreamed of becoming a photographer in particular, but he always felt he needed to tell stories in a visual way. Through still images or video. That’s what an artist does, because it’s the mirror of his feelings, his thoughts and emotions.

Bart became known as a professional photographer after the release of his art-quality automotive books called 'A Flat6 love affair': flat 6 like the iconic engine of the classic Porsches. In fact, these volumes celebrate the bond between a Porsche and its driver. Each volume documents memorable owners and their car, and the beauty of these portraits is so stunning that for a while you forget about the presence of a celebrity like Jason Kay - known as Jay Kay, frontman, leader and founder of the band Jamiroquai - and stay focused on the photograph that seems to be part of another world.

Bart confesses to me that carrying on such a complex project means not including everyone you want. And the more you travel and meet people, the more interesting people you meet as well. He also finds it difficult to go back to the first two volumes because he feels his photography has changed over the years, which is a good thing, but looking back at the first images he is not entirely pleased anymore because he wants to do better. That’s exactly the same thing for a writer when he reads his own book back after ten years, for example: stories develop and change together with their authors.

Talking about Porsches, he tells me that he wasn’t really into cars until in his early thirties.

Mostly he gets obsessed and passionate from the moment he owns something, so this passion really started after he bought his very first one: a burgundy 3.2 Carrera. He always tells people he would miss his cameras more than his Porsche and that’s a fact. However, he loves his 1970 2.2T with its 3.2 Carrera engine: it is like an unfinished painting, and he enjoys adding or deleting things.

Thinking about his work, I asked him which cameras he uses: Hasselblad and Leica, because they are reliable and fit his style of personality. The Hasselblad H1 645 is his favourite at the moment for car photography for his books. As for Leica, he loves the R7 with Summilux lenses - i.e. 35mm f/1.4 and 80mm f/1.4 - as well as the Leica CM, a pocket camera with a fixed 40mm lens.

Today, many people think they are professional photographers only because they have expensive cameras, so I really appreciated what Bart told me: “Never let anybody tell you an expensive camera will give you better pictures, it’s always about the content, never about the pixels”.

The first time I looked at his portraits, I immediately thought about characters from a Kent Haruf book, people who live away from the hustle and bustle of the modern world. A timeless dimension: this is the power of black and white photos.

About his “old school” approach to photography, he tells me that it slows him down in the process. When shooting digital he just shoots too much and ends up with fewer good pictures. Another positive aspect is that you differentiate yourself from mainstream cultural expectations: everything is so volatile these days. Even though his works, especially the portraits, seem to be part of a past era, Bart admits that his life goes so fast. He is always looking for opportunities and new challenges, and he needs this adrenaline to feel relaxed. For this reason, he is attached only to future projects.

Few people really know that behind the scenes of a good photographic project there are study and research, and every single picture hides talent and a lesson learnt.

Every time I interview a professional, I’m curious to know if there is something he would suggest to a person who loves photography and wants to become a pro. “Stay true to yourself. Shoot what you love to shoot. Your own way. And have patience. And go all in”.

A good picture should let you think: “Let’s stop and dream”. And here they are. A dusty and ready-to-restore Porsche and you immediately remember how many new lives are waiting for us; a kid wearing a flat cap has the sulks, and he’s irresistible, he would be perfect in The Paul Street Boys novel. And then a picture taken at Morro Bay, a man and his dog playing on the ocean shore, and nothing else matters; a girl standing close to her horse, a mutual love and no words needed.

Thank you for your grace, Bart.


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