A philosopher and a photographer share knowledge.
Here is the talk!

Julie Scheurweghs, Photographer interviews Hans Maes, Professor, Philosopher

This is a talk over coffee between philosopher Hans Maes and photographer Julie Scheurweghs on melancholy, nostalgia and photography. Ideas are discerned, open questions are posed and Julie’s work functions as the springboard for reflection. Click on the images to discover parts of the conversation!

Medium that lends itself to memory

HM:
If you were asked if you are a nostalgic person, what would your answer be? And has that answer changed over time?
JS:
Reflecting on my emotions, I used to describe myself more as nostalgic rather than melancholic, if I remember correctly. Nostalgia is a more common word, so if people had asked me whether I was nostalgic, my answer would have always been ‘yes.’ It’s not that I didn’t know the word melancholy though [laughs].
HM:
No, the terms are often used interchangeably and, to be honest, I think some of your work is also, or could be labeled as, nostalgic, like An afternoon in May. Maybe some of your other work as well, if you define nostalgia as a backward looking emotion, an engagement with the past.

JS:
I believe photography is inherently melancholic, yet simultaneously nostalgic. It is essentialy nostalgic because, once a picture is taken, you possess a visual reminder that prompts you to revisit the moment when the photo was captured.
i
©Julie Scheurweghs

HM:
That’s true. But when you say it’s inherently so, then it would almost follow that whenever the medium is used, nostalgia is going to be in play. I don’t know whether that’s true.
JS:
Well, I agree that my statement isn’t entirely accurate in the sense that I’m specifically referring to a certain type of photography. There are various genres, and perhaps this sentiment doesn’t apply to all of them. I’m currently excluding abstract photography and experiments with lights in the darkroom and film from this discussion. However, when I teach photography to students, I often observe a pattern where first-year students, when tasked with a project, frequently choose topics related to memory. It may sound cliché, but clichés often exist for a reason. I find it interesting that the medium naturally lends itself to projects centered around memory. So, when I mention it being inherently nostalgic, I mean it in that sense; it’s a medium that naturally lends itself with those types of projects and ways of thinking.
HM:
Yes. I think you’re right.

Melancholic potential of photography

HM:
You  mentioned that other photographers are also dealing with this theme or keep returning to it. And I was wondering, do you have any photographers that immediately come to mind or that for you are benchmarks or models of melancholy and photography?
JS:
The first photographer that comes to mind is the well-known Magnum photographer, Alec Soth. His work exudes profound melancholy. If you watch him speak on YouTube, he delves into explanations about his work and other photography, revealing his own melancholic disposition.

i
An image from the book "Niagra" by Alec Soth.

Of course, there is a whole list of other photographers who evoke similar emotions. The medium itself carries a profound sense of melancholy, often intertwined with the theme of memory. My current focus centers on my interest in family photography. I find myself frequently capturing moments of my own children, attempting to preserve glimpses of their fleeting childhood, as time moves swiftly. The very act of doing so feels melancholic.In addition to photographing my own family, I also collect images of studio backdrops featuring individuals who are no longer present. It follows the same concept – people used to visit studios to have their portraits taken, intending to offer cherished memories to their loved ones. However, when I discover these pictures at flea markets, they are often discarded, with no one recognizing the individuals in the photographs. These pictures were initially taken to keep memories alive, yet when the last person who knew the subject passes away, their memory fades away too, unless they happen to be a widely known figure.

i
© Julie Scheurweghs
HM:
Yes, I think that’s a very nice summary of the melancholic potential of photography. And I really like the fact that you’re actually pointing to two stages in which melancholy very much seems to be part of what photography is about. The first stage is that you realize that time is fleeting. That’s a harsh existential truth. As a result of that, you want to hold onto something that is dear to you. But then there’s the second stage where you’ve made the picture, you’ve tried to hold on to this fleeting moment, but then you realize that this moment and the depicted person will be eventually forgotten. And so there’s another bit of melancholy there where you realize that the very attempt to hold onto to something of the past, is ultimately futile in photography.
JS:
I’m currently working on a project that aligns perfectly with these sentiments. The loss of my mother to suicide when I was 15 has left a lasting impact. Last summer, while going through pictures with my four year old daughter Luna, she pointed to images saying, ‘Oh, that’s Opa and Oma.’ saying they are my parents. So I had to explain to her that while they are her grandparents, her grandmother is actually not my mother. She then asked about my mother, and I had to navigate the delicate task of explaining her absence.

With this poignant moment in mind, I found myself contemplating how to guide my children through this absence?  How do I convey who my mother was—highlighting both her virtues and flaws—when they’ve never met her? These questions led me to embark on a project: creating a book about my mother. I’m currently gathering memories from various sources, including my brother, my mother’s sister, her friends, and even childhood friends who knew her.

However, the challenge arises in photographing someone who is no longer alive. To address this, I plan to enlist other mothers to stand in for those pictures. My own children will also play a role; I’ll involve them in activities like painting their nails with my mother’s nail polish and capture those moments. So that’s a profoundly melancholic project in the making; revolving around the essence of memory, how it changes, how we desperately try to preserve it, and how to convey it.

Eliciting Melancholy

HM:
[..] A photograph, let’s say, can express a certain emotion. It can also elicit that same emotion, which is different. So if we’re talking about melancholy, melancholy can be the emotion that the artist has and then tries to express via the photograph. But also, melancholy can be the emotion that is elicited in the viewer, even though it was not on the mind of the photographer. And then thirdly, a photograph can be expressive of melancholy when it gives the viewer an idea of what it’s like to experience melancholy. 
i
© Julie Scheurweghs

The reason why I wanted to come back to that is because it ties in with artistic value and artistic achievement. When we talk about nostalgia and melancholy, I think a lot of photographs elicit those emotions irrespective of whether they were intended as such and irrespective of any skill.

i
A photo of a family album by Julie Scheurweghs
A nice example is old family albums one may find on a flea market. I know Julie  goes to a lot of these secondhand markets and often picks up such old photo albums. No one may remember who the people in the photographs are. Many of these photographs are not skillfully made and they were never made with the intention to elicit melancholy or nostalgia, but they do.

And I think that’s one thing: to think about photography as the medium that elicits these emotions, even if that was never the intention of the maker of the photographs. But it’s quite another thing to have a photographer like Julie, who wants to express that emotion and then manages to create work that brings that emotion about in the viewer in a way that is illuminating. So that’s why I’ve been interested in Julie’s work; her work is truly expressive of melancholy, it doesn’t merely elicit emotion.

In search of the term

JS:
Μelancholy is such a loaded word and I was wondering what were the other words you were thinking about when you started?
HM:
In the beginning I was just interested in certain moments of bittersweet profundity that had moved me deeply in my engagement with art works. But I didn’t have a label for that experience yet. It wasn’t even clear to me whether it was one experience that I was thinking about; because alongside 16th century renaissance portraits, where you have the feeling that the person in the portrait is looking back at you, I was also moved by certain novels and particular films or songs. And it wasn’t entirely clear to me whether it was always the same thing.

i
Hans Holbein the Younger, Woman Wearing a White Headdress (c. 1532–43), Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018.

When I started thinking about it, philosophically, the terms that initially came to me were ‘melancholy’ and also ‘nostalgia’. But I quickly realized that it wasn’t nostalgia I was after, since many of the experiences I had in mind weren’t backward looking. Then there’s the term ‘being moved’. When we use it in everyday situations, we may think of it  as some vague, indeterminate feeling. You are touched by something, but you cannot specify the precise emotions you are feeling. But I read some recent philosophical work on what it is to be moved, and am now persuaded that it is a quite specific emotion, with a very distinct profile, just like jealousy or just like nostalgia. And I think many of the experiences that I’ve been interested in are examples of being moved. But when I started honing in on the particular experience that was most central to my own engagement with art, and I asked myself what it is that I find valuable in the works that truly struck a chord with me, I found that melancholy was the most suitable term. Having said that, you are right, it’s a term with a lot of historical and theoretical baggage. So I’ve been thinking that perhaps I should focus on the notion of ‘bittersweet’ in my future work. That makes things simpler.

Bittersweet


HM:
Bittersweet is such a cliché term, but within philosophy not much work has been done on this. I think that’s a missed opportunity. Because I don’t think people realize enough, the huge complexity of bittersweet experiences that are out there. When you say goodbye to someone, that’s often a bittersweet experience. But that’s different from the bittersweet experience of nostalgia. It’s different from the bittersweet experience of melancholy. It’s different from the bittersweet experience of being moved, say, by a wedding. (Not that I’m usually moved by weddings, but some people are moved by weddings.) All of these experiences are bittersweet, but they are so in different ways. And I think it would be super interesting, philosophically speaking, to think more about that – especially also in an artistic or aesthetic context; because much like the term ‘taste’ which has been crucial in the development of Western aesthetics, the term ‘bittersweet’ finds it origin in one of the senses. Let me explain this a bit more.

i
"Against the Backdrop of Time" © Julie Scheurweghs

Taste is one of the five senses. But we also talk about taste in pictures, taste in fashion, and so on. Taste has become synonymous with aesthetic engagement or aesthetic judgment in general. Immanuel Kant, who arguably wrote the most influential work in the history of aesthetics, talks about aesthetics judgments as ‘judgments of taste’. For example when you find something beautiful, that’s a judgment of taste. So he uses  the term ‘taste’, which derives from one of the senses, to talk more broadly about beauty in general. (As an aside, it’s a bit ironic that for a lot of philosophers, including Kant himself, a literal taste experience cannot be beautiful. For them, beauty is limited to the realm of vision and hearing. Smells, textures, tastes can be agreeable, but not really beautiful. But that’s just an aside.)

Coming back to the bittersweet, things are very similar. The term ‘bittersweet’ relates first and foremost to one of our senses, namely the sense of taste. But it’s come to be used much more broadly, and may refer to a wide variety of aesthetic experiences that involve the other senses as well. Julie’s  photographs can be bittersweet. Music can be bittersweet. Films can be bittersweet, though not literally, of course.

So, there’s an interesting parallel that goes to the heart of what aesthetics is about and that deserves to be looked at more closely.

 

Anticipated Nostalgia

HM:
So there’s nostalgia, which is typically understood as a backward-looking longing that causes a bittersweet feeling; sweet, because you’re thinking about something nice in the past; bitter, because the past is gone. That’s nostalgia as we know it, and it will often occur when we look at old pictures, and certainly old family photographs, and we think about this nice past that is no longer here. But there’s also another form of nostalgia, one that comes very close to what I understand melancholy to be, namely: anticipated nostalgia. This occurs not so much when you’re thinking about the past, but when you’re looking at the present as if it is the past; when you anticipate being nostalgic about the moment here and now. This is a very peculiar state that has been studied in psychology recently. What is interesting about it is that it seems a combination of backward looking and forward looking. So when you said about photography that it’s inherently nostalgic, that’s not too far off the mark, if we understand nostalgia  broadly enough, to include something like anticipated nostalgia. What do you think?

JS:
It’s amusing because I see a reflection of myself in that scenario when I photograph. Family photography tends to capture a lot of joyful moments or carefully staged happiness. Personally, I find myself attempting to capture pictures of my kids in moments of distress – yes, even when they’re crying <laughs>. There’s this anticipated nostalgia you mentioned, where I think, “Oh, she’s so tiny and helpless,” and in that split second, I rush to take a picture before offering comfort. It’s my way of wanting to remember those unfiltered moments and looking back on the beauty of them [laughs]

i
© Julie Scheurweghs

HM:
That’s interesting that you just said that. In your practice as a photographer, are there ever any moral qualms, like when you take a picture of your child before you comfort her? Is that something you struggle with? 

JS:
That’s a perpetual struggle for me. I don’t usually capture moments of them crying, but whenever they fall, there’s this instinctive thought that it could be a poignant picture – my little kid with those big tears, you know? I contemplate reaching for my camera, and in that fleeting millisecond, there’s a moral struggle. Ultimately, the parental instinct wins, and I choose to comfort them rather than taking a photograph. So, the rare occasions when I do have pictures of my kids crying, it’s because the camera was already in my hands from previous shots.

i

I don’t have so many pictures of them crying, you know, [laughs]. But I do try to make pictures of moments that are less commonly photographed but in my opinion are at least as valuable to cherish. I have made some self portraits in the middle of the night in the light of my kids nightlight of me looking tired and slightly frustrated by the fact that I was woken up by one of them for the 3rd time that night for example. It’s something one could argue you’d want to forget as fast as possible, let alone have photographic proof that it ever happened,  but for me it serves as a reminder of how my kids needed me. and I make these images with anticipated nostalgia in mind, of how one day they will no longer need me to comfort them at night and I will look back on our nightly adventures and lack of sleep with a certain fondness.

Nostalgia and Distortion

HM:
Some people consider nostalgia a categorically inappropriate emotion. So they argue that there’s always something slightly wrong or off about nostalgia because they see nostalgia as necessarily involving an idealization of the past, and therefore a distortion of the past.  You idealize the way it was, in order to be able to indulge in this bittersweet feeling.That’s another reason why, in the end, I prefer to think of melancholy rather than nostalgia. Because melancholy, as I understand it, does not involve a distorted picture of reality, but rather the opposite: you come to see the harsh reality of human existence as it really is. Whereas the distortive aspect about nostalgia is something I would want to avoid, I do welcome and even seek out the clarity that those profound moments of melancholy bring. Then again, unlike other theorists, I don’t believe that nostalgia necessarily and always involves a distortion of the past. But I don’t know what you think?

i
"Against the Backdrop of Time" © Julie Scheurweghs

JS:
What I was going to say is that memories are always distorted. I mean that’s just how memory works. You don’t remember things as they are.

HM:
Fair enough. But memories can be more or less truthful, no?

JS:
But then you go back to the question of ‘what is the truth?’. Because my truth is not your truth. And if we have a mutual memory and if we end up in a situation that we’re in together and we both look back on it, we’re both going to tell a different story about it.

HM:
Sure. But I do think that stories of what happened can be more or less accurate. Let me give a fictitious example. Let’s say, I’m reminiscing with some friends about this young man we once knew who passed away. And I say: ‘he was such a happy-go-lucky character’. But my friends correct me and point to the fact that he had long bouts of depression and often sat alone by himself crying. And so then I come to realize, that yes, in fact my picture of the past was distorted. My friends’ picture of our mutual acquaintance is more true to the facts. It’s just a quick example, but won’t you agree that sometimes people’s memories can be more or less accurate, or more or less distorted?

JS:
I don’t know. For me, I think memory is always a distortion and it can be more or less accurate. But then again, what is accurate? Because they’re remembering the times he was depressed, but I am sure he wasn’t depressed his whole life.

HM:
But in that case, doesn’t it seem more accurate to say that sometimes he was happy and sometimes he was sad; instead of just claiming that he was a happy-go-lucky fellow?

JS:
Yes. But saying that he was sometimes happy and sometimes sad, that describes the whole of humanity.

i
"In Memory's Garden" © Julie Scheurweghs

HM:
Right! [laugh] I’m not saying that memory can be a hundred percent accurate or that memory is like a clear window through which we see the past with no distortion whatsoever. So let’s forget this example. Let’s talk about politics. We’re all aware of these rightwing nationalist parties in Greece, in Belgium, in the UK, which have become more radicalized and more popular in recent years. A real threat, I think. Now, a common feature of many of these parties is a glorification of the past. They’re nostalgic for some sort of past that, once you start digging and pressing, you discover is a fiction. It’s an idealized past that never really existed. I believe it’s important to point that out. But in order to point this out, you need to be able to say that sometimes our version of the past can be more or less accurate. Because if you start by saying it’s always distorted, you cannot criticize them for holding a view – of reality and of the past – that is false.

JS:
I see where you’re getting at. I agree to that part but, but don’t  necessarily think that saying that our past is always distorted fives them a free pass to distort it.  Instead, I would characterize it more as idolizing the past. We’re all aware that this idealized version isn’t entirely true <laughs>. However, I don’t see this acknowledgment as a reason to establish a broad consensus. It allows room for us to sometimes assert that, no, the past wasn’t exactly as romanticized. I might not be explaining it perfectly, but that’s the gist.

HM:
No, not at all. But it’s not the first time these conflicting intuitions come to the fore. In the art world, it’s a very popular view that there is no such thing as objective reality or truth. It’s all relative, a matter of subjective perspective. Whereas in philosophy, at least in analytic philosophy, subjectivism and relativism are not the  dominant views. I also tend to be more of a realist. As a philosopher, I certainly don’t want give up all talk of truth and accuracy. And that often clashes with my art students, who are much more persuaded by the subjectivist and relativist position. And I think that’s okay. It’s actually a very healthy approach to have when you’re dealing with art, or when you’re making art. But as a philosophical position, if it comes to the strength of the arguments and theories, I don’t think extreme relativism or subjectivism are very compelling views. But now I’m going on too long about something that might not be relevant. But I hope that you see what I’m getting at.

JS:
Yes, of course, and I find it very interesting.

Nostalgia when there is no experience

HM:
There is something about the particular and the universal which may be added here. So when I think about your series An Afternoon in May, those are photographs of meals and festivities that took place in the 1980s or 1990s, is that right?

i
"An Afternoon in May" © Julie Scheurweghs

JS:
Between 1950s and 90s.

HM:
And are they photographs of your family or just found footage?

JS:
It’s a combination of both.

i
© Julie Scheurweghs

HM:
Okay. I was going to say that in An afternoon in May, some of the photographs will relate to events that Julie was present at or has some memories of. So she could be nostalgic for that time – a time in which, for instance, some of her deceased relatives are still alive. But then, of course, when I look at these pictures, they don’t concern me directly. It’s not my family. So one might think that it will be impossible for me to become nostalgic as a result of these pictures. After all, I didn’t experience these meals or festivities. It’s not my past. And, yet, I can and I do experience nostalgia. That’s partly because I was alive in the seventies and eighties and nineties and so these pictures remind me of my own past and of my own family dinners. They were not too different from the dinners in Julie’s family. But then it would be interesting to think about millennials, or people who are born in the 21st century, and whether they can become nostalgic when they see Julie’s series. Can they come to feel this for a time that they never experienced? I actually think the answer is ‘yes’. One can become nostalgic for a time that one has never experienced oneself. And photographs are quite good at evoking such a feeling. But also the skill of the photographer comes in here, I think. With really good photographers, like the one that I’m having this conversation with now, they’re often able to make something that is very particular to them universal. That’s kind of the magic of great art; that it just doesn’t just speak to this one person.

JS:
I want to add to that point, especially since you’re discussing time. My hope is that millennials and others can see themselves reflected in this work. My primary aspiration is that the work transcends the time in which it was created. As an artist, there’s a desire to create work that people can relate to, and that’s especially true for me. I aim for a universality that extends beyond my family, which is why most of the pictures in “An Afternoon in May” are found footage.

What resonates with me about this collection is the universal aspect of people simply sharing a coffee together as a family, capturing that moment with a photograph. There’s a profound beauty in this seemingly mundane occurrence, accompanied by a heavy dose of nostalgia <laugh>. Ultimately, my wish is that the work surpasses the era in which these pictures were taken. I hope people, as you mentioned, Hans, can recognize themselves in it, connect with the moments depicted, and find resonance with their own lives.

Julie Scheurweghs

Photographer

Julie Scheurweghs lives and works in Brussels where she obtained a Masters degree in LUCA school of arts in 2010. After her first Solo Exhibition called ‘Accidentally on purpose’ in Amsterdam in 2012 she quickly made her Belgian solo debut in Knokke and has had numerous solo and group shows since. Apart from being a photographer, Julie Scheurweghs is also an avid collector of photographs, both old and new, that have been discarded or even labeled trash. In her work, Scheurweghs uses these decaying images, disconnected from their original owners, as a medium to provide an intimate look into the personal lives of strangers and as a powerful metaphor for the ephemerality of human life.

https://www.juliescheurweghs.com

Hans Maes

Professor, Philosopher

Hans Maes is Senior Lecturer and Co-Director of the Aesthetics Research Centre at the University of Kent, United Kingdom. He is the editor of Portraits and Philosophy (Routledge, 2020) and author of ‘What is a Portrait? (British Journal of Aesthetics 2015). Other publications include: Conversations on Art and Aesthetics (Oxford University Press, 2017), Pornographic Art and The Aesthetics of Pornography (Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), and Art and Pornography (Oxford University Press, 2012). He is Vice-President of the British Society of Aesthetics and Past President of the Dutch Association of Aesthetics.

 


Sectioned talk example

Be a part of our community!
Please fill out the form here.

Be a part of our community!
Please fill out the form

If you have 5' to spare, read this:
Connections made by me

Respectively it is targeted to philosophers and researchers, who are interested in conversing with artists, sharing knowledge and also learning from their artistic practice.It is a lab where visual artists mostly work with philosophers and not exclusively on philosophy. In that respect philosophical texts and wider topics may be in our areas of interest more as a means to explore seeing and thinking rather than the end on which we focus to extract information. It is lab which also aims at creating through experimentation and transfigurations of artefacts material which may raise philosophical questions and discussion.