Deep Light
Marnix Goossens

episode publishers, Rotterdam 2006

Deep Light

Marnix Goossens allows us to see the world as he himself sees it. His perspective is one of awe and amazement—awe inspired by the beauty of our surroundings, amazement evoked by everyday details.
‘Deep Light’ evinces the defining characteristics of Goossens’ work: a remarkable feeling for light-hearted, sometimes absurdist scenes; and a deepened perception in which he involves the observer. Clearly, photography is his medium.

Marnix Goossens’ work focuses on three main subjects: nature, portraits, and still lifes. Most of his photographs depict scenes from nature. Goossens creates highly-detailed images of trees, plants, and landscapes; he directs his attention to floral beauty, intriguing situations, and nature found in the human habitat. In his portraiture, he experiments with eliciting different personalities from the same person. His aim is not to merely depict his subjects’ physical appearance but to create fictional characters. He uses various objects and items of clothing to bring out his subjects’ desired expressions. His models include not only himself, but also relatives and friends. Finding a particular garment often inspires him to shoot a new portrait. In his still lifes, Goossens contrasts functional, everyday objects with other categories of objects and their settings, thus engaging them in new relationships of form and structure.

Goossens works in different genres (still lifes, portraits, and landscapes), but his different subjects share a common approach. Throughout his genres, the photographer depicts unexpected situations that he either encounters or creates himself. These scenes are often somewhat alienating or ‘out of the ordinary’. Goossens’ expresses a preference for man-made nature—nature in an urban environment, for example, and even natural motifs applied in the decoration of clothing and other objects. In his portraits, too, we see this interest in the artificial, especially when he photographs people as if they were characters from a film—other people entirely. He evokes a feeling of estrangement by creating unexpected contrasts and by focusing on details. This focus shifts the observer’s attention to the variety of forms and structures found in nature and in materials.

Marnix Goossens works with a technical (large-format) camera, enabling him to make finely-detailed photographs. He spends considerable time looking through his lens, carefully choosing the right frame, plane of focus, and composition, capturing a static scene rather than a moment in time. Virtually all of his prints bear the original framing chosen when taking the photo. The fact that technical cameras are not especially user-friendly prohibits the photographer from shooting a series of a particular person, object, or situation and—and simply selecting the best photograph later. Patience and careful observation are therefore the main ingredients in Marnix Goossens’ work.

This publication offers a retrospective of Goossens’ photography of the last decade; the book emphasizes his more recent work. The selections for the book were made in close collaboration with the artist. The arrangement of the photos encourages readers to explore the relationships between the different genres represented and the different images themselves. Exploring Goossens’ work in this way—through the lens of both genre and image—reveals the defining characteristics of Goossens’ work. What are these defining characteristics? The answer is addressed in the text that follows—and, of course, in the photographs themselves. Observation, careful observation: that is, after all, what matters most.

Colin Huizing

A Glimpse of Character

The behaviour of leaves can be quite surprising. Clustered on a tree or bush, following some inaudible rhythm; or, once again clustered, this time off the tree, while the apples are still “up there” among the branches.... Colourful petals evoke a range of illusions: red paint splashed onto a grey-pebbled path or a woolly pink bath mat spread out under a venerable old tree. In the realm of what passes for “nature”, leaves may be the proverbial lightweights, but they are unpredictable, versatile; whatever moves them remains a mystery.

Marnix Goossens’ approach is apparently one of calm and precision. He focuses his camera on objects and scenes familiar to us all: landscapes and interiors; quotidian objects; himself and his friends. Goossens is—like all of us, in fact—an observer. He watches what goes on around him, how life plays out, and how events evolve. He watches calmly and precisely. Things happen that surpass the ordinary. By watching closely, a different meaning is unveiled—a greater meaning, a more enduring meaning. And by watching so attentively, Goossens enables us to do exactly the same. At times, he shows us “secret” formal associations between objects and human beings; at other times, dead objects seem to come alive spontaneously, when no one is looking…. Occasionally, we don’t really know what we are seeing; we experience a moment of powerful promise just before recognizing what is in front of us. Explaining this greater, more enduring meaning is not Goossens’ intention. He prefers meaning to remain unclear, elusive, like a dark shadow in an obscure alley. After all, what is the meaning of an old mattress with a slightly sagging seam, a radiator in the background seeming to accentuate its tired, drooping line? In the context of life, probably not much at all; but within the four corners of the frame it feels like a small miracle—a miracle only in the visual sense; a miracle photographers, painters, and film-makers can see and show; a miracle words can barely touch.

Goossens takes his time to produce his photographs; these are therefore anything but snapshots. Rather, they are moments stretched out in time, the time it took to create the photos—their composition, framing, and exposure. Time is solidified in the images. The subjects in the portraits, for example, do not look surprised or interrupted in their activities but are merely waiting; they are past the point of feeling uncomfortable, and their expressions are natural. The objects Goossens has captured are sometimes in rather unusual places: a melon on a couch, a towel up a tree; despite this, it feels as though the objects have adjusted to their new surroundings. Illuminated by morning sunlight, a vase of plastic flowers on a windowsill seems to capture the essence of an entire morning. We often think of photography as a “fast” medium, but in Goossens’ work, the dust has time to settle.

The subjects Goossens’ photographs are quite common, so common that they have been adopted by artists throughout the ages: still lifes, portraits, self-portraits, landscapes, interiors. We know this, and he knows we know this. The images are therefore combined in our mind’s eye: when we look at one of Goossens’ portraits of a woman, for example, we indeed see a seventeenth-century lady posed against a dark background, the folds of her modest garments beautifully lit. We notice that Goossens, like many painters past and present, uses his portraiture to experiment with light and composition. The careful observation, the illusion of stopping time, the resonance of old-Master images—these characteristics turn Goossens’ work into photographic paintings.

And what about nature? Nature does play a significant role in Goossens’ work, but not in the way in which we are accustomed. Our traditional relationship with nature is, in fact, strange. We see nature as the source of everything—of our well-being, peace and calm, health and healing—but we do not hesitate to “plasticize” nature. We depict the natural world on our biscuit tins, we print it on our wallpaper, and we embroider it on our bed sheets. The way we represent nature is very telling, not so much about nature itself, but about how we project our feelings and desires—and therefore ourselves—onto nature.

In Goossens’ work, nature appears in many forms: “plasticized”, embroidered, projected, and real. Often, nature appears as screens of foliage, either distant or in extreme close-up. Goossens deliberately obscures—and sometimes even sabotages—the distinction between original and fake. He depicts a bouquet of artificial flowers as if it were composed of the prettiest wildflowers; he depicts a waterfall in the jungle as he would a poster in a travel agency. His quest is neither for authenticity, nor for the source of things, nor for beauty in its own right; his search is for a particular personality. He will not allow nature to fool him, but he is aware of nature’s attempt to do just that. He also observes nature’s hapless efforts and failures to trick us—a cloud, hiding in the bushes, expressing a deep desire to become a bush; or a shrub, pretending to have been drawn into existence using fierce but firm strokes, rather than having been grown from a seed. Goossens demonstrates our strange and limited relationship with nature. Goossens does not simply point out that we project ourselves onto nature, therefore limiting our ways of seeing the natural world. Instead, he shows us that what we project is merely one-dimensional. He shows us that nature has so much more that is human—and that is so much more human—like coincidence, humour, failure, self-denial, insecurity, and hubris.

Goossens tries from his subjects to steal a glimpse of character. No matter how hard trees, people, flowers, or curtains try to present themselves in a certain way, we can always discern the telltale signs of their true selves, even though these selves may have been inspired by alienating circumstances. When observing himself, Goossens wants to see more, as well, and seeks to capture the invisible moment when posing becomes exposing. Capturing that moment requires calm and patience; it requires embracing clichés, and discarding them; most of all, it requires silence.

So it is no surprise that his photographs articulate silence. In Goossens’ portraits, people are quiet, almost holding their breath. In the landscapes, the trees, the leaves, the clouds, the water—except for the gentle murmur of a stream—are quiet. In interiors, the curtains, the flowers, the bench, the wall—all are as quiet, as still as a Vermeer painting. We are aware of this silence, for even if we could hear, there would hardly be a sound. We are aware of it because images as pure as these require very few words indeed: all that happens can be expressed through form, colour, and light. It is a light that exposes without mercy and satisfies the eye, a light that also protects, covers, allows things to remain hidden.

Vinken en Van Kampen