In 2012 Peter Dekens arrived quietly onto the photo book scene with the wonderful Touch. A beautifully conceived, and elegantly simple study of a young man named Stijn, who was born blind and lives by himself. Published as a leporello style book, the concertina effect (used beautifully in this instance) attempts to give the viewer some sense of Stijn’s day to day life, and the safety afforded him by an environment that is completely his own.
His follow up title was (un)expected. A study of people coping with life after the loss of a loved one through suicide. Inspired by his own experience, this understated book tackled a very difficult subject with sensitivity and respect. So much so, that I chose to include it my “best of” list for 2016 for Photobookstore.
Now two years on Dekens has released his third self published book, also inspired by the bereavement of a family member. Although in this instance through a very different set of circumstances.
“Shaky Ground’ originates from a childhood memory associated with the First World War.
When one of my cousins tried to dismantle
he was badly injured and died that same evening
Years later whilst driving the boundary of the Ypres front line, it was brought home to him how even now the legacy of the Great War continues to cast it’s shadow over his country. Still carrying it’s deadly threat, and throwing up lethal reminders with terrifying regularity.
Literally hundreds of thousands of unexploded devices still reside hidden and undetected below the surface of the ground, resting side by side with the remains of countless missing soldiers and victims lost to the violence of the time.
It is incredible to think that despite a massive attempt to clear the area following the War, this area of Belgium remains as dangerous and unforgiving now, as it was when those devices originally fell.
It seems that rather like an iceberg, with it’s majestic hushed elegant form visible above the surface of the ocean, the full enormity of it’s potentially deadly mass lays below the surface of the water, hidden from view. Such is also the case for the now seemingly tranquil fields of Ypres.
Shaky Ground is, for Dekens, another wonderful exercise in restraint. The ability and eye of the photographer combined with accompanying notes, successfully imparting the tale of the area, whilst never resorting to melodrama or theatre. Quiet, beautifully composed images of the landscape, historical remnants, maps, and portraits, subtly revealing the dark reality of this now peaceful area of Belgium.
If I had to pick one diptych as a personal favourite, it would be the following. A monochrome image of a large crucifix, standing in silhouette between the naked branches of two trees, sits to the left of a colour image of a felled log. The rings of time emanating out from it’s core, a dark blemish or burn which resembles the shape of a heart, towards the outer edge. Natural cracks and splits are visible, peppering the surface, the largest of which runs straight through the heart’s centre. Away from the connotations of war and it’s associated suffering, an image of gentle but spiritual affirmation.
The book itself is also clean and minimal in design, with the text sitting harmoniously alongside the photographs. Informing, but not distracting. The reproductions are warm and rich, and the editing and sequencing are beautifully considered and masterfully executed. All in all, a strong indication that Peter Dekens is here to stay.
Before departing, Dekens leaves us with one other point to consider. The stability of the European union is, at present for any number of reasons looking increasingly fragile. The, as yet unknown effects of Brexit, the rise of nationalism within certain countries, fractured political ideologies. All potential storm clouds on the horizon of what has been since the post war years, a peaceful and mercifully uneventful period of time. A reminder perhaps that we should take nothing for granted.
Shaky Ground indeed.
Shaky Ground by Peter Dekens can be purchased here.
Robin Titchener is a keen, bordering on fanatical photobook collector of thirty years.