Two Inadequate Voices


2IV is a platform for image-makers to recount and reflect textually on their stories of being out in the world whilst photographing.

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Lucas Leffler

The industrial subject has always been very present in my work as a photographer. I grew up in the southern part of Belgium, near the Ardennes region. There are a few industrial zones in this place and one of them is particularly present in my neighbourhood and my memories. One such factory was a paper mill that produced paper paste used to make different kinds of paper. I knew many people who worked there, starting with my father when I was a child. I was fascinated by the HMI industrial lights projecting spectrums of orange light onto enormous mountains made of sawdust. Some parts of the machines looked like slides and all of this made me think of a wonderful amusement park where I imagined my father used to work.

When I came to study photography, I took many pictures of factories, passing under security fences and turning around buildings with a great distance and the fear of being seen by someone. At this time I was also fascinated by film, analog technology and how this industry ended with the digital turn. In 2017 I decided to start a project on Belgium’s most famous film company Gevaert (Mortsel, BE). As I did not have the authorization to get inside the factory, I started to visit the archive department of the company whose access was open for researchers.

Since 1985 the archive has been kept in the Varenthof, a castle next to the factory. This place looked like a wonderful little dusty museum. A lot of historical documents and objects were displayed under glass-boxes and a majestic model of the factory’s buildings was present in the main entry hall. You could also find there a reconstruction of Lieven Gevaert’s office, the company’s founders and an industrialist who was very important for the history of Flanders.

There I met Willy Van Lemput, an ex-employee of Gevaert. He was retired but he still worked every Tuesday in the archives and helped people for research. He first asked me what was the reason for my visit and what I wanted precisely. I was confused about giving more details as I didn’t know myself what I was looking for precisely. Then he suggested guiding me through the archives for a complete overview of the history of the company.

Everything was interesting: the technical part of the processes and the evolution of it, but also the little anecdotes and small stories. I was particularly interested in the silver recovery system. As this metal used for photo-emulsion is rare and valuable, the photo-industry decided in the 70’s to put procedures in place to reduce its waste by reusing silver from old chemicals.

When Willy told me about the silver recovery system, he showed me the factory’s model at the entry hall. There were two chemical pools used to recover silver from waste, a process still effective today. Next to these pools there was a little blue hand-drawn river. Willy told me that a long time ago this river was named Silver Creek (Zilverbeek in Dutch) because you could find silver in its sludge. The reason was that tons of wastewater was disposed into this creek, and a lot of silver particles were still very present in it.

As this story intrigued me a lot, I wanted to know more and I decided to focus my research on this specific story. I found out many historical documents explaining these facts that started almost one century ago. In 1927, a tool maker working at the factory ­realised the kind of fortune they were washing away on a daily basis. The man invented a system to recover the silver from the sludge in the creek. He secretly drained the stream, and transported the dried sludge to a local metallurgical plant where the silver was extracted. The man recovered up to half a ton of silver a year, more than enough for a generous salary. In 1948, the factory built their first recovery pond and then a second one ten years after. It was then impossible to run a profitable business from the sludge, and the man ceased his work after 33 years. I was fascinated by this story and I decided to take it as a point of departure, in order to illustrate my own fascination and look for a project to explore materiality in photography.

I went to the street to find the location of the chemical pools used in the silver recycling process, all hidden behind a fence. One can smell the chemical odour when one walks down the street along this site. I saw a just a little gap between two metallic doors of the gate and I could see the big cavities in the ground, but it was impossible to take photographs and clearly record the subject.

The creek was supposed to be next to the site, in Willy’s recollection, but I couldn’t find it. Nowadays you can only find a property composed of a house and gardens. I rang at the door and asked for information about a possible creek in the garden, and also asked if they knew anything about this Zilverbeek story. They told me there was not any creek in their garden. They never heard of that story but they find it curious and they let me go in the garden to see by myself. Of course I didn’t find anything but bushes and grass. After some research on rivers in the area of Mortsel I understood this creek was today mainly underground, and that a part of it emerges out somewhere in a park near the factory.

I did not find anything in this park but I saw a public sign describing the ‘fauna & flora’ biotope of the area, with an email and a phone contact in case people wanted to know more. After contacting the man, he responded to me and sent me a picture of a sewer outlet. He told me that this creek comes out in the park and goes into a pond. I went back there and I found the sewer and the pond. It was right in the middle of the park, all surrounded by trees which were all falling as if they were attracted by the pond. When I came here for the first time, it was in mid-winter, thus the trees were skeletal and one could only see leaves and mud on the ground. I took some photos of the little stream. The water didn't seem to move, it was backwater and it looked dirty. The stream only ran for 10 meters before reaching the border of the pond, it was so short I guessed how one could name that a creek. What a pity for a Silver Creek, which has everything to envy from a river. However, the little stream emanated a visual aura which was interesting to depict. The middle of the stream was tinted with a yellowish reddish colour as if some sludge were agitated inside it which gave it something unnaturally magic.

The second time I went there I decided to record myself taking some sludge out of the creek with a shovel. The more I began to dig inside this work, the more I became conscious of the performative aspects of this project. I took approximately one litre of sludge in a square plastic tupperware container. I wanted to have it analysed in order to know if some silver particles were still present in it, even though I knew it was probably impossible. However, I did not have this opportunity yet.

I came back several times to this park to see the creek, and the more I came the more sludge I took with me. I spent a lot of time thinking what I could do with this raw sludge, like a sculpture or an installation. In the end I decided to use it to make prints of the photographs I took of the creek and the park. As the sludge used to contain silver particles, one should be able to make an image with it the same way we use silver-gelatine paper to make a print in the darkroom. Of course it was a wrong assumption, as there are no silver particles left in it. To make it possible I mixed the sludge with liquid photo-emulsion in order to make it photosensitive, and I applied this mixture on regular paper to use it in the darkroom with my negatives. I also came back a few times to the archive of Gevaert, and I scanned the historical documents and photographs to use it in a publication. Since then the entire archive has been displaced to the Photo Museum of Antwerp (FOMU).

This research focused first on the industry of photography, but then I discovered something which leads me to this Silver Creek story. The approach I initiated was documentary first but quickly I started to stage myself, to reenact what happened and to create fiction. Then working with the sludge brought another layer to the project, an aspect much more experimental.

Lucas Leffler is a Brussels-based artist who works with photography and book-making. He graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent and his work has been exhibited internationally. His most recent work Zilverbeek (Silver Creek) was published by Dutch publisher The Eriskay Connection.