2007, November 14, Chicagojournal, By Laure Putre, Contributing Writer
Vanishing act Photo exhibit features work of fallen cyclist, Columbia student
'As a photographer I deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is nothing on earth that can make them come back again," wrote 27-year-old photography student Pieter Ombregt in his Columbia College blog last May. It's a succinct, profound statement rendered unexpectedly haunting because in September, Ombregt, an accomplished photographer and semi-professional bicycle racer, died in a bicycle crash during a race in Matteson, IL. His work will be featured in an eponymous exhibit opening Nov. 15 from 5 to 7 p.m. at Columbia College's City Gallery, 806 N. Michigan in the Historic Water Place.
The work in the show is from a series called "Orange Man," in which an anonymous man dressed in a jumpsuit the color of prisoners' uniforms and Tibetan monks' robes, is depicted in a series of architectural environments that convey a surprising amount of contained emotion within their harsh angles and austere shadows and colors.
Karen Ervine, associate curator in Columbia's Museum of Contemporary Photography, remembers Ombregt, a native of Belgium, for his conceptual rigor and technical meticulousness. "He was interested in crafting beautiful, perfect, well-made images, and to also have them extremely strong in terms of the idea, the emotional content of them," she says. "He did it all well." His intellectual rigor made him a role model for the other students, she adds. "Maybe due to his European heritage, he wanted very honest responses. He could take criticism pretty well, and he sought that out. He was more interested in what people had to say was wrong with a picture than what was right." She recalls him suggesting an artist who was a particularly tough critical thinker to do the final critiques for the class. "I thought that's real interesting, because a lot of students shy away from criticism," she says. "He was mature enough and serious enough to recognize the value in being criticized and not always praised-and that was a very good example to set for the class." In the weeks before he died, Ombregt was working on a new series of black-and-white images, mostly taken at night in deserted spaces, featuring a figure in a black cape, "a sort of vampire slash bird," says Ervine.
In his blog, Ombregt frequently lamented the isolation of the city compared to the Belgian countryside where he grew up. With people always talking on cell phones, oblivious to life going on around them, he wrote: "Sometimes I feel the urge to tap somebody on the shoulder as they are walking in the flock and ask them: 'Do you know where you are?' 'Do you know you're alive?' It seems as if they have their computerized vision locked on an eternal point and they don't care about things happening around them.'"
Bob Thall, the chair of Columbia's Photography Department, never had Ombregt for a student but was struck by his work when it was shown around the school. "I thought it was pretty wonderful," he says. "They're terrifically well-done, enigmatic pictures, and they have an original, amazing precision about them-the way he deals with the landscape and the figure, and manages to make the figures symbolic. In a grant application, Thall says, Ombregt once wrote: "I seek out locations to make photographs that convey a feeling of being lost and disconnected. I like to take mankind out of their normal environment and place them in isolated spaces as a study of the human condition."
This is the fourth show that the Photography Department has curated at the City Gallery, and the first featuring work by a Columbia student.
"I think the work's really compelling," Thall says. "It's unlike anything else really-a very original set of work."