“To be or to become – that’s the question”
As a western photographer, my interest lies in capturing well-defined surroundings, structures and forms presented in a state of equilibrium and proportional order. In the realms and state of minds that I’m creating, a man dressed in an orange jumpsuit, positioned within the coordinates XYZ, becomes a representation of human kind and my view on the human condition. I place the orange person within the linearity and geometry of the surroundings as a state of balance and harmonious order. This harmonious order juxtaposes with the main understanding in this body of work: the orange color symbolizes a warning sign. The person in the orange suit is detached and disconnected from his environment and feels distressed; he becomes an orange flare in an isolated place.
I question whether society should be able to connect better considering the endless amounts of communication tools we created in the last decades. Despite the booming of communication hardware, the individual - or in my case the orange person becomes more and more disconnected and detached from the environment (either the urban or natural world), and one another.
Personal reflections on the XYZ series, by Ludwig Ombregt, Pieter’s father:
Pieter’s XYZ project was and is a great comfort to me. The days following Pieter’s death the pictures with the orange man took possession of my mind. In a way they helped me to overcome the tragedy. Therefore, what I will try to tell you, the way I see and feel these pictures is purely subjective.
When you grow older, the fundamental questions of life: where do we come from, where do we go to and what are we doing here, become more and more oppressing. The traditional dogmatic religious answers are no more satisfactory. Confronted with the sudden death of your beloved child other questions come on top of that: why, why him, why me and ... what if… supposed that…I tried – in vain - to formulate logical answers to these questions. No one has ever come forward with a logical and ‘understandable’ answer to these simple questions. This is simply impossible because my thinking is produced by my logical mind that belongs to the material form, determined and defined by the parameters time and place. My logical thinking is a biological and chemical process that takes place in particular brain cells during a short fraction of time. And so is everything in life determined by place and time – my life, the nature, the world, and the cosmos. Everyone and everything has its time and its place, also my thinking. And because my thinking is part of the system it cannot explain the system. And because there is no answer possible, it is better not to ask these questions. Looking at Pieter’s XYZ pictures, I started to see how good his work reflected this. But, what is more important, the work also shows me the way out, and liberates me from my compulsive and fruitless questions.
All the 24 prints have the same subject: A man in an orange jumpsuit who is carefully placed according to the three axes: X (height) Y (width) and Z (depth) and is frozen in time (the split second of the shutter closing). He is a prisoner (in orange suit) surrounded by the world and by the border of the picture. He is also a spirit (orange is the colour of Buddhist monks), clearly distinct from the environment. Maybe he is also a road worker, working on his road through life, working on the evolution of his (and my) consciousness. Then I started to imagine what it would be like if there is no time, no past and no future, just the one moment and what it would be if we take the dimensions XYZ away. What if… life is not just form frozen in time and space but endless and unlimited being? Looking over and over again at Pieter’s pictures brings me closer to the mystery, and I feel a deep peace and serenity. Pieter shows me the peace of God. When the last picture of the series was developed, the one that was taken in Milwaukee, and I saw the print for the first time I was really shocked. Pieter never saw the result; the picture was developed and printed after his death. He pictures himself in a long translucent hall; the polished floor reflects the silhouette and the walls seem to be transparent. He doesn’t look like a prisoner any more. He has arrived at the end station and it looks like he can merge with the environment any moment. He is beyond place and time. He is enlightened.
By Karen Irvine, Curator Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago
Pieter Ombregt came to Chicago in 2003 from a small village in Belgium called Kanegem. He was immediately, and throughout his time here, struck by the city’s chaos and intensity, and used it as inspiration for his work. He worked with me at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, and was a student in a seminar class I taught. In knowing him, I learned that he was deeply affected by the way that in a city like Chicago one can be surrounded by crowds of people yet still feel entirely alone. Furthermore, he saw our hurried, technology-obsessed society as distressing. In the artist’s own words, “we are losing our ability to communicate and make ourselves comfortable around others. The day, as we compose it, has become a series of scheduled activities and not of perceptions. When we talk about our day, we talk about what we did or crammed in, not what we noticed or thought.” As an antidote to this situation, perhaps, Ombregt created the series called XYZ, comprised of pictures of a man in an orange jumpsuit observing and contemplating the world around him while totally isolated from others.
Always a solitary figure, the man in the orange jumpsuit appears overwhelmed and sometimes awed by his surroundings. Like an alien from an unfamiliar planet, he seems to search for his place in the landscape—usually an industrial or stark location that although recognizable as an element of urban architecture or infrastructure feels otherworldly. Seldom do other people appear in the photographs, and when they do they are miniscule, faceless and oblivious to the protagonist’s presence. The man in the orange jumpsuit is undeniably, inescapably, and alone. The fact that the orange jumpsuit is the same style worn by prisoners adds a distinct tension to the images. The men who wear the jumpsuit, however, don’t seem imprisoned. Rather it is as if they have been recently freed and are trying to find their way home after a long absence. For Ombregt, the man in the orange jumpsuit functions as a warning sign. He writes: “the person in the orange suit is a metaphor for a distress signal; he is an orange flair in a disconnected world crying out for help.” Ombregt chose the suit not only for its sinister implications but also for more spiritual reasons. The intense orange is vibrant and electric, and similar to the color worn by Tibetan monks. He enhances the spiritual quality of his pictures through his masterful use of light; he uses it to bathe the protagonist and heighten the overall beauty of the scene. In this beauty is a hint of optimism. Although born out of concern and laden with a quiet melancholy, Ombregt’s pictures are also hopeful.
Ombregt followed the XYZ project with a series of black and white images inspired by film noir and movies such as Blade Runner, Dr. Stranglove, The Man Who Wasn't There, and Dark City. In one of the first pictures in the series he transforms himself in a self-portrait based on the idea of being reborn— an image of him naked and curled up in the fetal position balancing on a log. The photograph is powerful and resonant; it is as if we are watching a new life unfold. In subsequent images Ombregt dons a black cape and haunts the city at night like Dracula or a birdman that appears out of the dark shadows. His presence is eerie but powerful, alluring and fantastic. Like the man in the orange jumpsuit, this figure is elusive and mysterious. It is unclear whether he is an enigma, an apparition, a ghost, or a real person. Is he a symbol? If so, of what? Interspersed amongst these images are pictures in which other characters appear—a beautiful woman, a gruff looking man smoking a cigarette, a man bathed in the dramatic light of Venetian blinds. A stark contrast between black and white heightens the sense of drama. All of the images contain mystery, intrigue, sensuality and somberness. In one of Ombregt’s school notebooks he had written the following quote by English astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington (1882-1944): “The Universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.” He clearly had a voracious curiosity about the mysteries of this world, and according to his friends and family, also a strong desire to find meaning in his own existence. In the image that caps off the project, Ombregt positioned himself as a man deep in thought, brooding at a table under a lamp in front of a mysterious white box. The box is ambiguous, but illuminated as if it is full of power. Ombregt appears serious and serene. This is how he left this world, as a mature and deep thinker. He was an accomplished artist and thoughtful human being who, through his artwork, continue to encourage us to reflect on the meaning of our own existence in this world.