Willy Kessels (1898-1974) was one of the leading Belgian photographers in the period between the two World Wars and an important Belgian Modernist. Born in Termonde, Belgium, in East Flanders, he studied architecture in Ghent, starting work as an architect in 1919. After completing the Ecole des Beaux Arts of Gent, he went to Brussels and during the 1920s worked there as a sculptor and architectural draftsman. He met Le Corbusier in 1928. In 1926 he became interested in photography and three years later, in 1929, became a professional photographer.
His work, which covered a variety of fields, reflected the avant-garde, European modernism of the period. His training as an architect made him a fine architectural photographer, and he made portraits of the leading Belgian architects of the century, notably Victor Bourgeois and Henri Van de Velde. His photographs for the 1931 book Découverte de Bruxelles by Albert Guislain showed the city from a non-traditional approach.
In 1932 he exhibited at the first Internationale de la Photographie at the Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels, alongside photographers such as Man Ray, André Kertész and Germaine Krull. Much of his personal work was in photographing the nude.
As well as his excellent work in the field of advertising, Kessels also produced social reportage. In 1933 he accompanied film-makers Joris Ivens and Henri Storck while they were shooting Misère au Borinage, a stark, ground-breaking documentary depicting the misery of workers in one of Belgium's coal-mining areas after a strike. Despite the humanist, if not socialist, point of view of these photographs, and although he was a leading modernist and progressive in photography and design, at least from the mid-1930's Kessels was involved with the extreme right in politics, so much so that at the end of the Second World War, he was condemned for collaboration with the Nazis.
After the war he became less active in photography. One project on which he worked concentrated on the Escault valley of Flanders and its population, while another featured a series of experimental images under the title Spatial, possibly influenced by the work of Otto Steinert and the Subjective Photography movement.
Willy Kessels died in Brussels in 1974.
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