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What is Photo-Lit?

"PHOTO-LIT - The Belgian photonovel: local reuse of a European cultural practice" is a research project funded by the BRAIN-be framework.

The photonovel is a form of visual narrative with staged photographs, generally printed in magazine format and was the dominant popular form in postwar pre-television Europe. At the crossroads of film-novel, comics, melodrama, and serialized romance, its presence and impact were unequalled, and its adaptations and reappropriations in later periods remain an exceptional example of the dynamics of creativity and heritage, where they instantiate the visual turn in the transformations of reading and writing today.

The Belgian contribution to the photonovel, important and very diverse, has been completely overlooked by the existing scholarship - which focuses on the Italian as well as the French production - and the existing material hosted, yet hardly catalogued, by Belgian archives and libraries as well as in private collections has never been explored, contrary to the well-studied domain of comics and graphic novels. To avoid any misunderstanding: by “Belgian production”, we understand “made in Belgium”, that is: produced for Belgian publishers and published in Belgium. A large portion of the relevant Belgian collections are at the premises of KBR (Royal Library), such as Bonnes Soirées and Femmes d’Aujourd’hui/Het Rijk der Vrouw. The corpus covers both the period 1947-1965 (before the legal deposit) and 1966-today (since the introduction of the legal deposit).


The aim of this research is twofold. On the one hand, we want to disclose the form, meaning, relevance, and history of the Belgian photonovel as an exemplary case of modern heritage in the era of mass media culture and technological modernization - historically speaking, the photonovel is a continuation of the 19th Century literary melodrama and the early 20th Century filmic melodrama, but its forms and uses rapidly exceed the melodramatic canvas: art, politics, advertisement, pedagogy are key functions as well, certainly in the Belgian context. On the other hand, our aim is also to rely on the challenging example of an almost ‘invisible’ cultural heritage to develop new methods of digital dissemination - the photonovel raises all the key issues of digital restoration, description, presentation in modern participatory digital archives.


The research is ground-breaking for the following reasons:

  • The photonovel remains a blank space in the cultural history of Belgium: a genre overwhelmingly present yet wholly ignored or actively discarded by researchers. The first aim of the project is to actually produce the archive that until now only exists in a shattered and unorganized way.

  • It will foreground the specific Belgian contribution to the genre, which has to do with the systematic intertwining of photonovel and comics production (whereas in the Franco-Italian context that dominates the field it is the relationship with film and television that has always been vital).

  • A cross-medial practice avant la lettre, the photonovel allows us to revise our current ideas of ‘convergence culture’ in the predigital era. In the larger field of media archeology, the photonovel will help highlight the specific contribution of a ‘minor’ culture (Belgium) capable of appropriating in original ways the forms and technologies invented by ‘major’ cultures.

  • An endangered form of literature, given the material fragility of its host medium (mostly pulp paper magazines) as well as the extreme difficulty to access the material (hardly described in official catalogs or repertories), it is a fascinating case for the conversion of practically inaccessible paper archives to open access digital archives.

  • It is a unique opportunity to launch a pioneering project in the field of modern and contemporary print matter, moreover in the often overlooked domain of popular and mass media culture.


The specific methodological framework, which brings together researchers from narratology, documentation sciences, cultural history and digital humanities, is that of media archeology (cf. Errki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka, Media Archeology: Approaches, Applications, Implications. Berkeley: California UP, 2011) and that of comparative textual media (cf. Katherine N. Hayles and Jessica Pressman, Comparative Textual Media. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 2013). This framework helps bring together the two research objectives of the project. On the hand the framework enables to produce a media-focused, interdisciplinary and comparative analysis of a ‘forgotten’ cultural practice. On the other hand it is includes an open view of the relationship between print culture and digital culture. While aiming at the creation of an up to date, open and collaborative digital archive, it is not an attempt to shift from an analysis based on print culture to an analysis based on digital-born documents and practices, but a broadening and widening of existing humanist research: it is less "post-print" than "print-plus" (on this issue, see also Burdick et al. 2012), and it respects the historic and material specificity of each medium. It also has the ability to function at different scales, which implies that it can be used in "big humanities" projects as well as in small-scale, qualitatively oriented projects.


BRAIN-be (Belgian Research Action through Interdisciplinary Networks) is the first phase (2012-2017) of a recurrent framework programme which allows, through the funding of research projects based on scientific excellence and European and international anchorage, to meet the needs for scientific knowledge of the Belgian  federal departments and to support the scientific potential of the Federal Scientific Institutions.

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