Jacques Sonck has spent nearly four decades on the streets of Antwerp, Ghent and Brussels in Belgium collecting models for his portraits.
“I know when I want to make a photograph of a person,” he said. “They have to be special. They have to strike me for their appearance on the street. It can be anything. Maybe it’s their clothing, or their physical appearance.”
Once he spots them, he quickly approaches and asks to take their portrait. If they agree, he does it on the spot. Granted, they often have one question: Why me? He tells them there is something special about them, that they are a bit peculiar perhaps, or people who are sometimes seen as outsiders.
They include — in pairs or singly — gay cowboys in sunglasses holding hands in Antwerp in 1981, people who are overweight with others who are rail-thin, tall and short, or just a lone androgynous type with fake eyelashes and a wig.
“If they don’t want to be photographed,” Mr. Sonck said, “then of course I let them go.”
If they agree, his next step is to find what he calls “a good background,” which is anything timeless, indistinct and unembellished. “Like a hedge or a door,” he said. “And then I make a few pictures.”
Twenty of his photographs are on view at the L. Parker Stephenson gallery in Manhattan in an exhibition called “Archetypes” through Aug. 8.
Mr. Sonck was born in Ghent in 1949. His father was a baker and his mother a housewife. Although he keenly recalls that there was “no room for art, only work,” he says he had a happy childhood.
He often walked by photo stores as a child, peeking inside at all the different cameras. At the age of 10, he got a camera of his own, and he eventually studied photography at the Narafi in Brussels. He went on to work at the Culture Department of the Province of Antwerp, spending the next 35 years photographing exhibition catalogs.
“Professionally I had to do my work at the cultural service at the provincial museums of the Province of Antwerp, but in my mind I was always working on my personal work,” Mr. Sonck said. “The fact that I was a civil servant gave me financial independence, which gave me the possibility to do my personal work as I wanted to. I was completely free.”
He retired from his job in 2009 to focus exclusively on his artistic career.
“Now I shoot more than ever,” he said. “Photography is my life, and will always be.”
Though he still finds his subjects in the triangle of Antwerp, Ghent and Brussels (“there I find interesting people”), he also started photographing in his Destelbergen studio, near Ghent, about 20 years ago, working on formal, square portraits.
“I focus on the details of a person,” Mr. Sonck said. “Their faces or some part of their body — maybe their feet or the backs of their arms.”
In these photos, there is only a gray or white background; the environment is not significant. The images are often more classical, more timeless.
“These portraits are more purified than my outdoor pictures,” he said. “But these are the same people I am asking to pose. I look at the people here the same way I look at them when I am photographing them outside.”
But, their “weirdness,” as Mr. Sonck calls it, is exaggerated by the plain background.
In one photograph, an older woman fills the frame with a three-quarter turn and severe expression. Her eyes stare right at the viewer and are the sharpest part of the photograph, a contrast to her soft, Elizabethan-inspired collar, out of which her neck juts. Her chin is tilted upward, as if she wants to say something, but her mouth is closed.
Mr. Sonck calls Irving Penn an influence, particularly with this studio work. Like Penn, he devises plain backdrops for his portraits, although they are not the famous “corners” of Penn’s studios.
And like Penn, he uses light to sculpt facial features.
When Mr. Sonck sees a potential subject on the street, he knows right away whether he wants to use them in the studio or on the street. “If a face strikes me most, then I will try to make a studio portrait,” he said.
Mr. Sonck speaks also about the influence of Diane Arbus on his work.
Mr. Sonck’s “Nazareth, 1977” is the most reminiscent of Arbus’s portraits, particularly her “Child With Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park.” In both images, the photographer is looking down at a little boy in a park, centered in the frame. Both subjects wear a patterned top and seem to know something we do not. Both are up to something mischievous. Arbus’s boy clutches a hand grenade, while all we know of Mr. Sonck’s child is that he is on a bicycle, perhaps going somewhere forbidden.
“In my opinion, my photos don’t need too much information,” Mr. Sonck said. “It is more interesting to me when the viewer uses his or her imagination, and fills in his or her own story to the picture.”
Fittingly, he does not get to know his subjects. He takes no more than 15 minutes for each photograph. He does not ask for their names. He is not interested in their personal lives. He only wishes to take their portraits and move on.
“I think that time passes, and that the persons in it are at least 20 years older now, just as we are, that’s all,” he said.
While he does not care to know about his models, the photographs are very much alive to him. When asked if he had a favorite image, he replied, “They all mean a lot to me, they all are my children.”