Heavy metal beats ‘greyer sky’. Interpretations of The Netherlands by foreign photographers 1890-1930
In 19th century ‘the picturesque’ became a real topic in photography of Dutch scenery, landscape and old cities. In recent years Dutch institutions have been adding more photographs by foreign photographers to their collections. The quest for beauty and the depiction of vast landscapes first turned into ways to express the sensation of photographing outdoors, and thus the atmosphere of the scene: ‘All is cold and grey for it is early spring and last year’s grass is only a shade deeper than the sand, which stretches hillock beyond hillock until they meet the greyer sky…’, James Craig Annan wrote while visiting the Netherlands. Pictorialists Alfred Stieglitz, Heinrich Kühn, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Robert Demachy and many others were to follow in his footsteps. This article re-examines the early interpretations, and observes crucial changes in the first decades of the 20th century, when modernism took its final turn.
The picturesque, and recent research
The depiction of the landscape and of characteristic places (‘topography’) was traditionally reserved for painters, draughtsmen and printmakers: vast, panoramic landscapes, a low horizon or a dramatic sky, rendered in all their glory on a monumental canvas, in a rich palette. One's thoughts turn immediately to famous painters, noted for their virtuoso brushwork and colouring. In the 17th century they would have been the Dutchmen Jacob van Ruysdael and Jan van Goyen. Their work evokes something different for every age, but throughout the centuries it has been linked with notions of the ideal, the romantic and dramatic. In art history this quest for beauty in the landscape has been summed up in the term ‘the picturesque’.
The Dutch tradition
One of the earliest instances in which we see a foreign photographer reach back to familiar examples from painting and the graphic arts in this tradition of ‘the picturesque’ is a series of sixteen Amsterdam cityscapes by Benjamin Brecknell Turner (1815-1894). Between 17 May and 3 June, 1857, this British photographer paid a visit of a couple of weeks to Amsterdam. From the set of his photographic prints and paper negatives which have been preserved, it is not difficult to deduce what struck and attracted Turner in The Netherlands. In her book on the first photographs of Amsterdam, Van Veen notes how Turner transplanted his British views about the ‘picturesque’ to The Netherlands. The photographer quite easily shifted his interest in the typically rural and the texture of the farmyard in the English countryside to the texture of the brick and untidy buildings in the heart of Holland's cities (fig. 5).
Pictorialism in photography
Alongside this, toward the end of the 19th century the first real movement in photography arose, primarily intended to provide an artistic counterweight to the unimaginative work of the professional photographers. Pictorialism was an international movement, with famous advocates such as the German-born American photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946). Among the pictorialists composition and the effect of tonality were important for the pictorial rendering of the image and creating atmosphere. They regularly organized exhibitions in the major cities of Europe and America, and published their work in the important international journals Camera Work and Die Kunst in der Photographie. They were largely serious amateur photographers who strove for their own recognizable, personal signature. They did this by using all sorts of special printing methods, such as the gum print or the bromoil print, or by printing on Japanese paper. This underscored the ‘painterly’ quality of the photographic image, and the choice of subject was to be in keeping with this. When leafing through these journals, it becomes clear that in The Netherlands they found a very suitable and important subjects: the landscape, fisherfolk, and the reflections in water were recurrent themes in Stieglitz's own work, but also in that of the Scottish photographer James Craig Annan (1864-1946), or the Austrian Heinrich Kühn (1866-1944). As a result, from the 1890s Katwijk, Noordwijk and Veere became en vogue, as far away as America.
Amateur photography grew vigorously after 1900. Amateur photographers societies and clubs travelled around Europe and exchanged experiences. We find their photographs, which incline toward the moody and poetic, in photography magazines. In the wake of the ‘great’ photographers, various ‘small’ masters, often forgotten today, now travelled through the towns and villages and across the waters. The Austrians Hugo Henneberg (1863-1918) and Hans Watzek (1848-1903) stayed in Katwijk and Noordwijk, sometimes in the company of Kühn. The photographs of E. Gottheil, from Königsberg, are entirely redolent of the atmosphere of Jozef Israëls’s fishing scenes.39 The Hamburg art photographers Theodor and Oscar Hofmeister (1868-1943; 1871-1937) also visited The Netherlands.
Other amateurs were more open-minded and saw things a bit differently. In 1904 James Higson, from Manchester, did a series of photographs of The Netherlands (fig. 10).
Mattie Boom is curator of photography at the Rijksmuseum. Publications by her on 19th-century and 20th-century photography include Photography between covers. The Dutch Documentary Photobook after 1945; A New Art. Photography in the 19th century and Document Nederland. Nederland gefotografeerd 1975-2005. Editor of the websitehttp://www.earlyphotography.nl the Rijksmuseum Studies in Photography of the Manfred and Hanna Heiting Fund. Recent exhibitions she has curated include The Mayor. Dana Lixenberg photographs an everyday office (2011).
1. This is a revised version of an earlier article, Boom 2001. For an actualization of the image of The Netherlands in painting and photography in the 19de century, see also Boom 2008.