The oldest photo collection in the Netherlands

In conversation with curator Maartje van den Heuvel

The Photo Collection at Leiden University is the oldest in the Netherlands. Nearly half a million historical and contemporary photographs are gathered here. In addition, the photo collection also includes objects such as cameras and studio accessories. I spoke with curator Maartje van den Heuvel about the origins of the collection, the corresponding exhibitions and the greatest masterpieces.

When I ask curator Maartje van den Heuvel about her favorite piece in the collection, she takes a long time thinking about this. And that is not surprising: the photo collection of Leiden University comprises more than one million objects in total and consists of multiple collections, often with tens of thousands of photos each. The oldest of these is het Prentenkabinet, the collection Prints, Drawings and Portraits. “This is the erstwhile collection that represents the history of photography as a medium,” explains van den Heuvel. “Previously it was housed in the Print Room at Rapenburg, but was moved to the Special Collections of the University Library on the Witte Singel in 2002.” Other extensive collections were added later. “These collections were all created as part of the research carried out at Leiden University, and are ultimately gathered here as a photo collection.”

Examples are the collection of the Kern Institute, which focuses on parts of South Asia (particularly India), and the KITLV collection, which contains a large number of photographs about the former Dutch colonies. Van den Heuvel: “The oldest part of the collection is photographic material that highlights the history of the medium. That is the famous Prentenkabinet collection, but there are also all kinds of photography collections that support studies of different areas. That also goes into the hundreds of thousands of photos. And the collection keeps growing.”

Early photo collections

The creation of the photo collection dates back to the year 1910. Back then, the oldest collection owned by Leiden University was created by the NAFV (Dutch Association of Amateur Photographers) in Amsterdam. This group consisted of people who produced high-level art photography in their spare time. They tried to promote photography as a form of visual art. “You have to imagine that in those days there was not a single museum in the Netherlands that had been doing anything about photography, the reason being that people did not think that this was, in fact, a form of art,” says van den Heuvel. “It was also amateur photographers who eventually arranged the very first photography exhibition in an art museum in 1908; in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. The same people also took the initiative in 1910 to create a photo collection. Its purpose was to record the history of the medium of photography.” The Dutch Club for Photographic Art was also an important player. Through photography the association wanted to establish its members as artists, and in 1912 began to create a collection for this purpose. “That was also something new at the time, because photography was mainly used as a reproduction medium: in printing technology or in science research. It was widely used for portrait photography, but that was not regarded as an art form for a long time, either.”

In addition to these early associations of photo collectors there are also a few important figures who were connected  to the origins of the university photo collection in Leiden. In the 1930s Auguste Grégoire gathered a collection of 6,000 photos from the 19th century, which he later tried to sell to a museum. Since not a single museum was interested in the photographic medium, the photos eventually ended up at Leiden University. In 1953 professor Henri van de Waal decided to purchase them. Van den Heuvel: “Van de Waal was the first person in the Netherlands to realize that photographs could be seen as equivalent to drawings and prints. By adding this photo collection to het Prentenkabinet, he facilitated the first recognition of photography as an art form by a Dutch institute.”

The masterpieces

Over the years the photo collection at the university has continued to expand. One example are the photos of the merchant and collector Maurits Muller Massis, which were added to the collection in the 1970s. These include all sorts of everyday applications of photography, also called ‘vernacular photography’. In addition, contemporary pieces are regularly donated to the collection, for example through the descendants of particular photographers. Because Leiden University curates so many photos, there are also various masterpieces to be discovered. Van den Heuvel: “The absolute top piece we have is Metropolis by Paul Citroen. This is a large collage that Citroen made in 1923 at the Bauhaus in Weimar. Citroen was then right in the center of the avant-garde of interbellum art. He worked with Paul Klee and Kandinsky on exhibitions and created art at the Bauhaus.” The theorists praised the collages of Citroen as key works for the art of the time: they were practically embodying the spirit of interbellum art, so to speak. The theme – also depicted in Metropolis – of the ‘Großstadt’ (Big City) was very important in this. The Leiden photo collection receives loan requests for this special piece almost continuously. “We don’t always respond to that, because from a conservation point of view, the collage, which is very fragile, might not survive this.”

In addition to Citroen’s work, Maartje van den Heuvel mentions a few other masterpieces. For example a series of daguerreotypes (the oldest photographic technique). In the early 1840s, the Dutch Ministry of the Colonies gave a special assignment to German photographer Adolph Schaefer. He was to use the daguerreotype technique for archaeological purposes: photographing archaeological treasures in the Dutch East Indies. Van den Heuvel: “After making 126 daguerreotypes, which we all still have on our collection, the operation was stopped. There were two reasons for this: the archaeologist who led the project had passed away, and it was found that the technology was not really suitable for scientific purposes after all.” The photographic process was in fact very expensive, the images created in this way reflected while depicting everything as a negative, and they were not reproducible. “But in the end, this led to the creation of a very special collection that is known to fellow curators and photo enthusiasts around the world.”

Another particularity in the collection are the photo book dummies. Photo books were an important art form in the 1950s: when photographers released their own books, they had much more artistic freedom. “Most photographers worked for illustrated magazines, newspapers and other print media that had emerged since the 1920s. Being employed by such a magazine meant that they were always under the supervision of an editorial team that was often strict about photos and left photographers little room for the artistic freedom they were craving. When creating photo books, however, they found an opportunity to retain the overall control and artistic editing entirely in their own hands. The photo book was therefore a rewarding form of expression for photographers with artistic ambitions, also in the 1950s after the Second World War.” Within the collection, you can among others find famous dummies by Ed van der Elsken and Johan van der Keuken. “These are all ‘epic photo books’ that have garnered a lot of admiration, also internationally.” In these first versions of the photo books, the photographers’ working process with sketching, cutting and pasting is still clearly visible.

Exhibitions and collaborations

But how can we actually get to see all these famous works? Van den Heuvel says that they “may well have the most visible photo collection in all of the Netherlands.” Although the university’s photo collection does not have its own exhibition space, many loans are made to museums both at home and abroad. In the recent ‘Modern Perspectives’ exhibition at the Amsterdam City Archives, for instance, there were many photos from the collection to admire. On top of that, the photo collection is accessible to anyone with a subscription to the university library. Photos can then be studied on request, but can also be viewed online in the image database of the Special Collections of Leiden University. The photo collection furthermore regularly participates in special collaborations. For example in 2011, when it joined forces with Museum De Lakenhal in commissioning photographer Erwin Olaf to create a major work on Leids Ontzet, the liberation of Leiden from the Spanish siege.

Olaf publicly called for Leiden residents to become a part of the work. “That was very powerful, because you noticed that people from Leiden found it very special to participate in re-experiencing and portraying their own history. That is definitely also a masterpiece.” This large history artwork can be viewed in the permanent exhibition of Museum De Lakenhal.

The photo collection has also collaborated with the International Photo Festival Leiden. In 2015 the photo viewing day ‘Tussen Kunst en Kiek’ (Between Art and Kiek) was organized, during which people from Leiden could come and present their old photographs to experts. Particular attention was paid to finding works by Israël Kiek. It is thanks to these kinds of collaboration that the photo collection is also very involved in local photography from Leiden.

A collection full of ‘pearls’

The enormous amounts of historical and contemporary photography, together with the many exhibitions and collectibles, make it even more obvious why curator Maartje van den Heuvel has quite a hard time choosing her favorite piece. This often changes, depending on the project she is working on at the time. Today, she eventually names photographer Emmy Andriessen. “Because of her commitment as a female photographer, her sensitivity for New Photography, the surrealism in which she was raised, and her professional dedication during World War II, with the risk of losing her own life. She was Jewish, and photography was prohibited by the German occupying forces. It is a very fascinating oeuvre.” But the choice remains difficult. “Each time you immerse yourself in a different part of the collection, you come across other pearls.”

Do you have a passion for the photographic collection at Leiden University? Then consider becoming a friend of the UBL and support the maintenance of the collection. For more information visit Friends of Leiden University Libraries.

For the image database visit the Special Collections of Leiden University.

Now and in the near future, the following locations show photos from the collection:

  • ‘Dossier Indië’, World Museum Rotterdam. On display until 14 May 2020.
  • ‘Neo-Realism, New Photography and Film in the Interbellum’, Museum MORE, Gorssel. From 13 June to 20 September 2020.
  • ‘Eva Besnyö’, Kassak Museum, Budapest. From 15 May to 16 August 2020.