Leiden and Photography: Israël Kiek and the origins of the ‘kiekje’ 

‘Even een kiekje maken’: Literally meaning ‘to make a little kiek’, this is a frequently used expression in the Dutch language for taking a snapshot with your camera – for example a group picture or holiday memory. But where does the expression actually come from?

When hearing the word ‘kiekje’, or snapshot, most Dutch people will probably make an instant connection with the verb ‘kijken’ – ‘to look’. In reality however, the word ‘kiekje’ is an eponym. This means that it can be traced to the name of a person. And in this case, it is the name of the Leiden photographer Israël David Kiek (1811-1899).

Israël Kiek was born in Groningen in 1811, and – after a versatile career with many different jobs –became active as a photographer in Leiden since around 1860. He was not alone in this: Of the nine children in the Kiek family, five became professional photographers. The work of Israël Kiek, however, stood out because of the spontaneity of his informal student portraits, which quickly became his trademark.

It happened quite frequently that Kiek was called out of bed in the middle of the night by noisy disputes among students. Banging on doors, yelling and swearing were an integral (though not unanimously liked) part of the Leiden nightlife, and the students liked to have a group portrait taken of themselves when they returned home drunk from a party. After Kiek got out of bed in his slippers, he would take a quick group picture behind his house. With all involved not very ‘sharp’ at this time of day, the photos were regularly blurred and out of focus. Kiek himself did not like the student photos, and often took them with his back turned towards the inebriated students. At one point he became so fed up with the students that he had a drawbridge built in front of his house. That way, he hoped to keep ‘difficult’ customers out. 

Despite the frequent disturbances, Kiek owes his fame primarily to the informal student portraits. At the time, spontaneous group photos like the ones he used to take were still rather unique. Customary were formally commissioned portrait photos in the style of paintings. But instead of looking grave and respectable, the students would easily climb onto a roof or sit on a rain gutter. Whether they stood neatly in a row or not was something neither Kiek nor his subjects cared much about. 

Today there are still many traces of Israël Kiek’s photography in Leiden. His studio was originally located on the far side of the Rijnsburgersingel. This was a very strategic place: It was located right between the busy Amicitia Society (now Grand Café Van der Werff) and the Zomerzorg Inn, the latter situated on the way to the railway station. It is thus for a reason that the Kiekpad next to the Grand Café is named after the photographer. Since 2001, this is also the place of the Kiek monument designed by Norman Beierle and Hester Keijser. The artwork, a silver camera on a tripod, displays a number of ‘kiekjes’, or snapshots, by the famous Leiden photographer.