Between preparatory study and snapshot
We have seen that Breitner could be a modernist but he also had a conservative side. As a photographer he was ahead of his time stylistically, although in his choice of subject matter he showed himself more of a traditionalist. That his pictures have attracted so much attention since their discovery in 1961 is largely due, it would appear, to the fact that they are modern in character, style and method. No other Dutch photographer of the nineteenth or early twentieth century has been the subject of so many publications or exhibitions, and he is one of the few treated in international literature.
It is interesting that the discovery in 1961 coincided with the rapid emergence of a general interest in snapshots. By then, the term ‘snapshot’ had come to mean something different from its use around 1900, when it denoted photographs made with little sense of composition or technique. Rather, the ‘snapshot aesthetic’ that was gaining appreciation in the 1960s should be perceived as an intentional anti-aesthetic, a conscious attempt to unsettle the prevailing aesthetic and re-examine the characteristics of photography. The 1960s saw the rise of a new generation of photographers who no longer wished to stare endlessly at the ground glass in order to produce an image in line with the classic rules of art. The younger generation did not insist on having complete control over the camera, photographic technique or the image produced. Instead, they left an essential part of the work to chance and the camera. The result often did not become known until the film was developed. One of the main exponents of this new approach was the American photographer Garry Winogrand (1928-1984), who made comments such as ‘I photograph to see what the world looks like in photographs’ and ‘Photography is not about the thing photographed. It is about how that thing looks photographed’. Among the photographers who used the camera in this way and who have, like Winogrand, been added to the list of ‘great names’ in the history of photography are Robert Frank (1924), Diane Arbus (1923-1971) and Lee Friedlander (1934) [RP-F-F17700]. Just how closely the anti-aesthetic of this generation is associated with the term ‘snapshot’ in its reinvented meaning, is shown for example by the following comment by Naomi Rosenblum, on Arbus, in her influential book A World History of Photography (1984): ‘… when she photographed ordinary people in ordinary situations her reaction was invariably ungenerous. Whatever her subject, she usually favored direct head-on poses that often mimicked the style of the family snapshot as in Mother Holding Her Child, New Jersey, one of the more alienated images of motherhood in the history of visual art. Indeed, one of the signal influences on straight camera images during the 1960s was the “snapshot aesthetic”’. 1 Although Breitner died before the time of Winogrand, Frank, Friedlander or Arbus, the similarity is evident. It is therefore hardly surprising that Breitner’s negatives were appreciated for their intrinsic visual quality from the moment they came to light in the 1960s.
Lee Friedlander, Self-Portrait, New York 1966, Ontwikkelgelatinezilverdruk, 18,8 x 28 cm, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, inv. nr. RP-F-F17700
These modern photographers smoothed the way for the favourable reception of Breitner’s ‘snapshots’ in the 1960s, but there were other factors involved. A major role was played by John Szarkowski who, while working as a curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, made a concerted effort to show the work of Winogrand, Friedlander and Arbus. In 1963 he was the first to dedicate an exhibition to the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century photographs of the Frenchman Jacques-Henri Lartigue (1894-1986).2 As an amateur photographer (who was strictly speaking also a painter-photographer, though his ambition as painter was never fully acknowledged), Lartigue was in some ways like Breitner, and it is certainly of interest that the rediscovery of their photographic work took place at almost exactly the same time. In the catalogue of the 1963 Lartigue exhibition at MoMA, Szarkowski sang the praises of the Frenchman, applauding him for defying convention and describing him as ‘… a true primitive: one working without a sense of obligation either to tradition, or to the known characteristics of his medium’.3 It is worth noting that Szarkowski already makes the distinction to which we referred earlier (i.e. what matters is not the subject but how the subject appears in the photographs): ‘This is the essence of modern photographic seeing: to see not objects but their projected images.’4 Lartigue was thus hailed as the immediate precursor of modern photography of the 1960s.
The negatives that Siedenburg gave to the RKD – curiously enough the prints remained ‘forgotten’ for much longer – were initially regarded almost exclusively as study material for Breitner’s paintings and watercolours. They were felt to be important primarily as a new source of insights into Breitner’s work and painting practice. In the first book dedicated to Breitner’s photographs, published in 1966, Paul Hefting wrote: ‘The images reproduced here show that Breitner is one of the many painters who regard a photograph as a sketch, an aide-mémoire.’5 In later publications, too, Hefting discusses the photographs primarily in the context of the paintings.6
Over the years Breitner has nevertheless come to be regarded as a photographer in his own right, whose images can be appreciated independently of their relationship to the paintings, watercolours, drawings and sketches. To put it differently: his photographs are no longer viewed only as studies in support of his paintings but also as striking registrations of life by a man who uses the camera in a highly personal and individual manner and adopts a style radically different from what was bon ton at the time. In due course this earned Breitner a permanent and prominent place in the history of Dutch photography and today he is widely regarded as the most interesting photographer of his generation in the Netherlands. Breitner’s treatment in foreign literature on the history of photography – where he gets the occasional mention – seems to have undergone a similar development: initially he was presented as a painter who took pictures, but more recently his work has been described as an early example of the snapshot aesthetic that rose into prominence in the 1960s.7
The first person to take a serious interest in the photographs themselves rather than their relationship to ‘the rest’ of Breitner’s art was Klaus Honnef, head of exhibitions at the Rheinisches Landesmuseum Bonn. For the catalogue of an exhibition in 1977, Hannef wrote an essay, ‘Der Fotograf Breitner’. From this it is clear that he had an eye for Breitner’s use of visual devices stemming from the photographic medium; he argued that the painter took full advantage of all its possibilities. He concluded that, although Breitner could not be regarded as a photographer, and clearly did not practise photography as a form in itself, he was equally talented as both photographer and painter.8 Honnef was better able than others to identify and analyse the purely photographic qualities of Breitner’s pictures and he felt there was a great deal more to say about them than that they were ‘secondary to his paintings’. Honnef’s essay seems to have attracted little attention in the Netherlands, or is at least rarely mentioned in the Dutch literature). His observations therefore had little influence, meaning that the ‘other view’ – that Breitner only made photographs in preparation for his paintings – prevailed until long after. Also in 1977, Honnef became one of the organisers of documenta 6 in Kassel. He included several works by Breitner and in the catalogue commented: ‘He used many of his photographs as preparatory studies for paintings; yet the most interesting are those in which his real subjects are the deep holes being dug around the city, and in which building sites give the feeling of open wounds. But he ignored these photographs when he was working in paint.’9
Four years after Honnef’s publications, Ian Jeffrey included Breitner in his book Photography. A concise history. Although Jeffrey sticks to the view that Breitner’s photography was purely driven by the needs of his activity as a painter, he also presents him as a pioneer of the modernist style that would come into its own in the 1920s: ‘After the war of 1914-18 Breitner’s way is met with more and more.’10
Undoubtedly this is true. The viewpoints he adopted and the way of truncating images encountered in many of Breitner’s photographs became common currency in ‘official’ photography of the 1920s. See for example a picture of Paris made in 1927 by one of the recognised masters of twentieth-century photography, André Kertész (image 50). Some decades before, Breitner had sliced the image of a horse in a similar manner (image 51). Another example would be the picture of the Rembrandtplein in Amsterdam made from a high viewpoint by the French photographer Roger Parry in 1938 (image 52). Long before, Breitner was already an accomplished user of such viewpoints (image 53).
André Kertész, Les Halles, Parijs 1927, ontwikkelgelatinezilverdruk, 23,5 x 17,5 cm, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, inv. nr. RP-F-F-2005-107-1, Aangekocht met behulp van de Bank Giro Loterij, het Paul Huf Fonds (Rijksmuseum) en het Johan Huizinga Fonds (Rijksmuseum)
Roger Parry, Rembrandtplein, Amsterdam november 1938, ontwikkelgelatinezilverdruk, 29 x 23,6 cm, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, inv. nr. RP-F-2005-107-7. Aangekocht met behulp van de Bank Giro Loterij, het Paul Huf Fonds (Rijksmuseum) en het Johan Huizinga Fonds (Rijksmuseum)
If Breitner’s photographs had become known as early as the 1920s, then these stylistic affinities would certainly have been noticed.11 Yet it seems unlikely that Breitner would have been elevated to the photographic pantheon at that point. The very distinctive snapshot style of Breitner’s work counted for much less in the 1920s than it would in the 1960s: the taste was still very much for carefully considered images in which all the elements fit together, for compositions which were in balance. Furthermore, there was at that point no real sense of the history of photography. (An appreciation of the work of the Frenchman Eugène Atget, who died in 1927, was an exception for which we should be thankful). There were hardly any museums, collectors or dealers then who showed an interest in photography as a medium that had its own character and history.
Even more important, perhaps, is the fact that at the time of Breitner’s death there was as yet no Netherlands Institute for Art History that could provide a home for his negatives and prints. This institution was not established until 1932. We should not forget that, although Breitner’s negatives and prints are now generally regarded as an essential part of the history of Dutch photography, their survival came about more or less by chance. In 1961 they came to the RKD only because the then director, Horst Gerson, wrote to Hein Siedenburg asking if his father’s archive might not be an important acquisition for the institution. Siedenburg responded that ‘the archive … as a whole was not of significant value from an art historical point of view’ and furthermore it was incomplete, heterogeneous and ‘rather chaotically organised’. His father had, moreover, ‘destroyed almost everything that did not pertain closely to his personal interests’. Nonetheless the RKD did receive ‘certain documents, photographs and negatives – in particular connected with Breitner – which are of interest to the Institute’.12 So it was that they arrived at the RKD as part of an art dealer’s archive, it being the purpose of the RKD to collect art-historical documentation, of which art dealers’ archives are naturally a part.
It is thus not surprising that the pictures were initially regarded primarily as documentation for Breitner’s work as a painter, and were only afterwards appreciated by different groups, for other qualities. It probably makes little difference now whether Breitner’s photographs should be seen principally as material that illuminates his practice as a painter or should be valued as autonomous works. There are arguments for both and no conflict is implied.
One of the envelopes mentioned above in which Breitner preserved his negatives is inscribed in his hand: ‘Study of the Damrak/c[orner] of the Oude Brugsteeg’. The word ‘study’ can only have been applied in its classic, art-historical sense, as a study for a painting. One envelope does not indicate that all of the photographs were meant as studies, but this previously unnoticed document is of interest precisely because so few letters or other documents by Breitner have survived that give any indication of what function he assigned to his photographs.
As we have seen, the survival of Breitner’s negatives and prints was a stroke of luck. It is even more remarkable that the little envelopes have been preserved, since in 1961 there were very few people who would have realised the importance of something as apparently insignificant as the holders, which would have had no further use once the negatives were numbered, described and rehoused soon after their accession.
Naomi Rosenblum, A World History of Photography, New York 1984, p. 518.
Kevin Moore, Jacques Henri Lartigue. The invention of an artist, Princeton, NJ/Oxford 2004, p. 179: ‘… Szarkowski conceived of the “snapshot aesthetic” embodied by the work of Garry Winogrand for photography in the 1960s …’.
John Szarkowski, ‘The Photographs of Jacques Henri Lartigue’, in The Photographs of Jacques Henri Lartigue, exhib. cat. New York (MoMA) 1963, unpaginated.
P.H. Hefting and C.C.G. Quarles van Ufford, Breitner als fotograaf, Rotterdam 1966, p. 8: ‘De hier afgebeelde foto’s laten zien, dat Breitner behoort tot de vele schilders, die de foto beschouwen als een schets, een hulp voor het visuele geheugen. …’ See also Quarles van Ufford’s introduction in the same book, p. 5: ‘…bleek eens te meer welk een belangrijke rol de fotografie bij de totstandkoming van Breitners oeuvre had gespeeld.’ (‘…once again it became clear how important the role of photography had been for the development of Breitner’s oeuvre’).
P.H. Hefting, [untitled introduction], in: exhib. cat. G.H. Breitner. Schilder, fotograaf, Eindhoven (Galerie ‘De Zonnewijzer’) 1971, p. 4; Paul Hefting, ‘G.H. Breitner (1857-1923). Ein Maler-Fotograf des 19. Jahrhunderts aus den Niederlanden’, in: George Hendrik Breitner. Gemälde Zeichnungen Fotografien, Cologne 1977, p. 14; Paul Hefting, ‘Breitner als tekenaar’, in: exhib. cat. G.H. Breitner 1857-1923. Aquarellen en tekeningen, Laren (Singer Museum) 1983, pp. 12, 14, 16; Paul Hefting, ‘George Hendrik Breitner 1857-1923’, in: Roots & Turns. 20th-century photography in The Netherlands, The Hague 1988, p. 12; Paul Hefting, De foto’s van Breitner, The Hague 1989, esp. p. 47.
Van Deren Coke, The Painter and the Photograph. From Delacroix to Warhol, Albuquerque 1972; Erika Billeter, Malerei und Photographie im Dialog von 1840 bis heute, Bern 1977; Ian Jeffrey, Photography. A concise history, London 1981; Michel Frizot (ed.), Nouvelle Histoire de la Photographie, Paris 1995 (Eng. ed.: The New History of Photography, Cologne 1998); Elvire Perego, Je ne suis pas photographe … Créateurs et intellectuels à la chamber noire, Arles 2008.
Klaus Honnef, ‘Der Fotograf Breitner’, in: George Hendrik Breitner. Gemälde Zeichnungen Fotografien, Cologne (Rheinland-Verlag) 1977, pp. 26-32, esp. pp. 26, 27-28, 29.
Documenta 6, Kassel 1977, vol. 2, p. 68: “Zahlreiche seiner Fotos benutzte er als Vorlagen für Bilder – doch die interssantesten, in denen die tiefen Einschnitte in die Stadt förmlich spürbar werden, in denen Baugruben wie aufgerissene Wunden wirken, hat er bei seinen malerischen Interpretationen unberücksichtigt gelassen.” Cf. Klaus Honnef, 150 Jahre Fotografie, Mainz 1977, pp. 125-127.
Ian Jeffrey, Photography. A concise history, London 1981, p. 110.
The auction of Breitner’s studio contents included about 300 photographs and according to Paul Hefting these were bought by Kees Maks; in 1967 after Maks’s death they were acquired by A.B. Osterholt (‘Notities over G.H. Breitner’ (Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum 16 (1968), p. 166). The catalogue entry, however, suggests that the images were photographic reproductions (Amsterdam, Frederik Muller & Co., 13 May 1924, lot 127). In 1984 Osterholt sold his collection to the print room of Leiden University and the photographs are now in Leiden University Library collections.
Letter from H. Gerson to H. Siedenburg, 16 August 1961, and letter from Siedenburg to Gerson, 22 Aug 1961: ‘Het archief … als geheel … stellig niet bijzonder kostbaar uit kunsthistorisch oogpunt. …tamelijk wanordelijk. …bijna alles, waarbij hij niet persoonlijk nauw was betrokken, vernietigd. ...enkele documenten, foto’s en negatieven – in het bijzonder met betrekking tot Breitner – die voor het Rijksbureau van belang zijn.’ On this transaction see: Hans Rooseboom, ‘De wasmand van Breitner / Breitner’s Laundry Basket’, in RKD Bulletin 1997 no. 3, pp. 11-20.