PhotoLexicon, Volume 1, nr. 1 (September 1984) (en)

Bert Nienhuis

Mariëtte Haveman


Bert Nienhuis has worked as a photographer for the Dutch weekly Vrij Nederland since 1975. While his work includes reportages on topics related to popular culture, it is particularly relevant in terms of portraits of public figures at the national and international level. These days one may even contend that the public status of these individuals is in no small part derived from the portraits of Bert Nienhuis.




Bert Nienhuis is born in Amsterdam on 12 January. He studies at the HBS-b level (Hogere Burgerschool, an upper-level secondary school education). Nienhuis begins taking photos at the age of ten, encouraged by photographers in his vicinity (Cas Oorthuys, Aart Klein, Ad Windig): initially with a small plate camera, followed soon by a second-hand Rolleiflex. By Nienhuis’ own account, he spends a great deal of time in the archive of Oorthuys, whose daughter he knows well.


Nienhuis enrols at the film academy in Amsterdam. He quits this study after a year in order to undertake other activities.


Nienhuis produces still images for John Fernhout’s film, Skies Over Holland, to be shown at the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal. Following this, Nienhuis works as a sound technician and still photographer on two films by Thom Thoolen: Bagger (???), for the Adriaan Volker concern; and Toets, about the port of Rotterdam.


Nienhuis enrols at the KABK (Koninklijke Academie van Beeldende Kunsten, ‘Royal Academy of Art’) in The Hague after meeting Jan van Keulen, the head of the department of graphic design. Nienhuis’ plan is to follow a special three-year programme. He quits after two years, however, again because of activities unrelated to his study.


During this period, Nienhuis works for a children’s television programme, De Fabeltjeskrant (‘The Fables Newspaper’). He starts out as a photographer for the show, but ends up working as a cameraman.


Nienhuis enrols at the University of Amsterdam as a medical student. In the same period, he sets up a small company for commercial photography. His plan is to run the company for two years, but this as well proves too difficult of a combination. The company closes after one year, the study after two years.


25 January to 14 August: Nienhuis travels around the United States and Mexico on assignment for Thijs Chanowski (producer of the Fabeltjeskrant). The purpose of the trip is to shoot advertising photos for Dutch travel agencies. Almost immediately after his return to the Netherlands, Nienhuis begins working on a project to innovate education in the working class neighbourhoods of Amsterdam. This project is based on the RITP (Research-Instituut voor Toegepaste Psychologie, ‘Research Institute for Applied Psychology’), under the direction of Co van Calcar. Nienhuis shoots photos for book publications and two video films. In the same period, he also does occasional work as an assistant for Ed van der Elsken. Nienhuis oversees the (what he describes as: ‘faulty’) sound for a film about Hans van Manen, commissioned by the BBC (Van der Elsken is the cameraman).


Nienhuis does the sound for two of Ed van der Elsken’s films commissioned by the VPRO broadcasting company: a film about Vali Meyers and a film on Toon Hermans.


Nienhuis receives his first documentary photo assignment for the Topographic Atlas of the Amsterdam City Archive, on the topic of the Beurs van Amsterdam (‘Amsterdam Stock Exchange’). One year later, the photo series is exhibited at the Amsterdam City Archives.


Willem Diepraam, a photographer with Vrij Nederland, goes on travel leave. Nienhuis takes his place on a temporary basis, which ultimately leads to a permanent staff position with the magazine. In this same year, Nienhuis also does assignments from the newspaper NRC Handelsblad on a fairly regular basis. Nienhuis receives the Vrije Creatieve Opdracht (‘Open Creative Assignment’) commissioned by the Nederlandse Kunststichting (‘Dutch Art Foundation’), on the subject of portretten van bekende Amsterdammers (‘Portraits of Well-Known Amsterdammers’). The workload proves to be too much. After a little more than a year, Maurice Boyer, Nienhuis’ assistant at the time, takes over his assignments for the NRC.


Nienhuis receives his second photo commission for the Amsterdam City Archives: for the exhibition De Pijp 1868-1976, Nienhuis makes a photo series on the current conditions in this neighbourhood of Amsterdam. He later reworks this reportage into a documentary series for the city archive. In this same year, Nienhuis—together with Eddy Posthuma de Boer—is commissioned by the Rijksmuseum’s Department of National History to do a photo reportage on Werkloosheid in Nederland (‘Unemployment in the Netherlands). At this time, Nienhuis shoots his first photos for the Onafhankelijk Toneel (‘Independent Theatre’, later called ‘Maatschappij Discordia’), which ultimately results in a long-term collaboration.


The Dutch weekly Vrij Nederland begins publishing its ‘kleurkaterns’ (‘colour sections’) in 1974. Bert Nienhuis’ first involvement occurs in 1977, with a photo series on the topic of unemployment at the company Sturka, a textile manufacturer in Zutphen.


Nienhuis’ book Terug op de Molukken (‘Back in the Moluccas’) is published, commissioned by the Ministry of CRM (Ministerie van Cultuur, Recreatie en Maatschappelijk Werk, ‘Ministry of Culture, Recreation and Social Work’) and the publishing company De Arbeiderspers. Tessel Pollman and Juan Seleky furnish the text, Bert Nienhuis the photos.


Nienhuis shoots photos for the productions of the puppeteer Jozef van de Berg. From September on, Nienhuis works as a staff photographer at De Arbeiderspers.


Photography usually starts out as a hobby. This is often the case for many professional photographers, making it sometimes difficult to establish at what point their period of study actually begun. Sometimes coinciding circumstances and initiatives play a more substantial role, as opposed to ‘schooling’ in the traditional sense. This especially applies for Bert Nienhuis. What would normally be considered as his ‘training phase’ in a chronological biography, instead consists of a series of circuitous steps: a study in medicine, attending the film academy, studying photography at the art academy (all ending at an early stage), followed by sound technician work and producing photo stills for film, doing camera work for the television series De Fabeltjeskrant (‘The Fables Newspaper’), and finally ending up in reportage photography.

There were naturally also those whom Bert Nienhuis saw as his role model: Aart Klein and Cas Oorthuys initially, followed by Ed van der Elsken, with whom he worked on a regular basis in the early 1970s. Nienhuis was involved in several of Van der Elsken’s films as a sound technician, but not as a photographer. Nevertheless, Van der Elsken’s overall approach left an impression that can still be observed in Nienhuis’ most recent work. It is this background that has contributed to the fact that Nienhuis’ stylistic development is more or less typical of his generation of progressive reportage photographers. Of course, a development of this kind rarely follows a clear pattern, as this brief overview suggests. In a number of ways, Nienhuis’ first important reportage—produced in 1974 for the Topographic Atlas of the Amsterdam City Archive—resembles his current method of working more closely than the reportages produced in the intermediate period. For the time at which they were taken, his photos are fairly reserved. This could very well be related to the subject at hand, i.e. the Amsterdam Stock Exchange: primarily groups of men in grey suits pictured beneath the towering halls of the exchange building. While a topic of this nature is hardly likely to inspire visual fireworks, it can still provide some insight into the photographer’s conception. For instance, who ever took the time to look at ties worn by stockbrokers? As it turns out, they were wearing large ties covered in polka dots and stripes over their modest white collars: a frivolity that was typical of men who were distinguished in every other way during the 1970s. Such a case in point is by no means meant to be ironic: no matter how insignificant something might seem, such details often determine the documentary value of a photo later on in time.

The series of photos Bert Nienhuis shot one year later for the exhibition De Pijp 1868-1976 presents a better example of photographers’ mind-set at this time. The exhibition was organized by the Amsterdam City Archives in an effort to make the archive more accessible to the neighbourhood in which it was located. Nienhuis photographed the Pijp exactly as it was in 1976: ramshackle houses, inhabited by migrant workers and the elderly. The photos themselves give the impression that no style is involved: they are chaotic and filled with interesting visual details encountered in the neighbourhood. The only similarity with the stock exchange reportage is Nienhuis’ eye for detail. Notwithstanding, this work most definitely reflects a style that completely dominated photographic imagery during the 1970s. It was an approach pioneered by Ed van der Elsken. Its most noticeable characteristic is the random framing, with a keen eye and a swift reaction taking priority over a carefully chosen camera angle. It also entailed the exclusive use of a 35mm camera: inconspicuous and easy to use under all kinds of circumstances. The primary goal was to present information in its totality—it was this that determined the choice of photographic subject matter: life on the streets and popular culture. Photographic and developing technique was secondary. The resulting images are often fairly rough: shot with a rapidly distorting wide-angle lens and printed with a high photographic contrast and a coarse grain. While this style of working has its practical side, it also clearly conveys a certain mind-set: the same approach is found in photographs for which no journalistic restrictions apply. Typical of this view is the dubious sound of the adjective ‘aesthetic’, a term associated with beautifying and pretentiousness, as well as a ‘stoop-scrubbing narrow-mindedness’, as Nienhuis described the mentality of the traditional inhabitants of De Pijp neighbourhood. As such, aesthetics were linked to a kind of ‘propriety’ viewed totally unsuitable for such notions of reportage photography.

Nevertheless, Bert Nienhuis’ more recent reportages on assignment for Vrij Nederland have been made with greater restraint, more selectively—one could even say more aesthetically—than his photographic work of the 1970s. The form is more tightly coordinated and more implicit in its conveying of information. This shift in style has led to some criticism, implying that Nienhuis’ recent photos are lacking in social commitment. This may be seen as a painful example of how easily social engagement can become confused and, especially in the 1970s, explicitly identified with the form of presentation. Bert Nienhuis’ photographic vision and working method, however, are best expressed—even more so than in his reportages—in his portraits for Vrij Nederland. In stylistic terms, they follow a similar development: the early portraits are somewhat theatrical and greatly affected by ample retouching, with the individual in question depicted at a relatively small scale in the image; the later portraits, by contrast, focus more on the individual, portrayed from the top of the head to the waistline, usually with a neutral background. In both periods, Nienhuis produced photos that were unusual, with, generally speaking, the most recent being the most refined. His approach can best be described as displaying a certain reserve when it comes to his subject matter, appearing nonchalant (though not really nonchalant: this is in fact one of the most difficult effects to achieve in portrait photography). Anyone portrayed by Bert Nienhuis appears to be accepted as they are. Most are as well very taken with their own portrait. Within this context, the personal idiosyncrasies, which are always present, soon come into play: a small gesture (e.g. General Rogers’ pinkie), a facial expression, or a slight twist in the person’s attire. Such details become more interesting with the passing of time, with changes in fashion and portrait poses. Bert Nienhuis’ archive reflects a form of portrait photography rarely encountered in the Netherlands. For this reason, it provides an important reservoir of images depicting those appearing in the public spotlight.


Primary bibliography

images in:

Vrij Nederland; vast werkverband vanaf januari 1975; vanaf augustus 1977 regelmatig reportages voor bijlagen; meestal onderwerpen uit de massacultuur zoals dansmarietjes, het campingwezen en de jongerencultuur.

NRC-Handelsblad, vanaf 26 april 1975 ruim een jaar lang regelmatig fotopublicaties.

Robert de Hartogh (samenst.), Kijkboek over Gastarbeid, Utrecht 1977.

Stedelijk Jaarverslag Amsterdam, 1978, 1979 en 1980.

Teleac-cursus ‘Sociale Verzekering’, Utrecht 1980.

Teleac-cursus ‘Gemeentewijzer’, Utrecht 1982.

Teleac-cursus ‘Spaans’, Utrecht 1983.

Filmfan 1980-1982 (filmsterportretten).

H. Galjaard, Het Leven van de Nederlander, Utrecht 1981.

Informatiebulletin Spreiding en Participatie, Amsterdamse Kunstraad, Amsterdam 1981.

Tessel Pollman/Juan Seleky, Terug op de Molukken, Amsterdam 1981.

Catalogus tent. Geen Commentaar, Amsterdam (Nederlandse Kunststichting) 1982.

Catalogus tent. Ontwerp voor de Massamedia, Amsterdam (Nederlandse Kunststichting) 1982.

Harry Stroomberg/ Hendrik van der Zee, Over Nieuws, Amsterdam 1982.

Leerboek Moedertaal voor het Middelbaar Technisch Onderwijs, den Bosch 1983.

Secondary bibliography

Lisette Lewin, recensie tentoonstelling De Pijp 1868-1976, in NRC-Handelsblad 6 nov. 1976.

Els Barents (red.), Fotografie in Nederland 1940-1975, Den Haag (Staatsuitgeverij) 1978.

Catalogus tent. Geen Commentaar, Amsterdam (Nederlandse Kunststichting) 1982.

Erwin Olaf Springveld, Bert Nienhuis versus Hans van Manen, Fotografische pasdedeux (dubbel-interview met Bert Nienhuis en Hans van Manen), in Foto 39 (1984) nr. 5, p. 20-27.


1975 (e) Amsterdam, Gemeentearchief, De Beurs van Amsterdam.

1976 (g) Amsterdam, Gemeente-archief, De Pijp 1868-1976.

1977 (e) Amsterdam, Historisch Museum, 100 Jaar Stadsreiniging.

1977 (g) Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, Werkloosheid in Nederland Nu.

1977 (g) Amsterdam, Historisch Museum, Foto’s voor de Stad.

1979 (g) Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Fotografie in Nederland 1940-75.

1982 (g) Nederlandse Kunststichting, Geen Commentaar.

1982 (e) Amsterdam, Printshop, Overzichtstentoonstelling.


Bert Nienhuis, mondelinge informatie.


Amsterdam, Gemeente-archief.

Amsterdam, Nederlandse Kunststichting (foto’s voor kijkmappen; dia’s voor diaklankbeeld tent. Stilleven, juni 1980.)

Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, afd. Vaderlandse Geschiedenis. Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum.