PhotoLexicon, Volume 2, nr. 2 (March 1985) (en)

Jacobus van Gorkom Jr.

Hestia Bavelaar

Ingeborg Th. Leijerzapf


Jacobus van Gorkom was a painter, etcher, and photographer. He ran a studio for portrait photography in Rotterdam, where the carte-de-visite portrait was a frequently requested item. More significant, however, was his reportage work in the areas of industry and journalism. Van Gorkom used his camera to follow the construction of the Nieuwe Waterweg (‘New Waterway’), the creation of the Alexander Polder near Rotterdam, and other urban renewal projects, on occasion collaborating with Carl Philip Wollrabe, a photographer in The Hague.




Jacobus van Gorkom Jr. is born on 28 January as the oldest son of Jacobus van Gorkum Sr., manufacturer, and Antonia Veltman. Later, Jacobus Jr. will always refers to himself as ‘Van Gorkom’.


Van Gorkom marries Catharina Margaretha Siepman, a widow with four children, on 6 March. His marriage certificate states that he is registered as a painter (‘kunstschilder’). He leaves his parental home at Schiedamschedijk 531 in Rotterdam and moves with his family to Nadorstlaan 76 in the same city.

Ca. 1862

The Van Gorkom family moves to Kruiskade 592. In this year a son is born, Jacobus.

Ca. 1862-‘71

Van Gorkom runs a studio for portrait photography at Kruiskade 592, where he also resides. Starting in about 1865, he photographs projects in Rotterdam and its environs, occasionally collaborating with C.P. Wollrabe of The Hague.


On 12 October, Van Gorkom moves with his family to Riouwstraat 14 in The Hague. He registers with the public records office as a painter (‘kunstschilder’).


Van Gorkom becomes a member of Pulchri Studio, a painters’ society in The Hague. He becomes a treasurer of the organisation, among other positions.


Van Gorkom serves as commissioner for the ‘Teekenzaal’ (‘Drawing Hall’) at Pulchri Studio.


Jacobus van Gorkom Jr. dies on 2 May in The Hague.


Jacobus van Gorkom is likely to have photographed only in the 1860s and the early 1870s. He probably always viewed photography as a side activity: whenever his profession is stated in official documents, he resolutely refers to himself as a painter (‘kunstschilder’). Nothing is known about Van Gorkom’s initial steps in painting and photography. Waller and Scheen, authors of a Dutch-language artists’ lexicon, state that Van Gorkom was submitting paintings to exhibitions by as early as 1854. Waller also adds that Van Gorkom was initially a captain. Regardless of how little we know about this artist, his life, his paintings and his graphics oeuvre, his photography tells a much clearer story. Photos by Van Gorkom that have been preserved—approximately one hundred are held in public collections—can be classified into three genres: carte-de-visite portraits, reportages on news facts, and industrial reportages concerning road and waterway construction works.

Van Gorkom’s photography is of a remarkably high technical quality. His shots, printed on albumen paper, are very sharp, clear, and rich in contrast, that is, when they have not suffered terribly over time. Besides the carte-de-visite portraits, Van Gorkom finished his photos in the formats of approximately 20×25 cm to 25×30 cm.

In Rotterdam, Van Gorkom ran a studio for portrait photography from his home. The carte-de-visite portrait, which was becoming extremely popular at the time, was his specialty as a portraitist. Van Gorkom can be classified as belonging to the second generation of carte-de-visite portraitists: by this time, the pioneers in this field had already been taking these kinds of photos for almost ten years. Van Gorkom produced quality work, but did little to distinguish himself from his contemporaries. He used very few attributes and maintained a number of standard poses that were similar to those found in painting and graphic art. But one should consider these small photos in light of the era in which they were made, i.e. the technical, optical, and chemical achievements, as well as in the tradition of portrait art. In this early period of photography, the somewhat static—but also stately and chic—form of portrait art in a small format appealed greatly to the imagination of members of the middle class, who often saw themselves portrayed for the first time.

A number of photos from Van Gorkom’s oeuvre feature local current events as their subjects. The quantity is in fact too small to get an idea of Van Gorkom’s interest in this area and the intention of these photos. The subjects vary from the fire of 1864 t the Boymans Museum to the laying of the cornerstone and the new interior decoration for various religious structures in Rotterdam. Another event was ‘De plegtige uitreiking van het Vaandel aan het corps Rotterdamsche Vrijwilligers’ (‘The Ceremonial Presentation of the Banner to the Rotterdam Volunteers Corps’) in 1868, which also inspired Van Gorkom to be on hand with his camera.

These essentially local current events were registered by Van Gorkom in a quite static manner: they were as yet in no way associated with later active photographic accounts of special events in the illustrated press. In Van Gorkom’s time, there was still no distribution of news via mass media. Current events were frequently photographed when commissioned by those organisations that had such a need. At the same time, the documentation of events as a reminder or testament for a later point in time was indeed already considered important. It seems probable that, in the examples cited above, Van Gorkom was commissioned to do this work.

The most important part of Van Gorkom’s photography consists of shots taken of building construction projects during the second half of the 1860s. He regularly photographed the progression of these projects, such as the building of: the Nieuwe Waterweg (‘New Waterway’) from Rotterdam to Hoek van Holland, in collaboration with C.P. Wollrabe of The Hague; the construction of various steam pumping stations in Schaardijk, Kralingen, Capelle a/d IJssel and Nieuwerkerk a/d IJssel, intended to build the Alexander Polder; and the reclamation of the Binnenrotte in Rotterdam.

That someone like Van Gorkom, who was schooled in painting, would be drawn to this particular area of photography is less strange than it might at first seem. For his paintings and graphic work, Van Gorkom repeatedly chose—as far as we know—landscapes as his theme. The same in fact applied to his photos, but then more of an urban or industrialised landscape, i.e. a modern dynamic landscape no longer dominated by church towers, but rather bridges, viaducts, aqueducts, and water towers. The modern nineteenth-century society developed itself especially along the lines of the growing number of communication means, railways, bridges, but also the telephone, telegraphy, and photography.

In 1877, Emil Zola passionately pleaded for artists to choose the new achievements of their own era as a theme for their paintings. He rejected the idea that landscape was something belonging only to previous generations: ‘Our artists should discover the poetry of the train stations, as their fathers discovered the forests and the rivers.’ The photographers of the 1860s had already adopted this new theme with great enthusiasm, and as such, were important representatives of a new era. The clarity and functionality of their representations is remarkable. In France during the late 1850s, a professional approach was taken with the founding of a vocational training programme at the ‘Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées’ (‘School of Bridges and Roads’) in Paris, intended to teach how to photograph building construction projects. In the Netherlands, one was forced to rely both on oneself as well as capable instructors. This would in no way, however, impede the successful evolution of this kind of photography. Jacobus van Gorkom’s photography may be considered a fine example of this genre in the Netherlands.

Van Gorkom’s reportage on the building of various steam pumping stations around Rotterdam displays his authentic interest in such installations as well as the technique involved in these immense steam machines. Yet it says even more about the photographer’s satisfaction with his medium’s potential. Pioneers such as Van Gorkum were undoubtedly proud of what they were able to achieve with photography. He paid substantial attention to grouping workers and building supervisors together and to selecting the best camera angle in order to achieve a composition that was satisfactory. Van Gorkum utilised the rhythm of poles, beams, chimneys, workbenches, and pile drivers in an optimum way, with the shining surfaces of the metal machines depicted at their very best.

A technically perfect representation and a strong composition were at least every bit as important as the photo’s content. The excitement involved in building such impressive, ingenious machines and installations and the challenge of depicting these objects successfully both in functional and compositional terms, inspired Van Gorkom to utilise the specific properties of photography—sharpness, light and dark contrasts and the effect of perspective—to the best of his ability. In this manner, he is a representative of the initial period of objectivity in photography, upon which others would build in the 1920s and ’30s.

The contribution of the photographer C.P. Wollrabe to the reportage on the building of the Nieuwe Waterweg cannot be precisely determined. Judging by what was achieved in the photographs of the steam pumping houses and the reclamation of the Binnenrotte, however, Van Gorkom’s role in this collaborative project could in no way have been subordinate. Just as with the reportage on the steam pumping houses, the photos of the Nieuwe Waterweg reveal that greater importance has actually been placed on the design of the subject rather than its content. The linear patterns of railways, driving piles, breakwaters, bulkheads and the broad perspective are what catches one’s eye. Yet form and content remain in balance. In achieving this, Jacobus van Gorkom managed to create a photographic oeuvre of high quality and distinctiveness.


Primary bibliography

images in:

K. Nieuwenhuizen, Rotterdam gefotografeerd in de negentiende eeuw, Amsterdam 1974, afb. 50, 73, 78.

Secondary bibliography

Nederlandse Kunstbode 1875, p. 148.

Nederlandse Spectator 1880, p. 149.

Pieter A. Scheen, Lexicon Nederlandse beeldende kunstenaars 1750-1950, Den Haag (kunsthandel Pieter A. Scheen n.v.) 1969.

F.G. Waller, Biographisch woordenboek van Noord Nederlandsche graveurs, Amsterdam (B.M. Israël) 1974 (herdruk).

Ingeborg Th. Leijerzapf, Fotografie in Nederland 1839-1920, Den Haag (Staatsuitgeverij) 1978.

Ir. K. van der Pols, De Alexanderpolder drooggemalen, Schiedam (Interbook International b.v.) 1978 (met foto’s van Van Gorkom).

Gisèle Excoffon en Jean Michel, L’Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées et la Photographie, in Photogénies nr. 2, septembre 1983 (uitgave Centre National de la Photographie, Parijs).


Den Haag, Pulchri Studio, 1872-1880.

Den Haag, etsclub.


Den Haag, Gemeente-archief.

Rotterdam, Gemeente-archief.

Leiden, Prentenkabinet, documentatiebestand en bibliotheek.


Leiden, Prentenkabinet van de Rijksuniversiteit.

Rotterdam, Gemeentearchief.

Rotterdam, Hoogheemraadschap Schieland.