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

Willy Schurman

Hedi Hegeman

Ingeborg Th. Leijerzapf


Willy Schurman was a portrait and business photographer in The Hague, operating his own studio from 1937 to 1977. Over his long career he not only established a good reputation as a photographer, but also came to be recognized as an organizer in various fields of photography. From 1947, as chairman of the Nederlandse Fotografen Kring (NFK) he very actively devoted himself to the reorganization of that association.

The various administrative positions he assumed in educational organizations, a lectureship, and the large number of pupils and assistants in his studio all reflected his willingness to share his knowledge and experience with others, an essential part of his character




Abram Hendrik (Willy) Schurman is born on 3 December in The Hague.


Schurman takes classes at the Academy of Visual Arts in The Hague, into 1921.


He begins to take photographs at the age of 17. He abandons his course in painting at the Academy of Visual Arts in The Hague. He still continues with evening courses in drawing.


Over the course of three years Schurman does an internship in what was previously the atelier of Henri de Louw, in The Hague, now taken over by the woman photographer G. Eweg, a student of Büttinghausen.


In order to expand his professional knowledge he works as an assistant, retoucher and photographer with W. Bleuzé in Rotterdam, Ton Blom in The Hague and at the Atelier Henning in Middelburg/Vlissingen.


For two years he is the chief photographer for Godfried de Groot, the portrait photographer in Amsterdam, where he becomes involved in doing portraits of performers and in theatre photography, among other fields.


Schurman works independently for a year on diverse assignments in architectural photography for clients including the Government Buildings Agency and Meyer Architects in The Hague.


He then becomes the chief photographer for the atelier for portrait photography run by Arie Susan in The Hague. He draws many performers there, some of whom already knew him from his years in Amsterdam. Beyond this, Susan also permits him to do technical work for industrial clients, under the studio’s name.


Schurman opens his own studio on the Laan van Meerdervoort in The Hague, taking over the client list from Susan’s firm, and bringing the performers and industrial clients with him.

He becomes a member of the NFK.


Beginning in 1939 Schurman becomes actively involved in organizing professional education for photographers. He draws up a course in portrait photography for the Nederlandse Fotovakschool in The Hague and assumes various directorial functions, both at the Fotovakschool and later also at the secondary technical school for photography and photographic technique in The Hague.


On 3 July, 1942, the Vakgroep Fotografie is established, under pressure from the occupying Germans. Schurman becomes chairman of the directors, with Nico Zomer, Daan Helfferich and Leen van Oudgaarden as fellow directors. Despite the difficult circumstances occasioned by the war and the many restrictions placed on them by the Germans, under their leadership the Vakgroep is able to chart its own course.


Schurman, together with Meinard Woldringh and Nico Zomer, reorganizes the very antiquated NFK. The requirements for admission are tightened up, the aims and purposes are reformulated, and the organization of meetings, exhibitions and competitions actively taken up. Schurman remains active in this association until 1970, when the NFK is ‘silently’ absorbed in the BFN.


During a biref internship at Atelier Seeberger in Paris, Schurman becomes acquainted with the operation of a prominent fashion photographer.


He becomes the photographer to the royal family. His court photographs are widely distributed through the Anjer Fund and the American press.


In these years Schurman receives many important commissions, including from the Directoraat Generaal for Industrialisation at the Ministery for Economic Affairs, to produce reports on professional training programmes. The Technical Film Centre in The Hague commissions him to make film strips (his own shots copied over onto diapositive film for projection) on ‘production improvements’ through improvements in the relations within businesses. He also receives a similar commission from the Nijverdal-Ten Kate textile factory in Almelo and Nijverdal. Other important clients in these and the following years include Vroom and Dreesman, Hoogovens, Philips, various hairdressers, the port authorities of Rotterdam and Amsterdam (Verolme, RDM and ADM), the Kurhaus, Grand Hotel and other hotels in Schevening, and several government ministries.


The lawyer. N.W.A. Brink, Willy Schurman (for the NFK), B. Okel (NFPV) and Peter van Breukelen (NVF) establish the Burafo Foundation for protecting and maintaining photographic copyright.


Schurman performs a lectureship in applied photography for the advertising department at the Academy for Visual Arts in Rotterdam. Modern advertising photography is an important aim in the education provided by this department.


Willy Schurman closes his own studio, but continues to work for several years on personal photographic projects.


Willy Schurman passes away.


After abandoning his studies as a painter at the Academy of Visual Arts in The Hague – by his own admission for a lack of talent – from the age of 17 Willy Schurman devoted himself to photography. In a long and respectable career he gained experience in all sorts of studio work (portraits, advertising and fashion photography) and obtained good insight into running a business effectively. In Schurman’s apprentice years photographing and retouching were still to a large extent a craft, for which skills in draughtsmanship were a major advantage. In the former atelier of Henri de Louw, Schurman learned the paint and gum printing techniques that he could later pass on to his teacher, Godfried de Groot. With Godfried de Groot he came into contact with the international art of the glamour portrait. This blew over into Europe from the Hollywood film industry in the second and third decades of the 20 th century with the arrival of the new phenomenon of film stars and matinee idols. This period with Godfried de Groot was essential for Schurman’s development in portrait photography. After that, in the studio of the Susan firm in The Hague he was given full scope to follow his own ideas. His assignment there was to do portraits of performers and technical photos for industry, and was able to develop his own personal style in these fields.

In 1937 he rented a large premises in The Hague, Laan van Meerdervoort 182, where he would settle for good. There he constructed a sober, modern studio, handily outfitted with mobile properties. In Haagse circles his professional skills, and the style of portrait photography which he championed, quite quickly earned him a good reputation and extensive clientèle, comparable with that of his colleague and fellow-Hagenaar Franz Ziegler. Portrait photography alone was however too small a basis for a photographer in the 1930s, even though his studio was frequented by figures from the entertainment world. Therefore, as soon as he set up on his own Schurman immediately also turned his attention to new fields that were becoming attractive for photographers: advertising and business photography.

He did considerable studio work for the advertising industry. Generally he photographed only the objects to be offered, for instance glass, foodstuffs or jewellery, grouped into striking still-lifes; sometimes he also used photo models for demonstrating clothing, jewellery and such. After the late 1950s he frequently worked together with Jan Schiet for the advertising commissions.

In the 1950s and ’60s producing photographic documents on businesses was also an attractive source of income for Willy Schurman and many of his colleagues. In addition to doing portraits of their directors, he photographed the machinery and buildings, and recorded work in the businesses themselves, usually for use in informational publications for new and established employees. He gave ample attention to visualizing the human side of the firm, and particularly the relations among the employees. Photographing under primitive conditions on the work floor in such businesses called for considerable ingenuity; the photographer constantly had to improvise.

His training in studios, where very different ideas about photography were the norm, had taught Schurman to handle all sorts of cameras and procedures, but from quite early on modern, handy cameras and easy techniques claimed his attention. He favoured a sober, elegant style, which was certainly influenced by Godfried de Groot’s views, but was less romantic and exaggerated. Sometimes somewhat theatrical poses and dramatic lighting betray this influence. In addition to the characteristic lighting, the essence of Schurman’s portrait photography lies in small details that often strengthen the composition, such as spectacles held in a hand, or a cigarette in the mouth. These small additions to the portrait do not distract the eye, but rather support the image through the way in which Schurman connect the face and these details by accents in the lighting. The sitters never had any difficulty in seeing themselves in the result: at once beautiful and characteristic.

The dramatic and atmospheric lighting that Schurman used for his portrait photography, and also in advertising photos when he was working with models, is not to be found in the more objective advertising work, the business reportage and family and group portraits. Clarity and functionality were his main concern there. Schurman was inclined to the simplification and abstraction of the image for the sake of clarity. Eliminating the half tones was one of his methods for simplifying the visual information. The graphic effect that this created served Schurman well in his architectural photos, in nature photography – a genre with which he was active in hsi free time – and also in group portraits. His group portraits, which he sets against a completely white background, are almost the antithesis of is largely dark portrait photographs. This manner of posing subjects free in space, omitting all details of the setting, was a form that Schurman liked to use in the 1950s. He had seen this approach in the Seeberger atelier in Paris, and knew it also from the photo of Irving Penn, which were staged in this way.

We have already mentioned the influence of Godfried de Groot on Schurman’s work, but it was by no means the only influence. Schurman had a wide-ranging interest in the field of culture. He always looked at many magazines, including trend-setting fashion journals such as Vogue, and closely followed developments in the film and theatre world. Under the influence of French cinema in the 1930s, in this decade he sometimes gave his portraits an elongated landscape format. The portrait photos of the German photographer Hugo Erfurth also inspired him, chiefly in the way in which details such as the hands were worked out, and the manner in which they would play a role in the composition. The business reportage work by Willy Schurman (and also that of his colleagues in the NFK) is in fact a direct continuation of the objective approach from the years before the Second World War. The experimental character of the pre-war period has perhaps disappeared, but concepts such as clarity, objectivity, functionality, sharpness and rendering of textures are certainly very much present in the business photography of the 1950s.

When he was not working for clients, Schurman’s photography reveals considerable relationship with the work of his personal friend and colleague Meinard Woldringh. He shows the same interest in natural and urban environments, and particularly for details in them, and has the same inclination toward graphic simplification of the objects and omitting unnecessary information. But while Woldringh was in search of the essence of the things that he photographed, Schurman’s photography seems to have an idealized concept of beauty as its real subject.

A number of factors recur constantly in Willy Schurman’s photographic oeuvre, and can therefore be considered as his personal style. They are best summed up in words such as ‘elegance’, poise’, ‘human relationships’ and ‘aesthetic design’. Professional competence and love for his profession are the basis of his work. Although not directly avant-garde, he can be regarded as a modern professional photographer in his time, who always worked with the most advanced cameras and kept abreast of new materials and techniques. He liked to experiment – for instance with low-key and high-key photography – but still was less daring than Pim van Os, for example. As early as 1938 he was employing colour photography in his advertising and business work, another evidence of his open attitude toward technical and functional innovations.

That Schurman should always have used only a limited part of his oeuvre – namely portraits and photographs of children – when he sought a wider audience through exhibitions and publication in photographic journals was typical of the views about photography as a form of artistic expression which were current at the time. This presents a one-sided picture of romantic, traditional views about idealized beauty, while Schurman’s work had many other sides. As a result, his best performances in the field of industrial commissions are little known.

After he set up a studio of his own in 1937 Schurman took on another role, as a leader in diverse professional organizations. During the war years he headed the Vakgroep Fotografie, which was imposed by the Germans. He was not only able to keep the organization in Dutch hands, but even used it to facilitate the production of false identity papers and assist members going into hiding. After the war the chairman of the Nederlandse Fotografen Kunstkring (NFK), Francis Kramer, sought his aid in breathing new life into the moribund organization. Together with Meinard Woldringh and Nico Zomer he changed the NFK into a young and vital Nederlandse Fotografen Kring, and took over the chairmanship for over 20 years. Furthermore, in the years just before and after the war he became involved in organizing professional courses for photographers, first with the Fotovakschool and subsequently with the School voor Fotografie en Fototechniek in The Hague, an initiative which had been strongly advocated by Carel Tirion. The willingness to share his knowledge had always been part of Schurman’s character. In addition to the many students and assistants which he had, including Pan Walther, Pim van Os, Cor van Weele, Daan Helfferich, Frans Vink, Meike Sund, Jo van Kralingen, Arthur Verkoren, Bert ten Hoopen, Peter van der Feltz and Paul Melief, this was expressed in his accepting a position as an instructor in photography at the Academy of Visual Arts in Rotterdam. With his knowledge of many areas, he also made important contributions to the study of the history of Dutch photography, particularly as this has been practised at the Print Cabinet of the University of Leiden.


Primary bibliography

Willy Schurman, Een beroepsfotograaf over Portretten, in Nederlands Jaarboek voor Fotokunst 1942-1943, p. 25-30.

Willy Schurman, Mededeelingen van de Vakgroep Fotografie 3 (1945) 1.

Willy Schurman, NFK, in Focus 34 (1949), p. 258, 259.

Willy Schurman, cursus portretfotografie voor de Leidse Onderwijsinstellingen, Leiden 1968.

Willy Schurman, Portretfotografie, in Accent 3 (1970) 16, p. 41.


images in:

Bednjfsfotografie 21 (1939), p. 244.

Cosmorama 1939 p. 117; 1940 p. 69.

Dameskroniek, 1941 -43.

Focus 27 (1942) 1, p. 19.

J.G. Beernink, Compositieleer in de fotografie, Den Haag 1946.

J.G. Beernink, Foto-opbouw, Amsterdam 1948.

Nederlands Jaarboek voor Fotokunst 1948-1949.

Drukkersweekblad en auto-lijn, kerstnummer 1953 ‘Letter en beeld’, p. 22, 23.

Auteur onbekend, Analyse der platen, in Focus 42 (1957) 3, p. 62, 63.

Toen en Nu, 1907 en 1957, Shell Amsterdam 1957.

Concentratie en ontspanning, beelden van Haagse typografen, hun werk, hun vrijetijdsbesteding, Den Haag (Gedenkboek Drukkerij Albani) 1959.

Het gebed van de schetsontwerper, Den Haag 1962.

H.J. Stuvel, Volgens Bestek, een halve eeuw bouwen en baggeren, Den Haag (uitg. Dirk Verstoep) 1966.

Academie (publicatie over plaats van de Academie in het Nederlandse onderwijssysteem) 1969 (uitg. Rotterdamse Academie).

Diverse omslagen voor en foto’s in jaarverslagen, brochures, folders, affiches en kalenders van o.m. NV Exploitatie maatschappij Scheveningen, Min. voor Economische Zaken, Gemeente ‘s Gravenhage, Nederlandse Fotovakschool, Academie van Beeldende Kunsten en Technische Wetenschappen te Rotterdam, Stichting Vakopleiding Bouwbedrijf, Vroom en Dreesman, TNO, lithografisch bedrijf Koningsveld, Coiffure Martin Leyger jr., Pander, e.a.

Diverse bladen als Elegance, De Geïllustreerde Pers, De Illustratie, De Spiegel, Proost-Prikkels, Extra Magazine, Horeca, Wereldkroniek, Alles electrisch in huis en bedrijf (Prov. Electriciteitsbedrijf Noord-Holland), Pak aan (St.Vakopleiding Bouwbedrijf), Nederland Nu (St.School en Bedrijf), Nive (Ned.Inst.voor Efficiency), e.a.

Secondary bibliography

Auguste Grégoire, Honderd jaar Fotografie, Bloemendaal (Focus) 1948, p. 37, 115.

D. Helfferich, Willy Schurman, NFK, in Foto 5 (1950) 1, p. 10-16.

Auteur onbekend, Willy Schurman, koninklijk fotograaf, in Revue der Reclame 12 (1952) 5, p. 132.

Auteur onbekend, Fotoschouw NFK, in Focus 37 (1952) 12, p. 240, 241.

Auteur onbekend, In Den Haag daar woont…, in Haagsche Post 1 maart 1952, p.8.

Auteur onbekend, 3.750 minuten voor een beter inspelen op menselijke verhoudingen, in Foto 12 (1957) 2, p. 60-65.

Adri de Waard, Een halve eeuw hoffotografie, in De Spiegel 1959 nr. 30, p. 14, 15.

Kik van Eysden, De reclame en het model, in Revue der Reclame 12 (1952) 5, p. 137.

Haagsche Post, 1 maart 1952.

Mus., De binnenhuis-architectuur in het fotografisch atelier nr. 23, p. 10, 11.

Auteur onbekend, interview met Schurman over Mensen Bouwen in Duinwijcknieuws (personeelsvereniging Min. van Volkshuisvesting), 1 sept. 1971, nr. 421, p. 41-45.

W.K. Coumans, Fotografie van Willy Schurman in Den Haag, in Foto 27 (1972) 1,p. 57.

Frits van Santen, Willy Schurman 50 jaar portretfotograaf, in Foto 28 (1973) 11, p. 48-51.

Auteur onbekend, Foto en glaskunst: goede kombinatie, in Amersfoortse Courant 1975.

Flip Bool en Kees Broos (red.), Fotografie in Nederland 1920-1940, Den Haag (Staatsuitgeverij) 1978.


NFK, van 1937 tot opname van NFK in BFN in 1970 (kernlid sinds 1949, erevoorzitter sinds 1965.)

NFPV, 1937 tot opname van NFPV in BFN in 1972.

BFN van 1972 tot heden (erelid sinds 1975).

Nederlandse Kleinbeeldvereniging, vanaf 1939.

HFK, van ca. 1955 – ca. 1957.

Examencommissie Nederlandse Fotovakschool, van 1942-1955.

Rijksgecommitteerde bij de vakexamens fotografie Academie St. Joost te Breda, van ca. 1942-1955.

Bestuur M.T.S voor Fotografie en Fototechniek, Den Haag, vanaf 1961 (vanaf 1970 erevoorzitter).


1938 Diploma AAFV.

1939 Zilveren medaille van de gemeente Amsterdam (tent. Kleinbeeld in Arti Amicitiae.

1939 en 1941: diploma’s Salao, Portugal.

1954 Zilveren plakette Goslar, Centralverband des Deutschen Photographenhandwerks.

1959 medaille tent. Photo 59 Frankfurt am Main.

1959 Agfacolordiploma (vakcursus negatiefpositief). Diploma met bronzen plaquette voor de 6de kerstsalon van de AAFV.


1933 (g) Japan en Amerika.

1934 (g) Engeland.

1936 (g) Lissabon, Foto-Salon.

1938 (g) Amsterdam, Fotografendag NFPV.

1939 (g) Madrid.

1939 (g) Amsterdam, Arti et Amicitiae, Kleinbeeld ’39.

1939 (g) Amsterdam, Fotografendag NFPV.

1939 (g) Portugal, Internationale Salon de Arte Fotografica.

1940 (g) Amsterdam, Nationale Kerstsalon AAFV.

1941 (g) Zaragoza.

1946 (g) Parijs, 34e Salon International.

1950 (g) Brussel en Antwerpen.

1951 (g) Amsterdam, Arti et Amicitiae, Nationale Kerstsalon AAFV.

1952 (g) Den Haag, Gemeentemuseum, Fotoschouw.

1954 (g) Goslar, Bildausstellung europaischer Berufsphotographen.

1954 (g) Utrecht, Jaarbeurs.

1955 (g) Düsseldorf, Keulen.

1955 (g) Amsterdam, Stichting Nijverheid en Techniek, Arbeiders in de metaalindustrie

1956 (g) Den Haag, Panorama Mesdag, HFK.

1956 (g) Keulen, Photokina.

1971 (e) Amsterdam, Ministerie van Volkshuisvesting en Ruimtelijke Ordening, Mensen Bouwen.

1972 (e) Oss, de Lievenkamp, Mensen Bouwen.

1973 (e) ‘s Hertogenbosch, het Provinciehuis, Mensen Bouwen.

1974 (e) Zwolle, Portretten van mensen in hun beroep.

1974 (e) Zuid Laren, Portretten van mensen in hun beroep.

1975 (e) Den Haag, Vroom en Dreesman, Mensen bouwen.

1975 (e) Amersfoort, Hoofdkantoor Akzo, vrije fotografie.

1975 (e) Amsterdam, bibliotheek Amerikaanse ambassade, vrije fotografie (samen met ijzersculpturen van de Amerikaanse Bo Seibel).

1976 (e) Rotterdam, Bouwcentrum, bouw-,haven-, dok- en wegenbouwfoto’s.

1976 (e) Alkmaar, Mensen Bouwen.

1979 (e) Arnhem, Regina Pacis, vrije fotografie.


Willy Schurman, documentatie en mondelinge informatie.

Leiden Prentenkabinet, bibliotheek en documentatiebestand.


Amsterdam, Scheepvaartmuseum (negatieven).

Den Haag, Gemeentearchief (foto’s en negatieven).

Enschede, Twentsch Museum (negatieven).

Leiden, Prentenkabinet van de Rijksuniversiteit (foto’s en negatieven).

Nijmegen, Gemeentearchief (negatieven).