PhotoLexicon, Volume 2, nr. 3 (September 1985) (en)

Cok de Graaff

Evelyn de Regt


Cok de Graaff was a multi-faceted photographer. He made his mark in advertising photography, but was also an excellent portrait photographer and an impassioned nature photographer. During his days working for the Dutch newsreel company Polygoon in the late 1920s, De Graaff experienced the rise of press photography first-hand in a form that was professionally organised. He went on to become one of the first photographers in the Netherlands to work in advertising photography on a professional basis in a studio specifically set up for that purpose. Following the war, De Graaff was highly involved with the founding of the GKf (Gebonden Kunsten Federatie, vakgroep fotografie, ‘United Arts Federation, Department of Photography’).




Nicolaas Jacobus (Cok) de Graaff is born on 30 May in Blaricum. His father is a sculptor and drawing teacher. His mother is highly gifted musically. De Graaff grows up in an artists’ milieu in the vicinity of Laren. He receives violin lessons starting at the age of six.


At the age of ten, De Graaff and his older brother build a primitive pinhole camera and experiment with photography. De Graaff attends the MULO (Meer Uitgebreid Lager Onderwijs, lower-level secondary school) and later vocational school, where he studies electronics. Photography is his hobby. He decides to buy himself a better camera, a Kodak Brownie Fix Focus. He makes his own prints using a daylight enlarger. His next camera is an Ernemann 6×9 cm folding camera. After vocational school, De Graaff decides to become a violinist and enrols at a preparatory school for the music conservatory. He performs as a violin soloist on various occasions, including lunch concerts of the NCRV broadcasting company. A recurring arm ailment, however, forces him to give up playing the violin.


In 1928, De Graaff applies for work at the newsreel company Polygoon, which is seeking someone to assist with the rinsing and drying of photos based on the extra workload associated with the Olympic Games in Amsterdam. By taking this position, De Graaff hopes to enter the field of photography. After the Games, De Graaff continues to work for Polygoon, first as a press photographer and later as the chief of personnel. In 1929, De Graaff weds G.B. (Bobbel) Mossel.


After leaving Polygoon, De Graaff finds employment at a studio for advertising photography, located on Prinseneiland (‘Prinsen Island’) in Amsterdam and working on the behalf of the advertising agency ‘Sell More’. Among Sell More’s regular clients are the shoe manufacturer Van Haaren, the confectionery company Verkade, and the cocoa manufacturer Van Houten.


In 1932, De Graaff opens his own studio for advertising photography on the Willemsparkweg in Amsterdam. He receives commissions from various companies and furnishes photos to newspapers and weekly magazines. He purchases a Rolleiflex to do industrial reportage work.


De Graaff establishes himself as a freelance photographer in Blaricum and continues doing work for various companies and illustrated magazines. He travels to Flanders on a regular basis, together with Eduard Gubbins-Dorenbos, a journalist/cabaret performer.


In May 1938, the De Graaff family departs for South Africa, motivated by political developments occurring in Germany, but as yet unaware of the anti-Semitic orientation as well to be encountered in their destination country. Few options are available to emigrants with a professionally independent background, as most countries are keeping their borders closed during this period of uncertainty. The family returns to the Netherlands and settles in Laren.


In 1940, De Graaff is a photographer for the AVRO broadcasting company. During the German occupation, the company’s management offers no protection for its Jewish employees and likewise distances itself from any employee having Jewish family ties. De Graaff leaves the company for this reason. During the occupation, De Graaff is indirectly involved with CS-6, a resistance group (named after its contact address, Cornelis Schuytstraat 6 in Amsterdam) responsible for organising an attack on the building of the Amsterdam Public Records Office in 1943.

In the area of photography, De Graaff limits his activity to making passport photos for people in hiding, reproducing illegal reports, making children’s photos, reproductions of artworks, and interior photos taken for property damage insurance claims. In 1942, he takes part in the photo exhibition Stad en Land (‘City and Country’), held at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and organised by Willem Sandberg and Koen Limperg. In June 1944, De Graaff is arrested by the Germans, but released one-and-a-half months later.


In February 1945, De Graaff becomes involved in the setting up of an artists’ federation in the Gooi region. Following the liberation, he belongs to the inner circle of the GKf (Gebonden Kunsten Federatie, vakgroep fotografie, ‘United Arts Federation, Department of Photography’), established in Amsterdam. He also devotes a great deal of time and energy into the rebuilding of the CPN (Communistische Partij Nederland, ‘Communist Party of the Netherlands’). Following the invasion of Hungary by the Russians, he cancels his membership in this political party in 1956.

From 1947 to 1955, De Graaff photographs for various companies, including the Bronswerk construction firm in Amersfoort, as well as the advertising agency Boometal, which commissions him to do the advertising photography for Dralle shampoo and cosmetic products, and the bike saddle manufacturer Lemet. For the printing company/ office furniture manufacturer Ahrend Globe—his most important client during this period—De Graaff produces catalogues, brochures, printed advertising, and calendars.

Ca. 1960

At the end of the 1950s, De Graaff experiences major health complications stemming from asthma and is temporarily forced to stop working. His wife supports the family financially by teaching French.


De Graaff’s health issues limit the amount of work he is able to do. Besides accepting a few commissions from companies and advertising agencies, during the 1960s De Graaff takes a large number of nature photos in the ‘Gooi and Vecht’ region of the Netherlands. De Graaff produces enlarged nature shots for in private homes.


De Graaff receives a pension from the Stichting 40-45 (‘Foundation ’40-’45), based on his activities for the resistance.


De Graaff stops working as a professional photographer.


De Graaff dies on 21 April in Laren.


Cok de Graaff began his career as a press photographer. After a brief training at the Polygoon newsreel studio in Haarlem, he was hired as a press photographer by the company’s branch office in Amsterdam, where he quickly climbed is way up to becoming the head of personnel. Neither the nature of his work—journalistic photography—nor the working conditions—long days, low pay, no holidays—were particularly to his liking. When given a chance do something that really interested him, i.e. advertising photography, he seized the opportunity immediately.

During the two years that De Graaff worked at Polygoon, he was already experimenting with advertising photography, as yet a relatively unknown field in the Netherlands. Polygoon initially showed not the slightest interest in what De Graaff had to offer. As the commercial potential of his work became more obvious, however, the attitude of Polygoon’s management shifted, with him eventually being asked to set up a department of advertising photography. In the midst of making preparations, De Graaff came into contact with Dr. Carl Mauve, the director of Sell More, an advertising agency that, prior to this time, had always assigned its photographic work to firms in London. The qualities of the young photographer were of such a nature that Sell More offered him a job and even had a studio for advertising photography set up on Prinseneiland (‘Prinsen Island’) in Amsterdam for his personal use—the first advertising photography studio of its kind in the Netherlands.

For two years, De Graaff continued doing photographic work for a number of Dutch companies on behalf of Sell More. In 1932, the market for advertising photography appeared so certain, that De Graaff decided to take a risk and set out on his own working independently. He opened his studio on the Willemsparkweg in Amsterdam. The studio on Prinseneiland was taken over by Cas Oorthuys, a young photographer just starting out. De Graaff’s contact with Oorthuys would eventually lead to a close friendship. Although it was Oorthuys who initially approached De Graaff for advice on a frequent basis, their interaction later became a mutual exchange. For instance, Oorthuys had a better eye when it came to the selling potential of a portrait used in an advertising photo and had an influence on De Graaff in this respect.

De Graaff’s notions concerning design aspects and the applications of photography were largely shaped by developments stemming from the New Photography that emerged in the late 1920s, whose major proponents in the Netherlands were Piet Zwart and Paul Schuitema. Besides these photographers, De Graaff was also inspired by foreign magazines, such as a 1930 special issue of Arts et Métiers Graphiques (‘Graphic Arts and Professions’) devoted entirely to photography and featuring photos by Man Ray, Sougez, and others.

In part through his friendship with Cas Oorthuys, De Graaff came into contact with progressive individuals who were extremely political-minded, with leanings towards the left. De Graaff’s own political sympathies were in the same direction, as affirmed by his joining the anti-fascist organisation the BKVK (Bond van Kunstenaars ter Verdediging van de Kulturele rechten, ‘Federation of Artists in Defense of Cultural Rights’) in 1935. Together with Oorthuys, De Graaff produced a reportage in this very same year for the Nederlandse Stoomblekerij (‘Netherlands Steam Bleaching Company’, abbreviated as ‘NSB’, which in five years’ time would prove to be highly applicable). The working conditions in this company were so terrible that the two photographers decided to turn their cameras primarily to these elements. The company’s management returned the entire package of photos and refused to pay for their work.

As an independent advertising photographer, De Graaff was able to keep many of the clients for whom he had worked at Sell More. He also had several new clients such as the advertising firms Adviesbureau voor Reclame Van Alfen (‘Van Alfen Advertising Consultanty Agency’) and A. De la Mar, both in Amsterdam. The shoe polish manufacturer Erdal was also a client. Through Van Alfen, De Graaff did the photography for Centra, an advertising magazine distributed by green grocers in the Netherlands, which devoted considerable space to photography. One of De Graaff’s biggest clients was Van Houten, a company that had previously been a client at Sell More. De Graaff did the photography for the company’s advertising campaigns, price lists, recipe books, and Van Houten’s Eigen Tijdschrift (‘Van Houten’s Own Magazine’). One of Van Houten’s successful advertising campaigns was the ‘Tante Jet’ series (‘Auntie Jet’), which included charming and humorous photos conveying a clear message.

Typical of De Graaff’s status as an advertising photographer, for instance, was that he personally financed his expenses himself, e.g. the chocolates to be used in an advertising photo for Verkade. For his models, he approached his circle of friends, in exchange for a free meal or a portrait photo. At this time, there was simply no budget available for such matters.

The advertising business had initially profited from the economic crisis of the 1930s, but as hard times continued, even this field ran into problems. In 1936, De Graaff was consequently forced to shut down his Amsterdam studio. He then moved to Blaricum, where he established himself as a freelance photographer.

It was not until several years after the war that advertising photography again became De Graaff’s chief source of income. Starting in 1947, the number of commissions he received from financially recovering industries and companies began to grow. Because of his professional approach, De Graaff was able to establish a more or less permanent relationship with several of his clients. One example was Bronswerk, a construction firm in Amersfoort, for whom he did a lot of work up until 1955. De Graaff also worked on a frequent basis as a ‘house photographer’ at Ahrend Globe, together with Jaap Tjepkema, the company’s art director. This company also commissioned him to do occasional work in colour. De Graaff made calendars for Ahrend in 1962 and 1963, respectively centred around the themes ‘the fair’ and ‘facets of the Gooi’. Here he was able to work according to his own photographic preferences. This not only gave De Graaff great satisfaction, but also led to a quality product. The 1963 calendar was selected from among thirty Dutch calendars by the Grafisch Export Centrum (‘Graphics Export Centre’) as an entry for the international calendar exhibition held in Calcutta in 1963. At the end of the 1950s, De Graaff was forced to leave the work force for a period of time due to health issues. This would essentially marked the end of his career as an advertising photographer.

From the moment he closed his studio in 1936 to become a freelance photographer, De Graaff was no longer doing exclusively advertising work. He began working for different clients, as well as daily and weekly publications, entailing taks that were extremely varied. Some posed substantial technical challenges, such as photographing festoon bulbs for Philips. But there were also more relaxed ‘franjefoto’s’ (‘frill photos’), as he called them, for De Lach (‘The Laugh’). De Graaff had established solid contacts at various newspapers such as the Algemeen Handelsblad and De Telegraaf, where respectively André Garf and Theo Moussault were the photo editors. Both newspapers featured photo series produced by De Graaff on a regular basis, typically with three photos placed adjacent to each other across the full page, sometimes showing fine examples of tabletop and children’s photography.

De Graaff’s success in portrait photography was in no small part linked to his engaging personality. He enjoyed taking photos of children, preferably in their own surroundings. He was represented at the exhibition Foto ’37, in the categories advertising and portrait photography. De Graaff’s portraits are unaffected and honest, and therein lies their appeal. Actresses seeking careers at the Cinetone film studios were of the same opinion: during job interviews, De Graaff’s portraits had more success than portraits of the same women shot by Godfried de Groot. The bright and natural radiance of De Graaff’s portraits were well-suited to the then current notions of design. In this area, the old approach—that of glamour portrait photography—was losing its popularity in favour of New Photography.

De Graaff’s respect for people’s pure nature enabled him to take a beautiful photo of the artist Charles Roelofs. Roelofs was usually intoxicated, except when working. De Graaff wanted to photograph him when he was sober. The best time to do so was therefore directly after work, when Roelofs was still caught up in his artistic labours and not yet under the influence of alcohol. De Graaff’s portrayal of Roelofs shows him as a driven and somewhat antagonised man. The same kind of dignity can be observed in his portrait shots of indigenous women taken in South Africa. De Graaff shot these photos during his stay in 1938-’39, as part of a reportage on the life of the ‘Kaffers’, a black segment of the population. In this host country, De Graaff was forced to make a living by doing reportage work for the South African newspapers and the Dutch newspaper Algemeen Handelsblad, as well as by playing violin. Neither the South African nor the Dutch newspapers were interested in photographs depicting members of the country’s black population. In retrospect, this reportage work may be considered as the most remarkable, most controversial part of De Graaff’s oeuvre.

Together with the cabaret entertainer/journalist Eduard Gubbins-Dorenbos, De Graaff frequently travelled around Flanders in the late 1930s. He supplied images to Belgian magazines, as well shooting photographs of the outdoors and the Flemish people for his own pleasure. Photographing nature was an important part of De Graaff’s life and his overall photographic oeuvre. Time and again, his poetically sensitive personality compelled him to go out and capture the beauty of the landscape. He describes this in the following way: ‘That little bit of romance, which I apparently can’t do without, expresses itself in an irresponsible stream of photos that have nothing to do with “business”, and which I will still always take and appreciate like an “enthusiast”.’ Between abstract form and romance? De Graaff’s series of spider webs provides an excellent example: hair-thin threads and sparkling dewdrops as a poetic play of light and lines. His charming shots of nature were featured in magazines such as Toeristenkampioen (‘Tourist Champion’) and Autokampioend (‘Auto Champion’).

During the 1960s, De Graaff focussed almost exclusively on landscape and nature photography, primarily in the region of the Netherlands called ‘Gooi and Vecht’. The condition of his health, however, required him to slow down. De Graaff’s serene nature photos—just as with everything he did in life, nothing was ever without a purpose—resulted in two pocket-format photography books on the Gooi, published in 1960 and 1967 by Van Dishoeck.

With the exception of the two years he worked for Sell More, all of De Graaff’s negatives have been preserved, taken over the span of his thirty-eight year career. His oeuvre is a visual testament to the development of advertising photography in the Netherlands and is therefore indispensable to the historical description of this topic. At the same time, it represents a personal, transparent, and honest vision of a photographer willing to take clear-cut standpoints in his life. Simplicity, creativity, a subtle approach to observing, as well as a respect for beauty and harmony, are terms that best describe Cok de Graaff’s photography.


Primary bibliography

images in:

Diverse dagbladen als Algemeen Handelsblad 1933, 1934; De Telegraaf 1933, 1934. Diverse geïllustreerde bladen als Unicum geïllustreerd weekblad 20-4-’31, 30-11-’35; De Lach 1934, 1935; Het Leven 1934, 1935; Wij, omslag 21 juni 1935; Cinema en Theater 1935; Le Journal de la Femme 2 maart 1935; De Stad, een weekblad voor Vlaanderen 1935; Extra Magazine 1935; De Prins 1936; Wereldkroniek 1937; Libelle 1937, omslag 1 april 1938; Het Amusante Weekblad 1939; De Katholieke Illustratie; Het Amsterdamsche Weekblad; Ons Weekend; De Radiobode 1939-1940, 1956.


Diverse reclametijdschriften als De Fruit en Groentehandel, omslag, oktober 1931; Van Houtens Eigen Tijdschrift, regelmatig in 1934- 1935; Centra 1936- 1937; Extra.


Diverse brochures en reclamefolders voor: Verkade fabrieken 1930, Philips, Van Epen vloeren in Laren, Holland Bulbs 1933, Corn. van Steenderen vitrages, De Betuwe, Rubbervloeren, Houttuin scheepspompen 1960, Vereenigde Draadfabrieken Nijmegen 1961.


Astra, april 1934.

Gedenkboek tot bestrijding van tandbederf, 1910-1935. 1935.

De Autokampioen 19 augustus 1939, p. 1883- 1885.

Toeristenkampioen 21 (omslag) en 28 oktober 1939, 25 oktober 1941.

Kleinbeeldfoto augustus 1940, nr. 5, p. 146- 147.

Cat.tent. foto ’37, Prisma der Kunsten nr. 99, 1937.

J.A.M, van Liempt, Kunstlicht in de fotografie, Amsterdam 1942.

Erik van der Steen, Alkmaar, Amsterdam (Bezige Bij) 1954.

Kijkprikkels, huisorgaan van Proost en Brandt, Amsterdam, nr. 231, nov./ dec.1958.

Het Gooi 1, Van Dishoeck fotopockets, 1960.

Het Gooi 2, Van Dishoeck fotopockets,1967

Gabriël Smit, Gooi- en Vechtstreek, Amersfoort 1965 (in samenwerking met Ad Windig).

Secondary bibliography

De Groene Amsterdammer 19 juni 1937.

Auteur onbekend, Mijn camera: de Rolleiflex: van violist tot Rolleifotograaf, in Fotoforum (Maandblad voor onze foto- en filmamateurs) maart 1959, nr. 5.

Joost Andriessen, Cock de Graaff: zwart-wit tussen kleur, in Foto 15 (1960) p. 382-385 (met foto’s).

Gooi en Eemlander 10 juni 1960.

De Groene Amsterdammer 9 juli 1960.

Rolf Mager, Kalenderbesprekingen 1962 (II), in Ariadne 17 (1962) 3, p. 137-141.

Vrij Nederland-bijlage 15 mei 1976.


BKVK, vanaf 1935.

GKf, vanaf 1945.


1933 (g) Amsterdam, gebouw I.O.O.F., AAFV-tent. Aan den Arbeid (inzending afd. beroepsfotografie).

1936 (g) Amsterdam, Arti et Amicitiae, AAFV

1936 (g) Amsterdam, gebouw de Geelvinck, De Olympiade Onder Dictatuur (DOOD).

1937 (g) Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, foto ’37.

1942 (g) Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Stad en Land.

1948 (g) Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Foto ’48.

1950 (g) Eindhoven, Van Abbemuseum, Internationale Tentoonstelling Vakfotografie igjo.

1951 (g) Milaan, Mostra della Fotografia Europea (GKf-inzending).

1954 (g) Utrecht, Jaarbeurs.

1958 (g) Leiden, Prentenkabinet, GKf-tentoonstelling.

1960 (e) Laren, De Knipscheer.

1960 (g) Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum.

1960 (g) Hilversum, Nieuwe Lyceum, tentoonstelling over het streekeigene van het Gooi.

1960/61 (g) Arnhem, Gemeentemuseum, presentatie fotocollectie Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.

1963 (g) Laren, De Knipscheer.

1964 (e) Laren, Openbare Leeszaal, foto’s van het Gooi.

1965 (g) Amsterdam, Vondelpark, Autografie.

1965 (g) Amsterdam, diverse tentoonstelling ten behoeve van het Medisch Comité Nederland Vietnam.

1970 (g) Amsterdam, Nieuwe Kerk, Mooie Vrijheid, nationale herdenkingstentoonstelling.

1978/79 (g) Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Fotografie in Nederland 1940-1975.

1980 (g) ‘s-Gravenhage, Gemeentemuseum, Foto 20-40.

1982 (g) Zaandijk, tentoonstelling Dienst Verspreide Rijkscollecties.


Laren, Cok de Graaff, documentatie en mondelinge informatie.

Leiden, Prentenkabinet, bibliotheek en documentatiebestand Collecties

Den Haag, Gemeentemuseum.

Leiden, Prentenkabinet van de Rijksuniversiteit.