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

Maria Toby

Ingeborg Th. Leijerzapf


Maria Toby’s documentary photographic oeuvre is a form of social history, bearing significance primarily at the local level. Toby photographed day-to-day life of the mixed population in the ‘run-down’ neighbourhoods of Crooswijk and Oude Noorden (‘Old North’) in the city where she lived, Rotterdam. Whether close to home or travelling in France and Spain, people are the central theme in her photo reportages.




Maria Jozefa Theresia Bos (later Toby) is born in Alkmaar on 19 March. At the age of eleven, she moves to Rotterdam.


Toby studies to become a nursery school teacher.


Toby works as a nursery school teacher in Bleiswijk and Rotterdam.


Toby (maiden name Bos) marries J.B.M. (Sjef) Toby, an artist in Rotterdam.


During these years, Toby’s life takes a turn when she is diagnosed with cancer. As a consequence, her favourite hobby—making wall tapestries—becomes too demanding physically. Toby finds a new life pursuit by photographing her immediate surroundings, i.e. the neighbourhoods Crooswijk and Oude Noorden (‘Old North’) in Rotterdam.


Stemming from an exhibition of Toby’s photos in Gallery 3001 in the neighbourhood Oude Noorden, the Rotterdam City Archive commissions her to make a reportage inside the homes of people living in the neighbourhoods Crooswijk and Oude Noorden.


Starting in October, Maria is unable to continue photographing due to health-related issues.


Following a debilitating illness of more than ten years, Maria Toby-Bos dies on 8 October in Rotterdam.


Maria Toby first became familiar with the visual possibilities of photography upon entering her own neighbourhood equipped with a camera. Her desire was to record the customs and living circumstances of the largely foreign population that resided there. In the beginning, she did this merely for her own pleasure. As she became more involved, however, it soon became more than just a personal hobby. Having grown up in an environment where culture was given ample attention—her father was an architect—Toby’s hobbies have always involved creative endeavours. She started out with making wall tapestries, then moved on to photography, and in the final stage of her life, she ‘moulded’ puppets from papier-mâché, which she subsequently painted.

Toby learned the basic fundamentals of photographic technique from her husband, Sjef Toby, who had learned to shoot and print photos during his study at the ABK (Academie van Beeldende Kunsten, ‘Academy of VisualArts’) in Rotterdam. In order to obtain a better understanding of the technique involved, Maria Toby also took a course in photography at the Leidse Onderwijs Instellingen (‘Leiden Educational Facilities’). Yet the actual act of photographing, i.e. ‘seeing’, she learned on her own. Toby’s friend and colleague, Marrie Bot, with whom she frequently discussed her work, was also a stimulating influence in this area. Toby was also inspired by a variety of photobooks: especially the photos of Walker Evans and Diane Arbus made a big impression on her.

Following a period of experimenting with techniques (including the making of photograms) and searching for subjects that were suitable—whether when travelling abroad or simply at home in the Netherlands—Toby finally found the area of photography that interested her the most: social documentary reportage photography. In her own surroundings—the Rotterdam neighbourhoods Crooswijk and Oude Noorden (‘Old North’)—Toby ventured out to photograph anything that drew her attention. During this work, she came to the realisation that the homes, streets, people, and scenes she was photographing would in the unforeseeable future become a thing of the past, due to the planned rehabilitation of these neighbourhoods. This thought inspired Toby to document neighbourhood life systematically in photographs. Her attention was more focussed on the neighbourhood’s inhabitants, as opposed to the condition of the housing’s architecture or the decay of the city’s streets. It was easiest for her to quickly make contact with the children in the neighbourhood: her experience as a nursery school teacher undoubtedly helped her in this respect.

Toby’s documentary photographic work drew the attention of the Rotterdam City Archive. This public organisation was every bit as interested as Toby in the documentation of the city’s older neighbourhoods, prior to their demolition. The city archive asked Toby to expand her activities in the neighbourhood by photographing the inhabitants as well inside their homes. This stimulus gave her the strength to make various reportages indoors, in spite of the increasing discomfort brought on by her illness. Thanks to her photographic activity in the neighbourhood and the neighbourhood committee’s active involvement, Toby had built up a substantial number of valuable contacts and was welcomed by the people whom she wished to photograph. In light of the overall development of Toby’s photography, these final reportages are to be considered as her best work. They radiate a warm compassion that bridges the distance that typically arises between the photographer and his subject.

Toby also had plans to make a reportage series on the ‘kleine middenstanders’: small businesses in which the boss and the most important employee were one in the same. For this proposed project, she was only able to carry out a photo series on a small tailoring company.

Toby produced her documentary reportages in black-and-white, primarily with a Rollei 35mm camera. She generally preferred this lightweight camera– with its extremely quiet shutter release—to her Nikon camera. She also liked to give the impression that she was an amateur, so that people in the streets would feel more at ease and allow themselves to be photographed with less embarrassment. Toby wished to obtain an effect that was abstractly graphic—something that was easily achieved in black-and-white. Toby’s final photographic work especially draws significant attention: she chose vantage points that were in close proximity to her subject, consequently expressing her close personal involvement. At the same time, however, she kept enough distance to avoid curiosity based purely on sensation. At no point are the individuals portrayed lacking in dignity.

In Toby’s development as a photographer, one can perceive a rapid growth in the technical and aesthetic quality of her work. Although she had probably not yet achieved a pinnacle in her work, she certainly attained the level at which a photographer receives recognition from a much broader public audience. Maria Toby’s photographic work can be situated within the tradition of the post-war ‘human interest’ reportage photography. She approached her subjects unreservedly, but with respect. She rarely photographed ‘candidly’ and showed a social interest in her work that primarily focussed on the individual and the positive aspects of that person’s being. Outside the Netherlands, her oeuvre will fail to draw any attention. In the local context, however, it serves as a valuable historical document. In a larger sense, it offers a penetrating image of a marginal living environment.


Primary bibliography

images in:

NRC-Handelsblad, Zaterdags bijvoegsel, 27 september 1975.

Trouw 16 maart 1979.

Oostergids 15 maart 1979.

Tentoonstellings Nieuws RKS 21 april 1981; 22 mei 1981.

De Havenloods 1 mei 1981.

Secondary bibliography

Auteur onbekend, Expositie Maria Toby, Foto’s die vragen stellen, in De Havenloods 14 maart 1979 (met foto’s).

Geeja Oldenbeuving, Leven in oude wijken op foto’s van Toby, in Het Vrije Volk 5 maart 1981 (met foto’s).

Auteur onbekend, Maria Toby fotografeert oude wijken, in Berg en Blijpost 19 maart 1981 (met foto).

Jaap Koopmans, Fotografen tonen het veranderde stadsbeeld, in Rotterdams Nieuwsblad 23 maart 1981 (met foto).


1979 (e) Rotterdam, Gallery 3001, Straatbeelden van Het Oude Noorden en Croosivijk.

1980 (g) Rotterdam, Willebrordusstraat 92 (buurtcentrum Liskwartier), samen met Marrie Bot.

1981 (e) Rotterdam, De Kijkkist (Rotterdamse Kunststichting).


1975 Stichting Amateurfotografie en -cinematografie, wedstrijd ‘vrouw-en-foto-van-het- jaar’ (categorie 10e t/m 24e prijs).

1975 NRC-Handelsblad, Zaterdags bijvoegsel, wedstrijd ‘Fotografeer een etalage’ (2e prijs).


Leiden, Prentenkabinet, documentatiebestand.

Rotterdam, J.B.M. Toby, mondelinge informatie.

Rotterdam, Marrie Bot, mondelinge informatie.


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

Den Haag, Rijksdienst Beeldende Kunst (foto’s voor kijkmappen; aangekocht via de Nederlandse Kunststichting in 1980).

Rotterdam, Gemeentearchief (foto’s).

Rotterdam, Rotterdamse kunststichting (foto’s).