PhotoLexicon, Volume 3, nr. 5 (September 1986) (en)

Jacob Olie

Anne Marie Boorsma

Ingeborg Th. Leijerzapf


By profession, Jacob Olie was an architect and a carpenter, as well as a teacher and the director of a vocational school. In our time, however, he is best known for his most important hobby: photography. Olie took thousands of photos with a camera he built himself, including shots of construction sites, canals, street corners, workplaces, houses, and monumental architecture in the city where he was born, Amsterdam. He also photographed landscapes and farms on the outskirts of the city, as well as on the countryside in other provinces. In Amsterdam, and later even outside the city, the photographing teacher/director Olie—along with his extensive camera equipment—was literally and figuratively a seen man.




Jacob Olie is born on 17 October as the son of Aagje Eelmers Mooy and Jacob Olie at Zandhoek No. 11 (today No. 10) in Amsterdam. His father runs a successful wooden raft company. His mother is the daughter of Eelmer Mooy, a commodore on the whaling ship Frankendaal. Even as a child, Olie shows a great interest in drawing and architecture: drawing facades and historic monumental buildings is his favourite activity.


Olie’s father dies on 21 October. He remains behind with his mother and his sister, Christina (Stijntje), who is five years older.


After completing his study at the French school on the Lindengracht, Olie becomes an apprentice with the architect H. Hana, from whom he receives drawing lessons for the duration of three years.


Olie begins working for the carpenter H. Lotz, to gain practical experience. In the winter months, when construction comes to a standstill, he perfects his skills in drawing and architectural theory together with his friend, Van Voornveld (later an instructor and a colleague of Olie’s at the vocational school).

Circa 1851-‘56

Olie is hired as a building supervisor with the architect J.H.W. Leliman (1828-1910). He assists with the restoration of historic buildings, primarily canal houses, and with the construction of the first bread factory in the Netherlands on the Vijzelgracht in Amsterdam (1856).


From 30 April to 25 June 1855, the first international photography exhibition is held at Arti et Amicitiae (designed by Leliman) on the Rokin in Amsterdam, organised by the Vereniging van Volksvlijt (‘Association of Industry’). Encouraged by its success, the association holds a second photography exhibition in 1858. Olie is likely to have come into contact with photography for the first time at these exhibitions, as it is during this period that he starts taking photographs. Olie sees photography as an ideal means to participate in his favourite hobby, i.e. the study and documentation of the architecture in his city.


This decade marks the first major period of Olie’s photographic activity. He photographs primarily in his immediate surroundings on the Zandhoek and the Realen Island in Amsterdam. He eventually sets up a second darkroom at a friend’s, Johan Rust, on the Singel. As a painter and drawer, Rust shares the same interest for topography and buildings. Rust was taught to paint by his uncle, Cornelis Springer. Olie and Rust stimulate each other in their work through their frequent outings together.


On 2 January, the first vocational school is opened in Amsterdam, founded by the Maatschappij tot Verbetering van de Werkende Stand (‘Society for the Improvement of the Working Class’), at its building on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal. Instructors are selected by J.H.W. Leliman, the board secretary E.S. Witkamp, and the chairman N. Tetterode. On Leliman’s recommendation, Olie is made an instructor in architectural and industrial drafting. At the same time, he continues working for Leliman.


Olie is chosen to be the director of the vocational school by his fellow colleagues. He quits his job with Leliman in order to devote his time entirely to education.


On 1 January, Olie becomes engaged to Carolina Augustina Blössman, seventeen years his junior, the first woman in the Netherlands to earn the certification ‘MO-tekenen’ (secondary school instructor’s certificate in drawing, Olie and J.A. Rust were the first men to obtain this certification). The couple marries on 23 October. They move to Huidekoperstraat 19 in Amsterdam. In this same year, Olie attends the world exhibition in Paris, where he purchases a lens. He takes only a few photos up until 1890, most likely due to his busy job as the vocational school’s director as well as his rapidly growing family.


On 21 December, Olie’s wife dies, just after the birth of their seventh child. Three of the seven children die in their youth. Olie gives up his work as an instructor at the evening drawing school in Abcoude, where he has taught for many years.


Olie resigns as director of the vocational school. He now has more time to photograph. A second period of major productivity commences. Olie goes on frequent outings and­—in addition to his cityscapes—begins regularly photographing farms and country estates outside the city.


In recognition of his seventieth birthday on 17 October, Olie receives a ‘factory camera’ from the students of the vocational school.


Jacob Olie dies in Amsterdam on 25 April.


Jacob Olie’s oeuvre is to be described as topographic photography of Amsterdam and its immediate surroundings. It comprises two periods: 1860 to 1870, a period in which he worked with the wet collodion process, chiefly in the neighbourhood of his home on the Zandhoek; 1890 to 1904, a period in which he worked with dry plates, allowing a much larger working radius and enabling him to take photos as well outside Amsterdam.

Although nothing is known about Olie’s training in photographic technique, one can only conclude that he had received the necessary formation to become a talented photographer. His training as an architectural draughtsman had taught him how to make accurate observations. He was familiar with the representation of spatial perspective, the development of a good composition, and the selection of an effective standpoint.

How Olie came into contact with photography cannot be determined with any certainty. He is likely to have been inspired by the photography exhibitions organised by the Vereniging van Volksvlijt (‘Association of Industry’) in 1855 and 1858. It is during this period that he is known to have started taking photographs.

Olie photographed in his free time. His purpose was nothing more than to build a personal archive of images for his own pleasure, featuring the buildings and street views he felt were beautiful or significant. It also includes images of the people he encountered. Olie had no artistic ambitions. He was a modest man who preferred not to be in the spotlight—whether it be his photography or his work. As an architectural draughtsman, he gave his fullest effort when working for the architectural firm of his teacher and employer, J.H.W. Leliman. Leliman himself worked primarily in the social charity building sector and is certain to have exercised influence on Olie’s attitude towards life. Through Leliman, Olie became involved with the Maatschappij tot Verbetering van de Werkende Stand (‘Society for the Improvement of the Working Class’). It was in the service of this organisation that Olie spent the rest of his working life, both as an instructor, and later, as a director of the vocational school that the society had founded.

In his first important period of photographic activity, Olie worked chiefly with the wet collodion process. He initially produced several amphitypes, but the negative-positive process ultimately became his preferred technique. It is likely that Olie had just started taking photos in the period the amphitype technique was being superseded by albumen prints made from wet collodion negatives. The collodion technique required that plates be coated just prior to exposure and developed immediately after the shot was taken. Because of this, Olie was never got too far away from home before having to literally run back and forth with his equipment from the dark room to the location of the shot—usually on the Zandhoek and other neighbourhoods on the Realeneiland (‘Realen Island’). Some photographers resolved this problem by setting up portable dark rooms, for instance in a tent or carriage. Having tired of the Realeneiland, Olie eventually set up a darkroom on the Singel at the home of his friend and colleague Johan A. Rust. In his second period of photographic activity, Olie worked with dry factory-manufactured plates. In comparison with his wet plates, these were less stark in contrast and richer in tone.

Olie photographed with a simple camera that he had made himself. It consisted of two small encasements that one could slide into each other, and initially, an extremely simple lens that caused blur along the edges. Olie’s photos from the 1890s were shot with a better lens, which did not have these problems. He was then likely using the lens he purchased in 1878 at the world exhibition in Paris.

The sharp focus in Olie’s photos from this latter period was in part influenced by the high shutter speeds, which he was then able to achieve. He constructed a shutter by introducing an ingenious system with a rubber band, which allowed him to take shots from 1/25 of a second to more than 1/1000 of a second. The rubber band allowed a small piece of board to snap shut in front of the lens. By tying knots in the rubber band, he could increase the tension in order to achieve a higher speed.

Surviving negatives dating from the wet collodion period are in the format of circa 9×12 cm (Olie cut the glass plates himself). For dry plates, he used the ‘ordinary rapidity’ plates manufactured by Marion & Co. of London, in the formats 9×12 and 12×16.5 cm.

Just as with his drawings, Olie always chose simple vantage points in his photography. When photographing people or houses, he usually stood directly in front of his subject. When he photographed a street, he preferred a high vantage point, e.g. from a window in a tall building or from a tower. He also took advantage of the perspective created by the canals, quay walls, and streets, in order to give his images greater depth. That Olie’s photos were virtually always ‘furnished’, with other residents of the city posing for his camera, was something unavoidable: the technology to avoid being seen while taking photos was as yet unavailable. That said, Olie is unlikely to have viewed the presence of people in his photos as something negative. The cityscapes of the highly esteemed topographic painter Cornelis Springer—the uncle of Olie’s friend, Rust—were also always filled with figures. Olie’s photography is completely in accordance with this genre of cityscapes.

Olie began with shooting portrait photos, typically of family, friends and acquaintances. In the garden behind his house, he had two somewhat primitive ‘studios’ set up. The first consisted of a sheet mounted on fencing, with a piece of fabric gathered in the form of a curtain draped over it. Attributes such as a small table and chair, along with a vase and flowers, were added to give the scene the semblance of a living room. A second ‘studio’ was located farther towards the rear of the garden. For the background of the portraits taken here, there was a fence with a decorative design that Olie had painted himself. In addition to these photos, he also took portrait photos on the street, most often group portraits of acquaintances, neighbours, or a random group of children.

Olie had no need to make a living from his photography. He was therefore able to photograph whatever interested him personally, e.g. ships’ wharfs, ships on the IJ river, houses, windmills, and people. The architecture of the city, as well as the people who lived there and added to its atmosphere, were the subjects that interested him. Also highly evident in his photography, is his personal involvement in new construction going on in the city. He sometimes photographed a building site at regular intervals, such as during the construction of the main post office on the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal.

In the 1890s, Olie made several ‘reportages’, i.e. a series of shots centring around one specific event. By this time, the technique was suited for doing this kind of work. The public’s general—and Olie’s own—interest in news items was growing. In 1891, for example, he did a reportage on a ship that was frozen on the IJ, which had gradually begun to break free of the ice. Other events such as military parades, the queen touring the city in her carriage, or the arrival of Paul Krüger (then president of South Africa) in Amsterdam, also served to inspire a series of photos.

Amsterdam was experiencing tumultuous times around the turn of the century. Socio-economic changes, the doubling of the city’s population, the new neighbourhoods that had been built, the rise of Socialism, and the birth of the labour movement were all factors dominating political developments. Olie recorded these changes without giving them all that much attention. He took shots of the labour strike of 1903, yet the photos suggest he was actually more interested in the construction of the barricades than the socio-political side of what was taking place.

In the 1890s, Olie frequently ventured outside the city, equipped with his camera. He took photos of the land, cows, and people, usually on the outskirts of Amsterdam, but sometimes when travelling farther into the provinces of North Holland and Utrecht. There are always several people posing proudly in front of their farmhouse door, their cows, or in the fields. He took many photos of Abcoude, where for years he had taught evening school and knew most of the town’s inhabitants.

With landscapes, Olie preferred the polders—probably the most photographed and perhaps the most painted landscape theme in the Netherlands in the final decades of the nineteenth century. While photography always remained Olie’s most important hobby, he continued to draw throughout his life. His oldest drawing book dates from the period 1865-’66, and includes numerous cityscapes of Amsterdam, particularly in the Zandhoek area. In another book preserved from the period 1872-’79, there are also studies made out on the countryside, in addition to cityscapes. There are also sketchbooks with drawings of the village ‘Lage Vuursche’, where the family occasionally spent their holidays, as well as a number of towns in the Netherlands and Belgium. Of further interest are a number of individual drawings and watercolours, done in the same manner as Cornelis Springer with historic houses from various cities placed adjacent to each other, thus creating a fictitious row of seventeenth-century facades. As an extremely precise person, Olie even noted down the city in which each house was located. Finally, there is also a sketchbook depicting various ‘types’ of people, e.g. a woman selling water from the dunes, an organ player, and a female fish-seller. Olie also possessed a small collection of eighteenth-century architectural drawings, including several by Daniel Marot and Jacob Otten Husley.

Olie’s photographic oeuvre received no public notoriety in his own day. It fulfilled no particular function in societal terms, as did Pieter Oosterhuis’ topographic oeuvre, which served an important niche of the then emerging tourist industry. The significance of Olie’s oeuvre today is primarily due to the passage of time. His photos have become historical documents of an era that now lies far behind us, depicting places, situations and people that no longer exist. Moreover, Olie furnished his photos—at any rate his later work—with information concerning the date, location, and name of the people he portrayed. This bestows his oeuvre with even greater significance as a source for historical research.

An appreciation for Olie’s photography based solely on these grounds, however, would do his achievements injustice. He did more than just create recognisable images for the generations that succeeded him. Admittedly, he was not a member of the avant-garde, nor was he an important artist in his day. In the midst of his circle of friends—which included J.H.W. Leliman, August Allebé, E.S. Witkamp and H.P. Berlage—he rightfully placed himself always in a modest second place. Yet Olie succeeded in building a photographic oeuvre of a quality that is consistent and above the norm, not so much in terms of technique, but rather from a visual and compositional standpoint.


Secondary Bibliography

Auteur onbekend, JB Olie JB.Zn, Oud- Directeur Der Eerste Ambachtsschool in Nederland, 1834-17 October-1904, in De Bouwwereld 3(19 oktober 1904) 42, p. 333-335.

Auteur onbekend, Personalia (overlijdensbericht), in De Bouwwereld 4 (26 april 1905) 17, p. 138.

I.H. van Eeghen, Amsterdam in de tweede helft der XIX e eeuw gezien door Jacob Olie Jacobsz, Amsterdam (uitgegeven door het genootschap Amstelodamum ter gelegenheid van het zestigjarig bestaan) 1960.

I.H. van Eeghen, De foto’s van Jacob Olie, in Amstelodamum, maandblad voor de kennis van Amsterdam. Orgaan van het genootschap Amstelodamum, 47 (juni 1960) p. 101-106.

Joost Andriessen, Jacob Olie, eerste Amsterdamse amateur, in Foto 15 (juni 1960) 6, p. 248-250.

M.A. Knopper, Jacob Olie, in Focus 47 (maart 1962) 7, p. 6-10.

C.C.G. Quarles van Ufford, Amsterdam voor ‘t eerst gefotografeerd, 80 stadsgezichten uit de jaren 1850-1870, Amsterdam (J.H. De Bussy) 1968.

Kees Nieuwenhuyzen, Jacob Olie, Amsterdam gefotografeerd 1860-1905, Amsterdam (Van Gennep) 1973.

Bas Roodnat, Jacob Olie, een begenadigd en bezeten fotograaf, Vroeger Amsterdam in een uniek fotoboek, in NRC Handelsblad 17 november 1973.

Auteur onbekend, Jacob Olie fotografeerde Amsterdam van 1860-1905, Utrechts Nieuwsblad 14 december 1973.

Ben Kroon, Amsterdam onder stoom, beeld van de vorige eeuw in Historisch museum, in De Tijd 14 maart 1974.

Kees Nieuwenhuyzen, De vroegste foto’s van Amsterdam, Amsterdam (Van Gennep) 1974.

Auteur onbekend, Kijkboek rondom eeuwwisseling, Het werk van de eerste Amsterdamse fotografen, in Trouw 29 oktober 1974.

Ben Kroon, De Oudezijds Achterburgwal, in De Tijd 6 december 1974.

Lisette Lewin, Foto’s uit de 19e eeuw zijn schilderijen, in NRC Handelsblad 15 november 1974.

Auteur onbekend, Boeken over Amsterdam, in De Volkskrant 6 december 1974.

Willem K. Coumans, Jacob Olie fotografeerde roerig Amsterdam in alle rust, in Foto 29 (januari 1974) 1, p. 51

Jan Coppens, Jacob Olie en Amsterdam, in Foto 30 (december 1975) 12, p. 72-73.

Auteur onbekend, Tentoonstelling over veelzijdige Jacob Olie, in NRC Handelsblad 6 mei 1975.

Auteur onbekend, Jacob Olie, in Groene Amsterdammer 26 november 1975.

Auteur onbekend, De mens Jacob Olie, in Het Parool 26 november 1975.

Auteur onbekend, Unieke tentoonstelling in gemeente archief te Amsterdam, Jacob Olie meer dan fotograaf, in De Waarheid 29 november 1975.

Jan Coppens en A. Alberts, Een camera vol stilte, Nederland in het begin van de fotografie 1839-1875, Amsterdam (Meulenhoff) 1976.

Debora J. Meijers, G.S. Hoogewoud, Jan Coppens, Jacob Olie fotograaf, uitgave bij de tentoonstelling van foto’s uit het Gemeentearchief van Amsterdam, 7 t/m 30 april 1976, in het ‘Glazen Huis’ in het Amstelpark.

Catalogus tent. Het fotoportret, Nederlandse en Vlaamse portretfotografie van 1845-1922, Assen (Drents Museum) 10 juli-12 september 1976; idem Eindhoven (Van Abbemuseum) 1976.

Rolf D. Wagner, Olie und Berssenbrugge, Zwei Pioniere der niederlandischen Sozialfotografie, in Tendenzen (München, Damnitz Verlag) 19 (juli/augustus 1978) 120, p. 18- 22.

S. Montag, De opblazer (essay over twee foto’s van Olie, gemaakt in de Vijzelstraat te Amsterdam in 1891), in NRC Handelsblad 4 november 1978.

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


1974 (g) Amsterdam, Amsterdams Historisch Museum, Amsterdam onder stoom.

1975 (e) Amsterdam, Gemeentearchief, Jacob Olie en Amsterdam.

1976 (g) Amsterdam, Expositieruimte van de Stichting Wonen, Leidsestraat 5, Jacob Olie en het Amsterdamse stadsbeeld nu (met foto’s van Ger van der Vlugt).

1976 (g) Assen, Drents Museum, Het fotoportret 1845-1922

1977 (g) Eindhoven, Van Abbemuseum, Het groepsportret 1845-1922.

1979 (e) Amsterdam, Het Glazenhuis, in het Amstelpark, Jacob Olie, fotograaf, foto’s uit het Gemeentearchief van Amsterdam.


Amsterdam, Gemeentearchief, afdeling Topografische Atlas.

Leiden, Prentenkabinet, bibliotheek en documentatiebestand.


Amsterdam, Gemeentearchief (negatieven, foto’s, tekeningen).