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

Adolph Schaefer

Herman J. Moeshart


However small it may be, the photographic oeuvre of Adolph Schaefer occupies a unique place in the history of Dutch photography. His undertaking to photograph the Borobudur and other treasures of art on Java is not only one of the very early attempts to apply photography in scientific research, in this case archaeology, but moreover represents the first Dutch governmental commission for a professional photographer. Schaefer’s photographic activities can e followed closely over several years, thanks to his letters preserved in the archive of the Colonial Ministry, in the National Archive.



circa 1842

Adoph Schaefer arrives from Dresden, Germany in The Hague. The date and place of his birth are unknown. Presumably he came to The Netherlands around 1842 hoping to earn an adequate income by teaching the technique of the daguerreotype and making portraits.


From 1 January to 14 February Adolph Schaefer has a photographic studio in The Hague at Hekkelaan L 247, adjacent to the Willemshospitaal.

In the spring Schaefer visits Baron Ph.F.B. von Siebold at Leiden to ask his assistance in obtaining a free passage to the Dutch East Indies, to try his luck there as a photographer. On 1 May Von Siebold writes a letter of recommendation to the Colonial Ministry. This is followed by a royal decree on 15 June allowing Schaefer to go to the Indies, with a commission to provide photographic support for the scientific research of the Dutch archaeologist W.A. van den Ham, who had also been sent there.

In November Schaefer goes to Paris in commission from the Colonial Ministry, to acquire the necessary equipment for his proposed journey to the Dutch East Indies. He buys a half plate camera from Charles Chevalier, with a prism, parallel mirror, telescopic and microscopic lens, and a camera for 1/4 and 1/6 plates with the accessories, 400 large plates, 150 small plates and another 200 plates in various formats. The whole equipment, consisting of 10 wooden crates and 49 lead drums for plates and chemicals, costs 8882 francs, and is paid for by the Colonial Ministry as an advance on Schaefer’s expected services.

While in Paris, as he reports in one of his letters, he takes advantage of the opportunity to visit the best photographic ateliers there and receive instruction in the latest developments. The Dutch ambassador in Paris arranges an introduction to L.J.M. Daguerre himself, who shares information about his latest technical improvements with him.

Schaefer returns to The Netherlands via Germany, presumably to visit his family before his departure for the East.


On 4 February Schaefer embarks for Batavia on the sailing ship Diligentia. He arrives there in June. In the first months after his arrival he is primarily occupied with making portraits. In the meantime, negotiations are under way regarding his work for the authorities in the Dutch East Indies.


In January he receives his first assignment, to photograph objects of art in the collection of the Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen (Batavian Society for Arts and Sciences). He takes 66 daguerreotypes of Hindu sculptures from this collection.

After this project he goes to the Kedu Residentie, where between 29 July and 16 August he takes pictures of the Borobudur. He submits 58 daguerreotypes of the Borobudur as a sample. Late in 1845 the archaeologist W.A. van den Ham returns a none too positive report about the practicability of the daguerreotypes for scientific research. In view of this report, the high financial demands of Schaefer and the sudden death of Van den Ham, depriving the work of the necessary scientific guidance, the authorities decide to stop the project.

circa 1846-48

Schaefer establishes himself as a photographer at Semarang.


After Semarang from the summer of 1848 through July, 1849, he attempts to earn a living as a photographer in Surabaya, Madura and Sumanep.


In August he is recalled to Batavia to deal with the high debt he has built up. His photographic equipment is sold at public auction to cover his debts.

After that nothing more is recorded about the totally destitute Adolph Schaefer. It is not known whether he returned to Europe.


Adolph Schaefer was an enterprising man. After having exchanged Dresden for The Hague, he apparently conceived a plan to go to the Dutch East Indies as a photographer. With that in mind, Schaefer visited Baron Ph.F.B. Von Siebold, the famous authority on Japan, who had a great deal of influence at the Colonial Ministry, and asked for his recommendation on a request that the Ministry cover the costs of his passage to the Dutch Indies. He would later repay the costs by carrying out photographic contracts for the Gouvernement of the Indies. For the Colonial Ministry this offer came at a convenient time. In November, 1840, the Medical Officer 3rd Class, I. Munnick, had been sent to the Indies with a ‘heliographic apparatus of Daguerre’, but his assignment to photograph buildings, landscapes and antiquities had produced only disappointments. Now that a professional photographer presented himself, they were delighted with his his proposal. In this way Schaefer became the first professional photographer in The Netherlands to obtain a government commission.

Schaefer’s origins and education are unknown; when he settled in The Hague he was already a daguerreotypist. In The Hague he advertised that he was prepared to teach others the skills of making daguerreotypes. Von Siebold was full of praise for the quality of Schaefer’s daguerreotypes. He had had the opportunity to compare these with what was being done in Paris in this field, and came to the conclusion that ‘Schaefer’s daguerreotypes compare with the best that are being produced there today.’

How greatly Adolph Schaefer’s expedition appealed to the people of his time is shown by the discount that the shipping line gave on his passage to Batavia out of their enthusiasm. On his arrival there the Gouvernement presented him with a contract running to January, 1845. He would receive a monthly advance of 325,- guilders; the contract required that he must repay this advance with his photographic work, but this work had yet to be arranged. The Batavian Society of Arts and Sciences was asked to propose art objects to be photographed by Schaefer. They suggested the Borobudur, in the Residence of Kedu, and also their own collection of Hindu sculptures. The Society also let the Governor General know that the prices asked by Schaefer were much higher than those current in Europe, and that an enormous amount of money would be needed to acquire a number of the photographs large enough to be of use in the archaeological research.

The prices that Schaefer was asking were indeed high: a large daguerreotype was to cost 150 guilders, a medium-sized one 120, and a small one 50 gulden, while in The Netherlands at the time the price, certainly for small daguerreotypes, was under ten guilders. On the other hand, one must keep in mind that Schaefer had to repay his debt to the Gouvernement. The Batavian Society arrived at an agreement with Schaefer for photographing their collection of sculptures against a payment of 800 guilders. Schaefer apparently had a weak bargaining position, because he consented to make a total of 66 daguerreotypes of Hindu sculptures and some other antiquities, a number that certainly was entirely out of proportion with the price agreed upon.

After completing this task, Schaefer went to the Surakarta Residentie, where he met with the archaeologist W.A. van den Ham to discuss his assignment at the Borobudur, before travelling to the Residence of Kedu with his luggage to begin his great work there.

Considered in retrospect, the results of his first work at Borobudur can certainly not be called bad. Schaefer succeeded in giving the sculptures and reliefs that he photographed there the right lighting, to give them some three-dimensionality. The daguerreotypes reveal evidence of his technical skill, but do show traces of the primitive circumstances under which he had to work. He had no adequate darkroom in which to make his plates and finish the photographs; wind and dust entered the room made available to him in the government buildings near the Borobudur. There was an additional problem: the galleries in the Borobudur were too narrow to permit sufficient distance from the reliefs. Schaefer had to photograph the reliefs in sections and subsequently make the order of the plates clear by making mosaics of them. Van den Ham was of the opinion that the bas-reliefs should be on one plate in their entirety. It was technically impossible for Schaefer to do this. Van den Ham believed that the succession of the reliefs could not be seen with certainty from the plates, which reduced the scientific value of the project. He noted this as an important criticism in his raport. Schaefer had however taken this into account: he had had some successive shots overlap somewhat. No less problematic in the eyes of the archaeologist Van den Ham was apparently the way in which a camera records things. Where a draughtsman is able to eliminate undesirable irregularities, the camera records the existing situation: the caved in sections, collapsed sections and cracks in the reliefs were as clearly visible as the sculptures themselves, and obscured the idea of the original conception. Van den Ham was presumably more interested in the composition and narrative of the reliefs than in their present condition. He also had his doubts about the possibility of being able to make proper engravings from these daguerreotypes, something which was necessary for any future publication on the Borobudur.

In the meantime calculations and plans were being made for the continuation of Schaefer’s work. He would need five years to record the Borobudur in its entirety, and between four and five thousand plates. He declared that he was prepared to take on this massive task, but coupled this with the request that he be appointed a civil servant in special service, with a regular income and a pension for himself, his wife and children back in Germany. If necessary, he would accept a sum of 150,000,- guilders, divided over the years it would take him to complete the project. The Gouvernement did not appreciate this proposal; it found these demands too high. As fate would have it, Van den Ham died at precisely this point, so that the scientific guidance that was thought indispensable could no longer be provided. The Gouvernement then decided to call a halt to the project.

Schaefer received permission to go to Semarang and set up as a photographer there. It was hoped that through his work he could repay his debts – which, including all the advances on his travel, his equipment and his continuing living costs had now risen to 24,240.90 guilders. As might have been foreseen, Schaefer failed in this. After several months reports reached the Governor General from Semarang that Schaefer had almost no clients. He was then given permission to move to Surabaya, Madura and Sumanep, but in August, 1849, he was summoned to Batavia for a definitive settlement of his debts. He was unable to pay them, so his photographic equipment was sold at public auction, raising only 227.14 guilders, so that the Gouvernement was forced to pay the other debts from its own pocket. It is not known what happened to the unfortunate Schaefer after that. He was left to his fate in the Dutch Indies without any means of making a living.

The failure of this first Dutch governmental commission was a sad affair, without doubt to be attributed to an overly naive attitude on the part of the Dutch government and the authorities in the Dutch Indies with regard to its financial aspects. Nevertheless, it is significant that so soon after the discovery of photography they were willing to provide funds to apply the medium to scientific research. The motivation for this undertaking was presumably the idea that there would be international interest in a publication about Indonesian antiquities, a plausible idea, given the great interest in all things Oriental in those years. The successful book Excursions Daguerriennes, published in 1842 by N.P. Lerebours, might have given rise to this idea. The engravings in this book, made from daguerreotypes by the French painter Horace Vernet and his nephew, the painter/publisher Frédéric Goupil-Fesquet, depict monuments from the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, the Near East, Russia and the United States. Additional similar publications appeared in the second half of the 1840s in France and England. A book prepared from Schaefer’s daguerreotypes would however differed from these publications because the emphasis would have been on the detailed studies needed for scientific research; it would probably have contained no survey photographs of the monuments in the landscapes surrounding them.

Although Schaefer’s daguerreotypes never fulfilled their intended function, they remain unique documents as the oldest photographic depictions of the antiquities on Java.


Secondary bibliography

Dagblad van ‘s Gravenhage en Zuid-Holland 2 februari 1843.

Javasche Courant 22 februari 1845.

Le Moniteur des Indes-Orientales et Occidentales (Revue coloniale), Deuxième Partie, Premier Trimestre de 1845, p. 4.

F.C. Wilsen, Boro-Boedoer op het eiland Java, Leiden (E.J. Brill) 1873 (bewerkte uitgave door Dr. C. Leemans), p. VIII-XII.

N.J. Krom, Inleiding tot de Hindoe-Javaansche Kunst, Den Haag 1920, p. 10.

J. Geselschap, De Fotografie te ’s-Gravenhage (ongepubliceerde lijst van 19de eeuwse fotografen in Den Haag, aanwezig in het Gemeentearchief te Den Haag).

John Bastin and Bea Brommer, Nineteenth Gentury Prints and Illustrated Books of Indonesia (A descriptive bibliography), Utrecht/Antwerpen (Het Spectrum) z.j., p. 168.

H. Mensonides, Een nieuwe kunst in Den Haag, in jaarboek Die Haghe, Den Haag 1977, p. 97.

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

H.J. Moeshart, Daguerreotypiën van Adolph Schaefer, in De Leidse Post 16 april 1980.

H.J. Moeshart, Daguerreotypes by Adolph Schaefer, in History of Photography 9 (1985) 3, p. 211-218.

H.J. Moeshart, De Borobudur voor het eerst gefotografeerd, in Verre Naasten Naderbij 19 (1985) 2, p. 56-62 (uitgave van het Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde te Leiden).


1980 (e) Leiden, Prentenkabinet van de Rijksuniversiteit.


Den Haag, Nationaal Archief.

Den Haag, Gemeentearchief.


Leiden, Prentenkabinet van de Rijksuniversiteit.