PhotoLexicon, Volume 4, nr. 6 (March 1987) (en)

Mark Kolthoff

Eric van ‘t Groenewout

Tineke de Ruiter


Mark Kolthoff’s involvement with photography arose by chance, when he became the personal assistant of Joris Ivens in 1929. Kolthoff played a major role in the area of worker photography in Amsterdam. He was interested in social photography, but also worked on portrait, advertising, and architectural photography. After May 1940, Kolthoff was no longer active as a photographer. He returned to painting once again, the area in which he had originally studied.




Mark Kolthoff was born on 21 January in Amsterdam.


He attends business school on the Marnixstraat in Amsterdam. The year he completed his study is unknown. He starts working at a business office.

Ca. 1922-‘24

Kolthoff chooses for a career as a painter instead of business. He has family living in Apeldoorn, where he prepares to take an entry exam to become a drawing teacher. He is instructed by Pieter Puype, a student of August Allebé. After one year, he receives additional lessons in Amsterdam from G.B.J. Westermann, in preparation for the entry exam at the RABK (Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten, ‘National Academy of Fine Arts’).


Kolthoff attends the RABK in Amsterdam, with significant attention devoted to anatomical and figure drawing. Kolthoff’s interest, however, leans toward Cubist painting. In about 1927, he visits Piet Mondrian in Paris.


Kolthoff weds Hetty Wolf. The couple moves into a former ‘pakhuis’ (storehouse) on the Rusland in Amsterdam, with the interior furnished at their request by Gerrit Rietveld and Truus Schröder. Kolthoff earns a meagre living by painting naturalistic portraits. Kolthoff and Hans Wolf, a brother of Hetty’s, establish a Dutch chapter of ‘Les Amis de Monde’ (‘The Friends of the World’), the friends’ club of the French cultural weekly Monde, under the editorial direction of H. Barbusse. Through their association with this organisation, Kolthoff and his wife enter the world of intellectuals and artists on the political left. They become involved in activities such as the IRH (Internationale Roode Hulp, ‘International Red Aid’) and the VVVC (Vereeniging Voor Volks Cultuur, ‘Association of the People’s Culture).

The Kolthoff’s home becomes a meeting place for painters, intellectuals, photographers, and filmmakers, including Harry van Kruiningen, Alex de Leeuw, Han Pieck, Wolf Suschitzky, and Hans Richter. Through Piek, Kolthoff meets cineaste Joris Ivens in a cafe, who asks him to become his assistant. Together with Joop Huisken, John Fernhout, Jan Hin, and Willem Bon, he becomes an employee of Studio Ivens. Kolthoff’s painting falls to the wayside.


Joris Ivens and Leo van Lakerveld found the VVVC (Vereniging voor Volkscultuur, ‘Association for the People’s Culture’) film collective, which produces the VVVC film news. Kolthoff and Ivens work on films such as Breken en Bouwen (‘Breaking and Building’), concerning the renovation of the building De Tribune (‘The Tribune’), on the Amstel River in Amsterdam.


Kolthoff is a co-founder of the Amsterdam branch of the VAF (Vereeniging van Arbeidersfotografen, ‘Association of Workers Photographers’).


Kolthoff is one of the organisers of the Internationaal Congres Arbeidersfotografie (‘International Conference Worker Photography’) at the RAI Conference Centre in Amsterdam, which is held after the international conference World Congress Against Imperialist War.


In issue nos. 10 (July 1933) and 11/12 (August 1933) of the magazine Links Richten (‘Aim left’), Kolthoff is cited as a member of the magazine’s editorial department.

Circa 1934

Together with Gerrit Kiljan, Paul Schuitema, and Piet Zwart, Kolthoff initiates the founding of a magazine Film en Foto (‘Film and Photo’), which nevertheless remains unpublished.


Kolthoff photographs the Jordaanoproer (‘Jordaan Uprising’) in Amsterdam, one of his last activities for the VAF.


For Max de Haas’s company Visiefilm (‘Vision Film’), Kolthoff works on the films, Door de Branding (‘Through the Breakers’), Een Bladzijde uit de Arbeid van het Dr. Aletta Jacobshuis (‘A Page from the Labours of the Dr. Aletta Jacob’s House’) and Broederschap (‘Brotherhood’). For a brief period, Kolthoff and Huisken run their own firm, called Studiefilm (‘Study Film’). They give lectures at schools using films, compiled with photomontages of Ivens’ material.


Via Mart Stam, Kolthoff meets Stam’s wife, Lotte Beese. Kolthoff teaches her the basic fundamentals of photography and works on several advertising assignments, including lightboxes for Stam.


Kolthoff participates in the exhibition Foto ’37. He resumes painting and becomes an active member of ‘De Onafhankelijken’ (‘The Independents’). Film and photography fall to the wayside.


Kolthoff becomes the secretary of ‘De Onafhankelijken’ (‘The Independents’). When this group becomes part of the ‘Kultuurkamer’ (‘Chamber of Culture’) under the Germans, he is removed from the membership list because he is a non-Aryan member. During the war, all of Kolthoff’s photo equipment is lost. After this time, he takes very few photographs.


Kolthoff goes into hiding in The Hague.


Kolthoff is a co-organiser of the exhibition Kunst in Vrijheid (‘Art in Freedom’).


At Mart Stam’s request, Kolthoff accepts a teaching position with the Opleiding tot Tekenleraren (‘School for Drawing Instructors’) at the Instituut voor Kunstnijverheidsonderwijs (‘Institute of Applied Art Education’, later the Rietveld Academy) in Amsterdam.


Queen Wilhelmina asks Kolthoff to assemble a jury for the Koninklijke Subsidie (‘Royal Subsidy’). He becomes the committee’s secretary.


Kolthoff retires and moves to Amsterdam near Nieuw-Loosdrecht. He is now able to devote his entire time to painting. He is named a Knight in the Order of the House of Orange-Nassau.


A growing interest in the photography of the 1930s sparks a renewed appreciation for Kolthoff’s photographic work, resulting in various exhibitions and publications. In 1986, he moves to the Rosa Spier Huis (a retirement home for artists) in Laren.


Kolthoff dies on 25 February.


Mark Kolthoff began photographing and filming immediately after his period of study at the *RABK (Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten, ‘National Academy of Fine Arts’) in Amsterdam. While this might not seem like a logical move, at a very early stage Kolthoff had entered into a conflict with his study programme stemming from his interest in Cubist painting. His professors at the academy, Antoon Derkinderen and Richard Roland Holst, were pioneers of monumental painting. They shared no affinity with avant-garde movements and easel painting. An intermezzo lasting approximately seven years, during which Kolthoff worked primarily with photography and film, was apparently what he needed to re-orient himself. The illustrator Han Pieck, for whom Kolthoff did advertising work and book covers among other things, had advised him to find a solution to his painting-related problems through photography. It was Pieck who also introduced him to the filmmaker Joris Ivens, the adjunct-director of the film and photo dealership CAPI. Ivens asked Kolthoff to be his personal assistant. In this manner, Mark Kolthoff the painter ended up working at Studio Ivens. ‘Kolt’, as Ivens called him, learned to film simply by doing. Ivens forced a camera into his hands and briefly explained the working process. ‘If you want to learn something about technique, then you’ll have to go to Van Es’ (CAPI’s repairman).

At Studio Ivens, there was an evident interest in both film and photography. In the 1930s, there was no clear boundary dividing the two disciplines: filmmakers shot photos, photographers shot film. In the view of Moholy-Nagy and others, photography was a training school for film. With Kolthoff, it was more of an interchange than a clear progression from photography to film. It was not until Ivens left for Poland in 1932 to shoot a film that Kolthoff began photographing on a serious basis. Prior to this time, however, Kolthoff had made stills and taken shots to document the filmmaking.

In Ivens’ extensive (German-oriented) library, Kolthoff came into contact with New Photography and was inspired by the books of A. Renger Patzsch and L. Moholy-Nagy. Yet he also came across work by John Heartfield and illustrations from German magazines such as the Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ, ‘Workers Pictorial Newspaper’) and the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung (BIZ, ‘Berlin Pictorial Newspaper’).

These photographic influences affected Kolthoff’s camerawork, with Ivens harbouring no appreciation for such extraordinary camera angles and diagonals. As he informed Kolthoff: ‘I don’t want those pretty pictures of yours, (…) I want simple images’. Ivens’ own images were sharp, concise, and rich in contrast, but void of diagonal camera angles.

Vice versa, film also had an influence on Kolthoff’s photography. To many filmmakers in the 1930s, the cameraman was the person in charge of the lighting: it all had to be managed with two lamps. Dark gaps in the image were to be avoided. When there was insufficient lighting for a long shot, one had to rely on numerous detail shots, as in Kolthoff’s film Breken en Bouwen (‘Breaking and Building’). Achieving a balance between light and dark and an attention to detail are elements found in Kolthoff’s photography.

Kolthoff’s work unmistakeably bears the hallmark of New Photography. The avant-garde photography of the 1920s and ’30s consisted of two clear components: aesthetic form and politics. Both are present in Kolthoff’s work, the first particularly in his autonomous shots, the second in his photos for the worker photographers.

It comes as no surprise that Kolthoff, who was strongly drawn to Cubism, displayed a predilection for the graphic effect of light and shadow and the aesthetic play of diagonals in his photography. His archive is filled with numerous shots of the city taken from a bird’s-eye perspective, in which the illusion of three dimensions is abandoned in favour of a new spatiality in the two-dimensional plane. Kolthoff’s oeuvre also includes several still lifes that are typically New Objectivist: a bike saddle, a pot of mustard, or a nutmeg grater, which are photographed sharp, clear, with an emphasis on surface texture.

Kolthoff accepted commissioned portrait work on a sporadic basis. He strived for a certain naturalness in these photos, by printing shots taken at unexpected moments. One portrait not falling into this category is a photo taken of his wife, Hetty, which works precisely because its pose is highly conceived.

What has been preserved of Kolthoff’s work are primarily his photos of labourers and the unemployed. He played a major role in the VAF (Vereeniging van Arbeidersfotografen, ‘Association of Workers Photographers’), an organisation founded in 1931 with the aim of supporting the proletariat in the face of capitalism. One of the VAF’s goals was to teach workers about photographic technique. Kolthoff contributed by organising excursions and holding informal talks with those who were interested.

Through the film and photo dealership CAPI, the ‘worker photographers’ received negative plates that were already past their expiration date. The only real disadvantage was that the exposure time had to be guessed, because the plates had become less sensitive to light. As a worker photographer, Kolthoff photographed life on the streets of Amsterdam, ships transporting goods unaffected by the economic crisis, protest demonstrations, the unemployed, and the Jordaanoproer (‘Jordaan Uprising’). In retrospect, he describes this work as ‘a journalistic sensation photography focussing on the life of the worker, with the most salient events recorded’. With drawing, Kolthoff had already been used to making notations everywhere he went. Accordingly, the switch to the ‘hunting sport’ of journalistic photography was not that big of a step. His subjects were usually photographed in a series of shots, taken from various camera angles. This approach is similar to the journalistic photography series appearing in the German photo magazine Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, but likewise points to his experience as a filmmaker. Kolthoff ‘s photos were based more on journalistic as opposed to political criteria: it was about the ‘scoop’, with currency and newsworthiness holding first priority. His photos were featured in magazines published by the communist press, e.g. De Tribune and Afweerfront (‘Defence Front’). Naturally, these publications chose shots that bolstered their own political message.

In 1937, Kolthoff quit with filmmaking and photography and returned to painting, which had remained his true passion. Looking back, Kolthoff believes this period of reflection may perhaps have influenced his interest in studying form. He nevertheless maintains that photography is too dissimilar from painting for it to have had any real influence. As a painter, the filling of the surface was an issue to be addressed from the very start; as a photographer, it was only in the darkroom that he begins to consider he framing of the image. Notwithstanding, it was not until the late 1930s, after Kolthoff experimented with new perspectives and approaches to filling the surface in photography, that he triumphed over his problems with painting and began to paint in a cubist style.

Kolthoff worked with a 4×4 Rolleiflex camera but made enlargements in the format 18×24. All of his worker photographer shots were taken with this camera. This stems from the fact that it was an easy camera to use on the street without being seen, as people were never certain when he was taking photos. Kolthoff also owned a Plaubel 6×9 camera, with which he took mainly portrait shots. In addition, he owned a modified 9×12 folding camera. Kolthoff used a Perutz fine-grain developer with coarse-grain film material, requiring high precision in terms of exposure and developing.

All that has survived of Kolthoff’s total photographic production are approximately 1,000 negatives. He destroyed some of his negatives himself during the war; others were simply lost. In spite of its small size, a resounding interest in Kolthoff’s oeuvre arose starting in 1978, with the emphasis on his worker photography. This area is likewise where his importance lay in the 1930s: firstly, through his own publications, secondly through his contribution to the formation of the worker photographers. Yet there is another aspect of his work that most certainly deserves attention, i.e. his autonomous photography. While Kolthoff’s intermezzo with photography and film was perhaps of less significance to his own development as a painter, there is no questioning its relevance to the history of photography and film in the Netherlands.


Primary bibliography

images in:

Filmliga 6 (maart 1933) 5, p. 130.

Filmliga 6 (augustus 1933) 9, omslag.

Filmliga 6 (september 1933) 10, p. 274.

Filmliga 7 (maart 1934) 3, omslag.

De Tribune 9 mei 1932.

Afweerfront (1932) 6, omslag.

Afweerfront nr. 21.

Wereldkroniek, met Lotte Beese.

Wij 2 (7 februari 1936) 1, p. 30.

Wij 2 (21 februari 1936) 3, p. 28.

Wereldkroniek (1937).

Amsterdam (De Schoonheid van ons land), Amsterdam (Contact) 1936, p. 10, 88.

Rondom de Zuiderzee (De Schoonheid van ons land), Amsterdam (Contact) 1937, p. 44.

Polder en Waterland (De Schoonheid van ons land), Amsterdam (Contact) 1941.

De Steden (De Schoonheid van ons land), Amsterdam (Contact) 1941, afb. 26.

Ad Knotter, Crisis in Amsterdam. Beelden uit de jaren dertig, Amsterdam (brochure Gemeentearchief) 1980.

Secondary bibliography

Mr. H. Scholte, Nederlandsche Filmkunst, Rotterdam (Brusse) 1933.

Evert van Uitert, Mark Kolthoff, Heemstede (Galerie De Bleeker) 1976.

Flip Bool e.a., De Bevrijde Camera, in Vrij Nederland bijvoegsel (15 mei 1976) 20.

Flip Bool, Kees Broos (red.), Fotografie in Nederland 1920-1940, Den Haag (Staatsuitgeverij) 1979.

Bert Hogenkamp, ‘Onze eigen fotografen’ 1920-1940, in Skrien (1979/1980) 92/93, p. 34-37.

Marleen Kox, Verslag onderzoek fotoarchieven, Amsterdam (Stichting Nederlands Foto-Archief) 1981.

Flip Bool, Jeroen de Vries (red.), De Arbeidersfotografen: camera en crisis in de jaren ’30, Amsterdam (Van Gennep/ Pegasus) 1982.

Jan Coppens, De bewogen camera. Protest en propaganda door middel van foto’s, Amsterdam (Meulenhoff/Landshoff) 1982.

Bert Hogenkamp, ‘Hier met de film’. Het gebruik van het medium film door de communistische beweging in de jaren twintig en dertig, in Cahiers over de geschiedenis van de CPN (april 1983) 8, p. 77-118.

Karel Dibbets, Frank van der Maden (red.), Geschiedenis van de Nederlandse film en bioscoop tot 1940, Weesp (Het Wereldvenster) 1986.

Evert van Uitert, Jacobien de Boer (red.), De kunst van Mark Kolthoff. Van realisme tot abstractie aspecten van het Nederlandse kunstleven in de periode 1930-1980, Rijswijk (Sijthoff Pers) 1986.

Bas Roodnat, Mark Kolthoffs ontwikkeling van figurist tot het abstracte, in NRC Handelsblad 3 oktober 1986.


Vereniging van Arbeidersfotografen, 1931- ca.1934.

Vereniging Voor Volks Cultuur.

De Onafhankelijken, 1929-1941.

Vrij Beelden, 1946-1950.

Creatie, Vereniging tot bevordering van Absolute Kunst, 1950-1953.

Liga Nieuw Beelden, 1955-1967.

De Ploegh, 1967-heden.

(Photo) Exhibitions

1932 (g) Amsterdam, RAI, Moeder en Kind.

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

1979/80 (g) Den Haag, Gemeentemuseum, Foto 20-40.

1980 (g) Amsterdam, Gemeentearchief, Crisis in Amsterdam. Beelden uit de jaren dertig.

1982 (g) Amsterdam, Glazen huis Amstelpark, De Jaren ’30, Amsterdamse foto’s van Mark Kolthoff en Wolf Suschitzky.

1986 (e) Amersfoort, De Zonnehof, Mark Kolthoff.

1986 (e) Amsterdam, Arti et Amicitiae, Mark Kolthoff.


1929-’30, Wij Bouwen, regie Joris Ivens, camera o.a. Mark Kolthoff.

1929-’32, Zuiderzee (vier versies), regie Joris Ivens, camera o.a. Mark Kolthoff.

1930 Breken en Bouwen, regie Joris Ivens, camera en montage Mark Kolthoff.

1930-’31 Philips-Radio Film, regie Joris Ivens, camera o.a. Mark Kolthoff.

1931 Creosoot, regie Joris Ivens, camera assistent Mark Kolthoff.

1933 Nieuwe Gronden, regie Joris Ivens, camera o.a. Mark Kolthoff.

ca. 1932-’33 De Graal, regie Jan Hin, camera Mark Kolthoff en Jan Hin.

ca. 1933-35 In het Westland (reclamefilm voor een maatschappij van petroleum- of gasbranders), camera en montage Mark Kolthoff.

1935 Door de Branding, regie Max de Haas, camera o.a. Mark Kolthoff.

1935 Broederschap, regie Max de Haas, camera o.a. Mark Kolthoff.

1935 Een bladzijde uit de arbeid van het Dr. Aletta Jacobshuis, regie Max de Haas, camera Mark Kolthoff.


Laren, Mark en Hetty Kolthoff, documentatie en mondelinge informatie.

Leiden, Prentenkabinet, bibliotheek en documentatiebestand.


Amsterdam, Gemeentearchief (negatieven en afdrukken).

Den Haag, Gemeentemuseum.

Leiden, Prentenkabinet van de Rijksuniversiteit.