PhotoLexicon, Volume 5, nr. 8 (March 1988) (en)

Hans van de Waal: A Place for Photography

Mattie Boom


In the 1950s, the collecting of photographs was still viewed with scepticism in the Netherlands. When an institution such as the Leiden University Print Room acquired the photography collection of Auguste Grégoire, an amateur photographer/collector in The Hague, there were many who felt that its director, H. van de Waal, a professor of art history, had ‘cheapened’ himself with a collector’s object of this nature. The lack of understanding on the part of the museum and art historical world, however, did not stop Van de Waal from making a serious start with the practicing of the history of photography in the Netherlands and allowing the Grégoire collection to grow into one of the largest in the country in this area.

While there had always been a certain tradition and documentation in the area of the history of photography in other European countries, in the Netherlands the documentation, collecting, and research had not yet even begun. One positive aspect of this loose-ended situation was the collection of Auguste Grégoire, who had started gathering examples of different photographic techniques and genres starting in the 1930s. Grégoire also professed his passion for collecting in the publication Honderd Jaar Fotografie in Nederland (‘One Hundred Years of Photography in the Netherlands’), which appeared in 1948. At the time when Van de Waal acquired the collection in 1953, it comprised several thousand photographs. It was Van de Waal’s plan to have this collection ‘grow into a historical overview of the development of photography in the Netherlands, in which the most noteworthy movements and the most important photographers are represented by several representative specimens.'[[1]] He was thinking of the example set by the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. This institution had received photographic work from practitioners of the new medium, starting from the time of photography’s first presentation in 1839. One of the problems of establishing a photo collection—more so than with other collections—was the matter of what should be collected and what should not. Van de Waal recognised three qualities in a photograph that made it ‘collectable’. A photograph could be significant because it represented one of the many movements and techniques in the history of photography. Next, there was the artistic quality: at this point in time, there was no place in the Netherlands where photographic art was collected in the same manner that other forms of contemporary art were collected. A third quality was the value of the photograph as a document. The photograph recorded people and other matters from the past, just as the print and the drawing had done before. As such, it allows the present-day observer to see how people and events were at one point perceived. Van de Waal’s aim, however, was to be extremely selective in his approach to collecting photographs from this last category, as: ‘practically every photo has a documentary significance in one way or another.’ [[2]]

The new photography collection of the Leiden University Print Room was expanded with donations by private citizens, donations made by photographers, purchases made at auction, and photographs purchased from contemporary photographers. In the very same year that the Grégoire collection was acquired, the ‘Fotografisch Museum’ of the BNAFV (Bond van Nederlandse Amateur Fotografen Verenigingen, ‘Federation of Netherlands Amateur Photographers Associations’) was donated to the Print Room. Another important donation—from the Rijksmuseum van Volkenkunde (‘National Museum of Ethnology’)—was a series of daguerreotypes taken by the photographer Adolf Schaefer of the Borobudur Temple in the early days of photography. In 1960, portraits from the Galerie Contemporaine in France were acquired, which included photographs by Nadar. In 1961, the Print Room purchased an album with salt prints by the British photographer J.J.F. Forrester. In 1962, fifteen photographs by Eadward Muybridge were received from the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, in exchange for several prints by Emmy Andriesse. Naturally, the collection was also augmented with works by Dutch photographers, including Albert Greiner, Alexandrine Tinne, Louis Wegner, and Carl E. Mögle. Furthermore, numerous daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes, cartes de visite, stereographs, and a variety of albums were added to the collection. Twentieth-century photography was also represented. In 1957, Paul Citroen’s photo collage Grossstadt was acquired. Other specimens of twentieth-century photography in the collection were photographs by Emmy Andriesse, Henri Berssenbrugge, Erwin Blumenfeld, Theo van Doesburg, Bernard Eilers, Jacob Merkelbach, Cas Oorthuys, Richard Polak, Paul Schuitema, Piet Zwart, as well as Erich Salomon, whose work was exhibited for the first time in the Netherlands in the 1950s. Attention was also inevitably given to contemporary photographic art: the collection was supplemented with photographs by Livinus van de Bundt, Lucien Clergue, Leonard Freed, Paul Huf, Nico Jesse, Pim van Os, Sanne Sannes, and Steef Zoetmulder. Photographs were also occasionally acquired based solely on their documentary significance: in 1956, press photographs of the gala dinner held on the occasion of Princess Beatrix’s birthday were purchased from the ANP news agency. By the beginning of the 1960s, the Print Room’s photography collection had grown to include approximately 15,000 photographs, as well as hundreds of cameras, viewfinders, and other devices. It also had 3,000 books in its possession. These additions to the collection were shown at exhibitions organised on an incidental basis, held at the Print Room or elsewhere. [[3]]

Van de Waal’s writings on photography centred on the theme of the medium as reflection and vision: it could imitate and yet still be creative. The motive for this theme was the question that had always been posed throughout photography’s history: whether photography was to be considered a form of visual art. It was a matter undoubtedly laid before Van de Waal on countless occasions at this point in time. Van de Waal first approached this problem in a lecture presented on the occasion of the opening of the 16e Nationale Kerstsalon van Fotografische Kunst (’16th National Christmas Salon of Photographic Art’) held in 1954. He stated that photography, since its introduction, had been poised between two extremes: imitation and creativity. In the nineteenth century, photography was generally welcomed with enthusiasm: ‘What people valued more than anything in those years was the ability to depict ordinary, everyday life in an unembellished manner. More than ever, the photo fascinated, made nothing prettier, concealed nothing, showed reality—as one, in unforgiveable naivety, perceived it—as it was. It was the time in which the ordinary man began to demand attention, not only in art.’ [[4]] It was precisely an interest in the imitative qualities of photography that found its counterpart in a fascination in our own era with another property of photography: ‘And when we now look around us, it turns out—naturally—that photography’s domain is still as always the world that surrounds us, but it is not the ordinary, in the sense of trite, everyday life that is today revealed by the photo, but precisely that side of reality that one often passes by without noticing, and to which, for as long as the world is turning, painters and poets devote their attention. The photograph has become one of the tools that allows the modern individual to see. And where taking a photograph is concerned, if anything has become clear in the last thirty years, then it is this, the photograph is not a mechanical reflex of the external world, but each photograph depends upon vision.’ [[5]]

Van de Waal sought confirmation of this position, which bore similarities to the theory of ‘subjective photography’ as worded by the German photographer Otto Steinert in 1951, especially in contemporary photographic art. In 1956, Van de Waal wrote several reviews in response to the abstract photographic work of Heinz Hajek-Halke, a German photographer, and Pim van Os, a Dutchman. Van Os’ work was shown at a photography exhibition held at the Print Room in 1955. Three years later, at the exhibition Images Inventées (‘Invented Images’)—held in The Hague, Brussels, and Cologne—Van Os’ work was hanging alongside that of other photographers, such as Livinus van de Bundt, Martien Coppens, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Otto Steinert, and Minor White. In the introduction of the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition, Van de Waal classified photography under the visual arts. He also recognised several new elements of the medium, such as an attention to surface structures and a growing awareness of spatial structure, for instance, in modern architectural photography. Van de Waal compared modern, abstract photography to the work of the painters Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, whose paintings were not compositions in the classical sense of the word, but rather motifs that could go beyond the painting’s frame, extending into infinity. Just as the paintings that these artists made, Van de Waal preferred to describe examples of modern photography—or ‘lichtgrafiek’ (‘light graphics’)—as ‘sample cards’ or motifs that could be expanded in any direction desired. According to Van de Waal, this approach was characteristic of the new era and an altered image of the world: since the beginning of the twentieth century, a definitive end had come to the Renaissance and its variants: Baroque, Romanticism, and Impressionism. [[6]]

What was now remarkable, in Van de Waal’s view, was that photography had evolved so flexibly alongside the developments of this new era, and that it had not simply relied on its traditional qualities, which laid in the realm of ‘imitation’. Paradoxically enough, the camera itself—the ideal perspective machine—proved to be as well perfectly suited to this modern approach. In 1958, Van de Waal recapitulated his arguments in an article in the magazine Foto, clarifying precisely which visual qualities in the arts were also to be encountered in photography. [[7]] Based on a selection of various photographs, he first recognised the imitative element in photography: ‘the possibility of capturing the structure of matter with an unsurpassable degree of detail’. Utilising Richard Polak’s photographic portrait of Madame Erpe, Van de Waal next illustrated a second element that had traditionally played an important role in the visual arts, specifically, idealisation: ‘the individual has become a type: objects are given the function of meaningful attributes.’ The third element that makes the photo a work of visual art is abstraction, which expresses itself in: ‘the building of gradations of light and shadow according to the laws of intuitively understood rhythms.’ It was precisely this last property that had made photography an interesting and attractive study object, as it meant that all aspects of visualisation were generally to be encountered in photography. A good photo will always have these three aspects, in sensible proportions. Van de Waal therefore sought his answer to the question of whether photography should be counted as an art form elsewhere: namely, in the intentions of the person taking the photo. In 1958, he described the mentality of the photographic artist by quoting the American writer Henry Miller: ‘the person that is both a master and slave of his material at the same time. This definition therefore deserves, in my estimation, our special attention in this respect, because with it, that paradoxical dichotomy, which characterises the essence of photography, is placed in a clarifying light: ‘slave and yet a master’, how different that is from ‘reflection and yet vision’. [[8]]

The aesthetic and artistic side of photography was but one of the many aspects that interested Van de Waal. A broader interest in the medium was sparked at a much earlier time—long before the founding of a photography department at the Print Room. For it was at an early stage in his academic career that Van de Waal sought a connection with iconology, the art historical movement that emphasises the content and meaning of an artwork, as propagated by Erwin Panofsky—who followed in the footsteps of Aby Warburg—starting in the 1930s. In his book Drie eeuwen vaderlandse geschied-uitbeelding 1500-1800 (‘Three Centuries of Fatherland’s Historical Depiction 1500-1800’), published later than planned due to the outbreak of the war in 1952, Van de Waal chose for a theme that was closer to a cultural history as opposed to a history of style. In 1946, having just been made a professor in Leiden, he expressed his favourite method in a clear and concise manner: ‘Iconology is a study of images [‘beeldleer’] in the broadest sense of the word and its ultimate task is: to focus upon the complex processes of image formation and image transmission within a given culture. The broadest description of its task, accordingly, could read as follows: the studying of the function that the image (the depiction or representation) fulfils in a particular society.’ [[9]] Van de Waal pursued ‘his’ image study in various articles and studies, concerning topics such as Jan van Goyen and Rembrandt. The broad cultural term that Van de Waal applied in his texts was likewise evident in his lectures on the study of images, in which he used a model to analyse artworks. In this model, three elements played an important role: form, function, and content. These components are encountered in every visual form. Each artwork draws its qualities from one of these three ‘fields’. In addition, there is the mutual relationship and balance among these three components, which together reveal the culture of the society from which the image originates. In an article in the volume Opstellen voor H. van de Waal (‘Essays for H. van de Waal’), this method of observation inspired Locher to make a comparison between Van de Waal’s analyses and the structuralist discussions of the cultural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. At the same time, however, Locher added that he viewed Van de Waal much more as a functionalist than a structuralist: as someone who was much more interested in the functioning of the artwork, and therefore, someone with an eye for the many aspects that are critical for a complete understanding of the artwork—as opposed to a structuralist, who is primarily interested in the structure of a particular society, with the artwork interpreted as an expression of this. [[10]]

In an introductory article that Van de Waal wrote in 1958 for the Encyclopedie voor Fotografie en Cinematografie (‘Encyclopedia for Photography and Cinematography’), entitled ‘De functie van de foto in onze cultuur’ (‘The Function of the Photo in Our Culture’), he laid out his ideas concerning this functional aspect in an integral vision of the role of photography in our culture. He pointed out the importance of photography in physics, technology, psychology, as well as in artistic and cultural activities. After having outlined the efforts of these disciplines with respect to the phenomenon of photography, Van de Waal elaborated further on its cultural-historical principles, stating that one of the foundations for the discovery of photography had already been established in the fifteenth century. Da Vinci saw the drawing surface as a glass wall onto which the external world projected itself: ‘viewed as such, the photograph is nothing other than the mechanisation of the accepted view of the world based on the art theory of the Renaissance.’ [[11]] Van de Waal nevertheless disputed the notion that the criteria for the numerous inventions of the second half of the nineteenth century had stemmed from technological developments occurring at this time. He argued that there was not a single technical reason to explain why photography had not been discovered any earlier: the camera obscura had already been in use starting with the Renaissance, while the development of light-sensitive materials dated back to the beginning of the eighteenth century. Still missing was the mentality, ‘which considers it worthwhile to be involved with what is, up until that instant, viewed as the trite and insignificant reality.’ By the end of the eighteenth century, this perspective of reality had begun to alter, by which, ‘a couple of different inventors became simultaneously obsessed with the idea to now as well record the image that the outside world had thrown into the camera obscura.’ [[12]] Van de Waal linked what he referred to as the ‘aesthetic’ aspect of this enhanced sense of reality to a ‘social’ aspect: i.e. that of ‘the regard for the ordinary man.’ It is no coincidence, he wrote, that the physicist ‘Arago’—who defended Daguerre’s invention of photography before the ‘Chamber of Representatives’ in France—was the leader of the democratic opposition. Arago had already argued that, thanks to photography, pictures could now also find their way into the home of the farmer and the labourer. If the art of printing was the invention of humanism, then photography was the invention of democracy: ‘through it, the precise picture became accessible to the masses.’ For Van de Waal, another principle was to be found in nineteenth century painting. Ever since the invention of photography, there had always been a mutual exchange between the two media. The ‘romantic’ photographers H.P. Robinson and O.G. Rejlander made compiled photographs that possessed the compositions of paintings. Others, such as the Dutch photographer Richard Polak, selected themes found in seventeenth-century painting for their photography. Vice versa, painters adopted form elements from photography, e.g. Edgar Degas, and the Dutch painters George Hendrik Breitner and Willem Witsen. Often, these mutually exchanged influences could not be clearly defined: it was more of a parallel development and a shared ‘spirit’ that emerged in both media.

A substantial part of Van de Waal’s argumentation on the photograph’s function in our culture focused on the photo as a document, as well as the implications of photography’s invention and photographic production methods for the modern era. It was precisely because of its reproductive potential that the photograph could play an important role in the development of our culture, just as the book several centuries earlier.

Photography brought the exact image within reach of the mass public, which then had all sorts of pictures at its disposal: reproductions of artworks, but also photographs of oneself, of family members, photographs of distant countries, and images of current events. With photography, people had access to a new means of recording and reproducing the world around them in all of its facets.

With the advent of the photograph, society received a new visual medium—in addition to language, as the only general form of communication—to exchange information from one person to another. Eliminating the necessity of intermediation conducted by specialised visual artists, the layman could now as well record his impressions and express his experiences, as in a ‘second global language’. In part thanks to the possibilities of photography, the visual realm began to play an increasingly important role in nineteenth- and twentieth-century society.

And this brought about changes affecting cultural activities as well: people began to read in a different way (probably more poorly than our ancestors) and look in a different way (more quickly than our ancestors). Inspired by Lewis Mumford’s book Art and Technics of 1952, Van de Waal also highlighted the negative consequences of photographic reproduction: ‘We are being bombarded on a daily basis by so many visual impressions that our eye must indeed arm itself against this profusion.’ [[13]]

It was precisely in this flawless reproduction that there lay a hidden danger, i.e. the convoluting and blurring of the distinction between true art and reproductions, as well as between the journalistic photo and an event which has actually taken place. Might we have thought that we had discovered, on one hand, an exact representation, on the other hand ‘it mists and dissipates our image of the world.’

Mumford was not the only source that Van de Waal consulted for his article. From the accompanying bibliography, we can distil the ‘bottom’ of his thinking and writings concerning the history and theory of of photography. [[14]] Van de Waal naturally gained insights and ideas from the collectors Helmut en Alison Gernsheim, who had written a lengthy comprehensive overview—influential even to this day—based on their own collection, which could be could be seen in Amsterdam in 1956. [[15]]

In addition, Van de Waal cited an article by Erich Stenger, the German photography historian and collector, whose collection is presently housed at the Agfa Foto-Historama at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany. [[16]] He also used the handbook of the American photography historian Beaumont Newhall, which distinguishes itself from the more technical-oriented overviews by presenting a personal perspective, with the medium considered chiefly as an (artistic) means of expression. [[17]]

For the social history of photography, he referred to Gisèle Freund’s La Photographie en France au dix-neuvième siècle, étude de sociologie et d’esthétique (‘Photography in France of the Nineteenth Century, Study of Sociology and Aesthetic’). [[18]] In his bibliography, Van de Waal provided further references to literature concerning aesthetics, the interaction of photography and art, the communicative aspect, movement studies, and documentation entailing a cross-section of the current state of photographic history at the end of the 1950s.

Van de Waal’s notions about the cultural-historical principles of photography and the implications thereof with respect to our cultural enterprises, as well shared similarities—in some aspects—with the view presented by the German cultural philosopher Walter Benjamin in the 1930s in his essays Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (‘The Artwork in an Era of its Technical Reproducability’) and Kleine Geschichte der Fotografie (‘Brief History of Photography’). In the introduction of this latter essay, Benjamin spoke about photography’s remarkable origins.

Independently of each other, three inventors managed to ‘retain those images in the camera obscura, which, at the latest, were known at the time of Leonardo.’ [[19]] During a lecture given at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, in 1961, Van de Waal as well addressed the topic of photography’s origins, which, according to him, lay in the realm of reproduction and imitation. Just as Benjamin, he sought to confirm his theory based on the inventors of photography, asking himself the question of why Daguerre, Nièpce, and Fox Talbot combined the existing processes and devices in order to invent photography.

For Benjamin, this was the beginning of an evolution of the photographic medium, which starting in the second half of the nineteenth century and was not to be stopped. It was as if the urgent necessity of its invention lay concealed in the simultaneous invention of photography at different locations. This moment in the history of photography, as observed above, was also what interested Van de Waal: in his view, however, it was symptomatic of an ideological turning point—a shift in mentality.

This shift had already started in the eighteenth century, when idealism was superseded by a desire to learn more about, to comprehend, and above all, to record the world around us. Van de Waal viewed the encyclopaedia—a pooling of knowledge and ability—as an exponent of this movement, just as the panorama in the visual sphere, i.e. a large painting in which the observer is the ‘all-seeing’ middle point.

This explained why different people in different countries were seeking to find a solution to a specific problem that was appearing increasingly urgent at the close of the eighteenth and the onset of the nineteenth century: specifically, to induce nature to portray itself by means of the camera obscura. Romanticism was by no means an impediment to this reality, but was directly connected to it: the form was indeed realistic, but the content was romantic. According to Van de Waal, one example of this combination was to be found in Daguerre’s true-to-life diorama performances, which served romantic aspirations, featuring large decor-like screens and variations in lighting. [[20]]

Van de Waal’s observations over a misted and dissipated image of the world that stems from the reproductive capabilities of photography are reminiscent of Benjamin. Yet Benjamin was referring more to the changes that the industrialised production of images would bring to traditional art. Van de Waal’s viewpoint was less radical. In his case, the regard for the consequences of these reproductive qualities of photography was reserved for non-artistic expressions of culture, such as journalism and mass media. Contrary to Benjamin, for Van de Waal the visual arts were autonomous and seemed to be spared from the consequences of technical reproduction. This did not imply, however, that art was inflexible: in a certain sense, it always evolved with the spirit and ideas of the time.

Several tangible indications that Van de Waal was familiar with Benjamin’s viewpoint still exist: separate notes made in 1963 based on the publication of Benjamin’s essays from the 1930s. In them, Van de Waal followed Benjamin’s exploration of the early portrait photographers, such as Hippolyte Bayard, David Octavius Hill, Nadar, and Garl Ferdinand Stelzner. The text passages he recorded are primarily with regards to Benjamin’s observations on how technical influences affected early photography. Why, Benjamin asked himself, do these early images reveal such a power, an almost magical power, while being the result of the most precise technique? Why are we struck by a feeling of the here and now, when we look at a portrait photo from the early days of photography? Benjamin seeks to find the key to the quality of these photographs in the technology. Thanks to the technical properties of the first photographic material, the photo did not possess the character of a snapshot, but rather a clever, enduring, somewhat protracted shot. In fact, what had apparently sparked Van de Waal’s interest in Benjamin’s argumentation were the consequences of the level of photographic technique for the photograph’s form. He cited a passage in which Benjamin discussed the ‘form’ of shell’ photographs and in which he drew a parallel between the mezzotint technique—the black art— and early photography. With both techniques, there exists a transition from light to dark: the light emerges laboriously, as it were, out of the darkness. Van de Waal followed Benjamin’s explanation regarding this phenomenon: the interaction between the object and the technique gives the images power and intensity. This aura disappears in a successive period of deterioration, in which—particularly because of wide-aperture lenses—the technique and the object are far less related to each other. Artificial manipulations, such as retouching, a shadowy tonal setting, and a rigid pose, betray the powerlessness of the late nineteenth century when it comes to technical progression. Van de Waal followed Benjamin into the twentieth century, turning to Eugène Atget and August Sander, two photographers that each expressed the close connection between the object and technique in their own manner. It is odd that Van de Waal failed to proceed any further with Benjamin’s observations regarding the photo as an aesthetic product. According to Benjamin, an investigation of photography could only continue, once we had addressed and answered the question of its social function. The debate surrounding photography was always certain to run aground, whenever the discussion turned to aesthetics and whether photography was to be considered art. This latter question, however, remained the central issue in Van de Waal’s writing and thinking for quite some time. [[21]]

Another theme in the history of photography that Van de Waal addressed was the interaction between photography and painting. An introduction to Scheffer’s book on the work of the Dutch photographer Berssenbrugge—a representative of the so-called ‘artistic photographers’—written by Van de Waal in 1967 provides us with better insight into his viewpoint on this topic. [[22]] He examined the characteristics of this photographic school, dating from about the turn of the century, which by this time was described as ‘a misconception with regards to the essence of photography.’ He compared Berssenbrugge, who was born in 1873, with two foreign photographers of the same generation: Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. Van de Waal viewed the latter two as forerunners of the new photography, while Berssenbrugge was seen as a representative of a period that had come to a close. Van de Waal then revealed his basic assumption when photographing: Berssenbrugge wished to add something to what he called the ‘soulless’ photo that would bestow a greater value on it. Being satisfied with a ‘mechanically produced image of a fragment of reality’ would not suffice. In Van de Waal’s view, Berssenbrugge was trying too hard to have his photographs look like paintings by applying fine printing (‘edeldruk’) processes, just as the ‘pictorialists’ in other countries. He continued by stating that when we look at what is happening elsewhere, we can classify Berssenbrugge’s attempts to produce art as a rearguard action. Van de Waal quoted a statement made by the American photographer Paul Strand in 1917—i.e. from the same period that Berssenbrugge was active—in which he argues for a pure application of photography and against the intermingling of photography with painterly devices. Van de Waal sought to find an explanation for pictorialist photography and the sudden appreciation for its craftsman-like quality in the fact that photography followed painting, but also in the ‘genius culture’ of Romanticism, which elevated the prestige of the artist. In addition, Van de Waal established the connection to the notion of art as the most individualistic expression of the most individualistic emotion: this was why the mark of the artist became so important. This all coincided with the blossoming of artistic photography and the moment that photography had ‘outgrown the cabinet card and would have to conquer the walls.’ This occurred in the very same period that direct photographs bearing no trace of artisticity, such as those taken by Paul Strand, inevitably led to misconceptions and conflict.

Based on the notes that Van de Waal took for a speech at the opening of the exhibition Foto-portret (‘Photo Portrait’), organised in a collaboration between the Leiden University Print Room and the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague in 1970, one can finally gain insight into the further course of photographic history. [[23]] The 1920s were characterised, Van de Waal wrote, by photography’s coming of age. He described how this process of maturing had occurred in evolutionary terms: ‘after desperate searching (the Sturm und Drang years around the turn of the century) and a period of infancy with instants of genius’, hereby undoubtedly referring to Paul Strand and Stieglitz. Van de Waal subsequently characterised the typical properties of photography that prominently came to the forefront during the 1920s, in the aftermath of this ‘period of infancy’: the detailing and textural expression that he encountered, for instance, in the work of Albert Renger-Patzsch. In the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, he observed another characteristic: the snapshot. What was special about such a photo taken ‘at the right moment’ is an ability to tinker with the element of time. This led to a spontaneity that was unachievable in other branches of the visual arts. Van de Waal ended his story with Andy Warhol’s 1965 portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy, which was also shown at the exhibition. In this painting, which indeed has the photograph as its subject, the emphasis has been placed on photography’s capacity as a product of the masses. It was particularly because of this last quality that photography, in our technological era, as well possessed all of the characteristics found in traditional folk art.

It was the documentary function of photography that had received the least attention in the collection policy of the Print Room, of which Van de Waal was well aware. In 1971, he wrote: ‘It is habit that we believed we had to follow the principles of ‘art pour l’art’ for the department of the History of Photography.’ [[24]] This remark was inspired in part by the donation of M. Muller Massis’ photography collection one year before. This collector had donated all sorts of photography-related items to the Print Room, including cameras, stereoscopes, albums, and curiosa. The collection also included approximately 20,000 photographs on a wide range of topics: bride’s photographs, war documentation, photographs of Dutch cities, uniforms, and traffic. It was these 20,000 photographs that worried the director of the Print Room the most, yet at the same time, they appeared as a dream come true for his systematic mentality. A share of the photographs was actually interesting solely from the perspective of documentation. And had not Van de Waal back in 1953 decided to be strict in his selection? Twenty years of photographic history, however, had taught him otherwise. In practice, it turned out that the majority of questions laid before the Print Room by all kinds of institutions and the general public were derived from an interest in iconography, i.e. what was depicted in the photo. This just happened to be precisely the aspect of visualisation for which Van de Waal had devised his Icon-Class system: as an instrument to find one’s way through the abundance of themes and pictures in the ‘image history’. Van de Waal had plans for a second system—based on that of Icon-Class—to accommodate the accessibility of documentary photographs, alongside the system already in use based on the name of the photographer. First and foremost, this would have to involve cultural-historical aspects of a general nature that are difficult to document, e.g. facets of daily life. The specifics—people, buildings, and events—can often be traced from other sources. [[25]] With these plans, which he was unable to realise due to his death in 1972, Van de Waal anticipated, as it were, our present-day information society. As early as 1958, he foresaw changes in the way we gather knowledge that were to occur when documentation became accessible with the help of photography and methods of photographic reproduction. Rote learning and memorisation would eventually be replaced by our ability to deal with documentation. Systems such as Icon-Class would make this easier for photography and other forms of visual art. It was in this way that—in addition to aesthetic and historical-technical considerations—documentary aspects could now as well be applied as a primary criterion when building collections.

Van de Waal’s involvement in photography was essential: at a time when the photo was not yet being taken seriously by those in the museum world, he took the initiative to build a formidable photography collection in the Netherlands. It was likewise the start of the systematic documentation of the history of photography and academic research in this field. The origin of Van de Waal’s interest is to be found—undoubtedly stemming from iconology—in a broad and open-minded interest in all forms of imagery. Alongside this was his passion for modern photography. Gerson pointed out that Van de Waal was impressed by the professional expertise of the artistic photographer and felt an admiration precisely for the solidity of artistic craftsmanship. [[26]] During the first years of the Print Room’s photography department, modern artistic photography was the most important aspect of photography for Van de Waal. In the constant debate surrounding the matter of whether photography was art, he always responded affirmatively to the question of whether a photo was more than just a reflection, but also a creation. Time and time again, photography viewed as both a reflection and a creation was also the theme with which he justified the collection and study of photography. Within several years, this theme had a theoretical and historical basis. Van de Waal formed for himself a vision with respect to every aspect associated with photography—not only in art and culture, but also in physics and psychology. For this purpose he sought advice from the founding fathers of photographic history: the Gernsheims, Beaumont Newhall, and Gisèle Freund, as well as the cultural historians Walter Benjamin and Lewis Mumford. In his lectures, opening speeches, and articles in photography magazines, this historical knowledge was further supplemented and enriched. It was in this manner that ideas, observations, and directives were introduced, preparing the way for the practice of a new profession.

Twenty years of photographic history also brought changes to Van de Waal’s insight. In 1971—practically at the end of his life—Van de Waal stated that he was mistaken in wanting to apply the principles of ‘l’art pour l’art’ to photography. Instead, it was the documentary aspect that was important, whereas at the time the collection was acquired back in 1953, it had actually been given the least merit. Theoretically, Van de Waal was undoubtedly applying the same principles found in the Icon-Class project to the legacy of photographic imagery of the last 150 years. Was it not logical that many of the categories in this system were every bit as applicable to the contemporary production of images? And just how interesting could a comparison actually be—to choose a random example—between a wedding portrait dating from the seventeenth century and one from the twentieth century? The ability to make such a comparison by means of the Icon-Class system is certain to have appealed to the iconologist Van de Waal. One reason for the shift in Van de Waal’s interest is to be found in his own efforts. By the 1960s, the need for the justification of photography had subsided to a degree: his ideas and concepts had found their way into the Dutch museum world via his students in the 1960s and ’70s. The exhibition Foto-portret at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague was one of the first of a series of photo exhibitions that were more retrospective in nature to be organised in the Netherlands. Today, the photography department of the Leiden University Print Room has grown to become the most important collection of Dutch photography, while the ‘Studie- en Documentatiecentrum voor Fotografie’ (‘Study and Documentation Centre for Photography’) plays a central role in photographic-historical research in the Netherlands. Herein lies the primary significance of Van de Waal’s efforts in the area of photography: he ensured that the new medium was accepted and self-evident as an object of art historical enquiry.


1. Verslag van de Hoogleraar-Directeur over het jaar 1953 (‘Report of the Professor/Director for the Year 1953’), Prentenkabinet der Rijksuniversiteit te Leiden,’s-Gravenhage, 1954, p. 6.

2. ibidem.

3. Jaarverslagen (‘Annual Reports’) Prentenkabinet der Rijksuniversiteit Leiden 1953-1960.

4. H. van de Waal, Speech at the opening of the 16e Nationale Kerstsalon van Fotografische Kunst, 1954, p. 1.

5. ibidem, p. 1-2.

6. H. van de Waal, De wereld waarin wij leven, in Cat. tent. Images Inventées, Brussel (Palais des Beaux Arts) 1957.

7. H. van de Waal, Wat is abstract?, in Foto 13 (March 1958) 3, p. 82-85.

8. H. van de Waal, De functie van de foto in onze cultuur, in Encyclopedie voor Fotografie en Cinematografie, Amsterdam/Brussel (Elsevier) 1958, p. 17.

9. H. van de Waal, Traditie en bezieling, Rotterdam/Antwerpen (Ad. Donker) 1946, p. 24-25.

10. J.L. Locher, Lévi-Strauss en de structurele bestudering van de kunst, in Opstellen voor H. van de Waal, Amsterdam/Leiden (Scheltema & Holkema/Universitaire Pers) 1970, p. 101-114.

11. H. van de Waal, De functie van de foto in onze cultuur, in Encyclopedie voor Fotografie en Cinematografie, Amsterdam/Brussel (Elsevier) 1958, p. 14.

12. ibidem, p. 13.

13. ibidem, p. 18.

14. ibidem, p. 20.

15. Helmut Gernsheim, The History of Photography from the Earliest Use of the Camera Obscura in the Eleventh Century up to 1914, London etc. (Oxford University Press) 1955.

16. Erich Stenger, Siegeszug der photographie in Kultur, Wissenschaft, Technik, Seebruck am Chiemsee (Heering) 1950.

17. Beaumont Newhall, The History of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day, New York (The Museum of Modern Art) 1949.

18. Gisèle Freund, La photographie en France au dix-neuvième siècle, étude de sociologie et d’esthétique, Parijs (La Maison des Amis des livres, A. Monnier) 1936.

19. W. Benjamin, Kleine Geschichte der Photographie, in Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, Frankfurt am Main (Suhrkamp) 1972, p. 67.

20. H. van de Waal, Photography as a Creative Medium, George Eastman House, Rochester, 1961.

21. Notes based on Walter Benjamin, Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, Frankfurt am Main (Suhrkamp) 1963.

22. H. van de Waal, Woord vooraf, in HJ. Scheffer, Portret van een fotograaf. Henri Berssenbrugge 1873-1959, Leiden (Sijthofï), 1967.

23. Notes on the occasion of the exhibition Foto-portret, 1970.

24. Notes accompanying the acquisition of the Muller-Massis collection in 1970, July 1971.

25. ibidem.

26. H. Gerson, Herdenking van Hans van de Waal. (3 March 1910 – 7 May 1972), in Jaarboek van de Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen, Amsterdam, 1972.