PhotoLexicon, Volume 5, nr. 9 (September 1988) (en)

Hendrik Cordes

Hedi Hegeman


Hendrik Cordes, a watch and clockmaker in Steenwijk, became a drawing instructor and photographer midway through his life. He opened the first studio for portrait photography in Steenwijk. He also ventured out into the countryside to photograph the areas surrounding Steenwijk, including the colonies of Frederiksoord and Wilhelminaoord.




Hendrik Cordes is born on 20 February in Meppel, as the son of Carel Godliep Cordes, watch and clockmaker, and Margien Uiterwijk.


The Cordes family resides on the Woldstraat in Steenwijk. Hendrik marries Willemijntje ten Broek, born in Veenhuizen and originating from a colonist’s family in Willemsoord. The couple move to the building at Oosterstraat 36 (currently No. 11) in Steenwijk.


On 11 February, Hendrik Cordes’ first child, Carel Frederik, is born. Like his father, this eldest son eventually becomes a photographer, after having been a watchmaker. In 1876, Carel Frederik Cordes moves to Bolsward, becomes a partner in his brother’s studio in Sneek, and subsequently opens studios in Haarlem and ‘s-Hertogenbosch.


Hendrik Cordes’ second son, Louis Johan, is born on 16 April in Steenwijk. This son also becomes a photographer. In 1879, Louis Johan begins working as an independent photographer in Sneek, but subsequently enters a business partnership with his older brother, Carel Frederik, at the studios in Bolsward, Sneek, and Haarlem.


The city of Steenwijk appoints Hendrik Cordes to the post of ‘stadsklokkenist’ (‘city carillonneur’). Cordes is charged with maintaining the clock of the St. Clemens church tower. He holds this function until 1 July 1900.

Circa 1865-‘80

Due to eye complications, Cordes finds the intricate work required of a watchmaker to be an increasingly difficult task. He turns his attention to portrait photography. Cordes works both as a watchmaker and a photographer until about 1880. After this time, he no longer adds the qualification of ‘watchmaker’ on the reverse side of his carte-de-visite portraits.


Cordes is one of the first people in the Netherlands to receive a certificate as a drawing instructor, after having completed drawing lessons in Amsterdam with W.B.G. Molkenboer. Cordes is specialised in pastel drawings. He still also works as a watchmaker. In an advertisement placed in this year, he offers clocks and watches for sale, as well stating that his portrait studio is open on a daily basis. In photography, he shows a growing preference for making enlargements in carbon print.


In an advertisement dated 4 November, Cordes announces he is holding a clearance sale of his clocks due to a change in the business. The photo studio is to be closed and will reopen at the end of the year. This is probably the moment that Cordes changes his main profession from watchmaker to photographer.


Cordes’ daughter, Johanna Louise Cordes (born on 14 May 1855), marries Hein Krop, a baker, in 1879. On 14 June, the couple opens a bakery specialised in Dutch cookies (‘Steenwijker goudmoppen’) on the ground floor of Cordes’ building, Oosterstraat 36. From this marriage, the renowned sculptor Hildo Krop is born in 1884. In the municipal registry of 1880, Hendrik Cordes is listed only as a portrait photographer.


In the spring of 1885, Cordes places repeated advertisements for drawing lessons in the Opregte Steenwijker Courant, and requests that students register before October. The drawing lessons apparently provide an additional source of income. According to an advertisement, the studio is temporarily closed in 1886. Cordes photographs the surroundings and buildings of the residential colonies Frederiksoord and Wilhelminaoord. Cordes’ initiative is mentioned in Erica. Jaarboekje der Maatschappij van Weldadigheid (‘Erica. Yearbook of the Society of Humanitarianism’).


Hendrik Cordes dies in Steenwijk on 23 July, precisely five months after his wife’s death. In the Opregte Steenwijker Courant, Cordes’ passing is mentioned only in an obituary written by the family.


As a watchmaker in Steenwijk, Hendrik Cordes spent much of his life working as a traditional artisan who was content with continuing in his father’s own profession. Later on in life, however, he managed to develop his artistic talents and even risked the move of changing to an entirely different profession. He became the first photographer of Steenwijk.

It is not known how Cordes ended up in photography. Perhaps he came into contact with the technical side of photography in his capacity as a watchmaker. A personal desire to do something creative, however, might also conceivably explain why his eye was drawn to photography. Cordes obtained a skilled training in drawing from W. Molkenboer: it was during this period that his perspective of design received its professional basis.

Cordes was already 53 years old, when in 1877, he obtained his certification as a drawing instructor. He is known to have preferred drawing with pastels. As nothing has survived of his drawing work, however, his proficiency in this area is impossible to assess. In the attic of his home, Cordes gave drawing instruction to private individuals, including young craftsmen from Steenwijk and its environs. It was in this same attic studio that Cordes shot his first portrait photos around 1865. In the collection of carte-de-visite and cabinet card photos that have survived, there are numerous portraits of his family. Cordes’ children and grandchildren posed and played amidst the studio’s artificial decor attributes. His best children’s portraits reveal a freedom and spontaneity that are surprising for his time.

The self-portrait at the beginning of this article belongs to a series in which Cordes photographed his own face from various camera angles. In these photos, he makes no effort to investigate various forms of facial expression or to introduce variation in the lighting.

Judging by his newspaper advertisements, the transition to Cordes’ new profession occurred towards the end of 1878, with the term ‘watchmaker’ no longer included on his carte-de-visite portraits. Perhaps a complete shift to photography was previously seen as taking too great of a financial risk in a region where the number of people who could afford a portrait photo was limited. Eventually, however, the women and girls of Steenwijk were coming to have their portraits taken with greater frequency, wearing their local traditional attire with the pleated lace hats.

Cordes also ventured outdoors with his camera on various daytrips. His earliest shots in the countryside date from circa 1885. Jacob Olie, Julius Schaarwächter, and Jan Goedeljee also shared Cordes’ topographic interest in rural areas. In the 1880s and ’90s, topographic cabinet card photos were a commercial investment targeting the tourist market. These photographs were every bit as successful as stereo photography had been in previous years, but after 1889, they were being replaced by the picture postcard at an increasing pace.

Cordes’ cabinet card photos of Steenwijk, a fortified town in the Dutch province of Overijssel, reveal a lively centre surrounding the harbour. Even more so, however, they show the untouched landscape of thickets and watermills, as well as the ramparts and canals of the River Aa, which were still intact at this time. The truncated tower of the St. Clemens Church, for which Cordes was the carillonneur, appears quite frequently as a beacon of orientation rising above the forest-filled landscapes he photographed.

Cordes seems to share the aversion to industrialisation felt by other painters and photographers of his day. Serenity and calm dominate his photos. His shots of canals and rivulets, with the typical wooden bridges in Veenhuizen and Giethoorn that drew painters such as Willem Tholen to this region, are distinctive. In terms of atmosphere and composition, Cordes’ photos of these rural surroundings occasionally approach the photography of Peter Henry Emerson. What we do not find with Cordes, however, are the naturalistic precepts to which Emerson adhered: a high horizon, the juxtaposition of a foreground motif against an indistinct background, and a relative degree of unsharpness.

One series of twenty-one cabinet card photos shot in 1886 is devoted to two living colonies founded by the ‘Maatschappij van Weldadigheid’ (‘Society of Humanitarianism’): Frederiksoord and Wilhelminaoord. The aim of these colonies was to cultivate the bare soil at various stages through a system of crop rotation, by training and closely supervising poverty-stricken people taken from the cities to become tenant farmers. Since the year of the society’s founding in 1818, its work had increasingly taken on the form of a commercial-based agricultural experiment, with forestry and dairy production forming additional offshoots.

The photo series captures points of interest, including bridges in the forest, the colonists’ houses, and small-scale factories such as the ‘Milk Installation and Butter Preparation in Wilhelminaoord’ and the ‘Factory of Preserved Provisions in Frederiksoord’. The series was not commissioned, but produced on Cordes’ own initiative, as was reported in Erica. Jaarboekje der Maatschappij van Weldadigheid (‘Erica. Yearbook of the Society of Humanitarianism’): ‘(…) We can therefore do nothing else but profess our satisfaction with an attempt made by Mr. H. Cordes, a photographer from Steenwijk, who has taken photographs of a number of interesting and beautiful locations in Frederiksoord. These photographs will soon be obtainable from the most prominent art dealers in the Netherlands. In total, Mr. Cordes produced twenty-one different photographs. One can peruse through these in order to make a selection. Each cost 40 cents. For twelve items Dfl. 4.30 will be charged. (…) We very much hope that Mr. Cordes is able to make a good profit, to ensure that the quite substantial expenses for this enterprise are covered.’ A number of the very same shots—including the mirror image of one shot—were printed once again ten years later, bearing the name H. Kuiper of Noordwolde. Perhaps H. Kuiper had permission to use Cordes’ negatives together with his own shots, in order to compile a new edition with a series of views for both colonies.

By advertising with enlargements in carbon print, Cordes hoped to escape the standard repertoire of carte-de-visite and cabinet card photos produced by the regular portrait studios. The first mention of a carbon printing device in his possession occurs in 1879. Advertisements also state that retouched enlargements can be made even from the smallest of portraits. Albumen prints in the carte-de-visite and cabinet card formats make up the majority of what has survived to this day, with traces of retouching still evident. Even into the 1890s, Cordes made up for a lack of adequate lighting by directly altering the negatives, e.g. by drawing in the silhouette of the St. Clemens church tower and ‘reworking’ a number of trees and animals for a forest view of Fredericksoord.

Cordes’ desire for a more artistic character was reflected not only in his use of retouching and the production of carbon prints, but also in the changing of his studio name from ‘Photografisch Atelier’ (Photographic Studio’) to ‘Photografische Kunstinrichting’ (‘Photographic Art Establishment’). On the reverse of his business cards, he invariably states his skills in pastel drawing. As one of the early landscape photographers, Hendrik Cordes gave a face to this genre of Dutch photography. Based on solid craftsmanship, he composed visually attractive landscape photos that surpass the purely topographic image, while the conscious choice of the framing, the pose of his sitters, and the use of available light betrays an aspiration that is decidedly artistic. In terms of quality, Cordes’ photos are in no way inferior to those of Julius Schaarwächter, Jacob Olie, or Jan Goedeljee—three photographers who were as well schooled in drawing or the graphic arts. Cordes leaves behind an important photographic documentation of the colonies Frederiksoord and Wilhelminaoord, providing insight into the long-expire activities of a nineteenth-century institution, the Maatschappij van Weldadigheid.


Primary bibliography

Advertenties in Opregte Steenwijker Courant, in de periode dat Cordes in Steenwijk fotograaf was.


images in:

Henk Bruinenberg, Steenwijk in oude ansichten, Zaltbommel (Europese Bibliotheek) 1971.

Secondary bibliography

A.F. Eilerts de Haan, Album van Frederiksoord en omstreken, in Erica. Jaarboekje der Maatschappij van Weldadigheid voor 1887, 1886, p. 185-186.

Marian Hoeber, De fotografen-familie Cordes, in Photohistorisch tijdschrift 7 (1984) 4, p. 19-21.

L. Lambregts, Een steen in de vijver, Steenwijk (Van Kerkvoorde en Hollander bv.) 1985.


Den Haag, Gemeentearchief.

Frederiksoord, Maatschappij van Weldadigheid.

Leiden, Prentenkabinet, bibliotheek en documentatiebestand.

Leiden, Mevr. E.J. Lagerwey-Polak, documentatie en mondelinge informatie.

Meppel, Boom-pers archief (Opregte Steenwijker Courant).

Steenwijk, Gemeentearchief.


Frederiksoord, Maatschappij van Weldadigheid.

Leiden, Prentenkabinet van de Rijksuniversiteit.

Steenwijk, Gemeentearchief.