While perhaps not an influential person, the amateur photographer Richard Polak was nevertheless a remarkable figure in Dutch photography at the start of the twentieth century. Polak’s oeuvre is large and diverse. Best known is his series of ‘Old Dutch’ genre scenes: photos highly reminiscent of paintings by seventeenth century Dutch masters, such as Vermeer, De Hooch, and Hals. It is especially this part of Polak’s oeuvre that makes him an extraordinary representative of art photography in the Netherlands.
On 17 October, Richard Polak is born in Rotterdam as the son of Abraham Jeremias Polak, a dealer in textiles, and Jeanette Rosenthal. The family moves to Schiedamschesingel 60.
During an asthma treatment in San Remo (Italy), Polak buys his first camera: a folding Kodak, format 6×9 cm.
In these years, Polak resides at Westersingel 61 in Rotterdam.
Polak, who is likely to have worked in his father’s business (AJ. Polak & Zonen), is forced to give up his job as a merchant for health reasons. As a man of reasonable wealth, this allowed him to devote considerable time to photography.
In March, Polak finds a suitable space for an ‘Old Dutch’ studio on the Houttuin in Rotterdam. In June, he takes his first ‘seventeenth century’ shot in this studio: The Letter (Polak is prone to give his photos English titles). This photo is accepted at the fall exhibition of the Royal Photographic Society in London and at the London Salon of Photography.
In September, Polak stays for six weeks in Berlin with a Polish professional photographer, Karl Schenker, whom he has met in London. Schenker assists him with improving his technique and teaches him various skills, including retouching.
Polak receives honorary membership at the London Salon of Photography. He donates his earnings from the sale of five photographs at the London Salon of Photography to the Prince of Wales’ National Relief Fund.
From 10 June to 10 July 1915, Polak has his first solo exhibition at ‘The Amateur Photographer Little Gallery’ in London. Sixty of the photos on display at this exhibition are offered for sale by Polak in order to benefit the British Red Cross: ten photos are sold (Dfl. 25.– per photo).
Due to his poor health, Polak moves to Gstaad, Switzerland, in the winter of 1915-’16. His ‘Old Dutch’ studio in Rotterdam is torn down.
On 12 May, Polak weds Ila Lucie Colclough, who originates from London.
Polak publishes his portfolio Photographs from Life in Old Dutch Costume, which includes an introduction by the British art photographer F.J. Mortimer.
1920s to 1930
Polak and his wife make frequent trips various destinations outside Switzerland, including Italy, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. He photographs regularly throughout his travels, particularly in Italy.
Polak moves to 36 Avenue de Rumine in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Polak becomes an honorary member of the ‘Photo Club de Lausanne’.
Polak donates revenue from the sale of photos at an exhibition at the Bollag Gallery in Lausanne to the local Red Cross (1200 Swiss Francs).
For his assistance to Dutch war refugees in Switzerland, Polak receives the Zilveren Erkentelijkheidsmedaille (‘Silver Medal of Recognition’) from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1946. On 24 April 1950, he is made a Knight in the Order of Orange-Nassau.
Polak makes various donations (money, photographs, albums) to the Leiden University Print Room based on his affinity with the objectives espoused by Prof. H. van de Waal. In 1938, as well as in the early 1950s, Polak had previously donated large quantities of photos to Auguste Grégoire, with whom he was also corresponding with regards to the importance of a photographic (museum) collection.
On 7 October, Richard Polak dies in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Polak took his first steps on the path of photography in the year 1900 by taking snapshots of family members and landscapes during a period of rehabilitation in Italy, where he was staying due to an asthmatic disorder. Especially after stopping with his work in 1911, photography became a serious hobby. Polak was active as an amateur photographer into the 1940s.
Polak was never trained specifically in photography and learned the basics from a family member. In the 1910s, he did see the necessity of sharpening his technical knowledge via a professional photographer, and as a result, he was taught the principles of retouching by J. de Rijk. Notwithstanding, the six weeks that Polak spent in Berlin in 1913 with Karl Schenker, a Polish professional photographer, were more important for his training. Schenker taught him extensively on matters such as the art of retouching, as well as working with lighting and models.
Polak’s oeuvre consists of portraits, landscapes, cityscapes, genre scenes, and an occasional still life. His reputation stems from a relatively small group of photos taken during a brief period of two-and-a-half years, from June 1913 to the end of 1915. It comprises a series of genre scenes and ‘portraits’ that show a major correspondence with Dutch paintings of the seventeenth century. Polak spared no effort on this series and appears to have been extremely motivated in their production. All of this work was done in a Rotterdam studio that was specially furnished as a room in the ‘Old Dutch’ style. It had white-stuccoed walls, a ceiling with wooden beams and rafters, a black-and white chequered (linoleum) floor, an oaken fireplace with tiles, and stained-glass windows. For the remaining decoration, Polak purchased various pieces of furniture and other accessories at antique stores, including candelabras, an old map, glasswork, pewter dinnerware, bronze pails, and a variety of musical instruments. He also ordered furniture to be made (and imitated). Several male and female models then posed in this interior, wearing vintage costumes. These were made by a theatrical costume designer and one of the models according to examples found in paintings: e.g. a velvet jacket lined with fur, long wide skirts, and dark suits with lace collars and cuffs.
Using models and various attributes, Polak constructed various scenes. He drew is inspiration for these genre pieces from paintings by artists such as Pieter de Hooch, Johannes Vermeer, Gabriël Metsu, Gerard Terborch, and Jan Steen. With portraits, it seems that he was aiming for Frans Hals, particularly when considering the similarities in the posture and clothing of his figures, as well as their placement in front of a dark, empty background. Polak was familiar with these paintings by seeing them on his frequent travels, but also through monochrome photographic reproductions, which were already available in abundance.
In terms of subject matter, decoration, style, and atmosphere, the connection between Polak’s photos and old paintings is more than evident. Typical seventeenth-century themes that Polak depicted photographically include interior scenes of family life, music-making ensembles, and domestic activity. Notwithstanding, it would be inaccurate to describe these photos as literal copies or imitations. Generally speaking, Polak presents his own variant of a seventeenth-century theme, or he compiles a ‘creation’ of his own with the help of all sorts of seventeenth-century attributes. A number of the photos, however, can be compared with a specific painting. One example that reveals major similarities with De Hooch’s De Moeder (‘The Mother’, Staatliche Museen, Berlin) is The Cradle (Polak usually gave his photos English titles), though even here, Polak has omitted characteristics typically found in the painter’s work, e.g. a vista and a clearly devised composition. Cleaning Day is directly inspired by Dou’s niche piece De Dienstmaagd (‘The Servant Girl’, Buckingham Palace), complete with an inscription of the year, located on the panel beneath the window. In terms of theme and the arrangement of the figures, The Parrot is comparable to Frans van Mieris’ Dame met papegaai (‘Woman with Parrot’, ca. 1665, Buckingham Palace). In this case, the photo is a mirror image of the painting—a characteristic one encounters with other works by Polak. One plausible explanation for this reversal, in this specific case, could be that the light in Polak’s studio had to enter from the left: staging the scene in a corner of the interior next to the window is typical of the Delft School. The well-known photo The Painter and his Model at first appears closely related to Vermeer’s Schilderkunst (‘The Art of Painting’, coll. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wenen). The composition, the manner in which the light falls, and several other attributes are the same. In terms of content, however, there is an important difference. Vermeer’s model wears clothing and possesses attributes that symbolise Fame (trumpet, laurel wreath). Together with the objects on the table, these refer to the painting’s allegorical meaning. Polak’s model, by contrast, is a nude painter’s model. There is nothing to indicate a deeper significance in this ordinary scene of a painter’s studio.
Polak had no preference for the work of any one painter. There is always some aspect to be encountered in his photos that has been borrowed from one of the painters mentioned above. What one does find is a preference for stylish scenes in richly decorated interiors: there are no farmer’s dwellings, for instance, in the style of Adriaan van Ostade. Similarly, the amorous context one encounters in much of seventeenth-century Dutch painting is virtually absent in Polak’s work. With regards to lighting, he did not add accents using ‘spotlights’, in accordance with the seventeenth-century approach. Instead, he favoured a uniform lighting in his scenes. In spite of their theme and entourage, the photos are unmistakably Polak’s own brainchildren. Characteristic of his work is the presence of a variety of seventeenth-century elements and attributes, which he incorporated as he saw fit. A noticeable aspect in Polak’s work is also the fact that a number of his models can be seen laughing. Such scenes are therefore far removed from the serene atmosphere found in works by, e.g., De Hooch and Vermeer. Telling, for instance, is the difference between Polak’s busily staged photo The Letter and the painting of the same name—in Dutch, De Brief—by Vermeer.
Because of the free manner in which Polak combined different themes and elements, one may conclude that he knew nothing of iconographic meaning in seventeenth-century painting. This was indeed not possible, as iconographic research emerged no earlier than the 1930s. One striking example of Polak’s error in judgement is The Firstborn, in which a mother is depicted standing next to her child in a crib. In the foreground there is a small tray with burning coals, in which lies a ribbon that is smouldering—an allusion to a seventeenth-century quacksalver’s method for detecting pregnancy. This motif is frequently found in paintings with the theme ‘a young woman at the doctor’. In the context of a mother and child such as seen in Polak’s photo, however, it is simply out of place.
Polak’s work resembling that of the seventeenth century was produced in the years 1913 to ’15. Upon permanently moving to Switzerland in the winter of 1915-’16, he closed his studio. It was his intention to set up a similar studio in Switzerland, but these plans never came to fruition. Of the seventy-five to eighty ‘seventeenth century’ photos, sixty-five appeared in a portfolio that Polak financed himself, entitled Photographs from Life in Old Dutch Costume, published by the renowned publisher of art reproductions, Hanfstaengl of Munich (1923). Although published in a limited edition, it still received publicity through its presentation at various photography clubs. This rather elitist form of reproduction was well suited to ‘Art Photography’: perfect prints for an art-loving audience. Besides this portfolio, Polak also published picture postcards, which he was still sending from Switzerland many years later.
Polak’s reputation was based on his ‘seventeenth-century’ work. For years, these photos were shown at numerous exhibitions, with reproductions appearing in various photography magazines in the Netherlands (De Camera, Focus, Lux), Switzerland, the United Kingdom (particularly The Amateur Photographer & Photographic News/Photography), and elsewhere. Polak’s work was primarily well-received in the United Kingdom, more so than in the Netherlands. Great Britain had its own tradition of staged photography—much more so than in the Netherlands—with photographers such as O. Rejlander and H.P. Robinson. This was most certainly one of the reasons why Polak submitted his photos mainly to exhibitions in the United Kingdom.
Based on these staged ‘Old Dutch’ scenes, Polak is a representative of the international ‘Art Photography’ of around the turn of the century and briefly thereafter—albeit on a sidetrack. It was Polak’s conscious aim to produce photographic art. Like Henri Berssenbrugge and many others, he believed he could achieve this with themes that were painterly in nature. Whereas a majority of these art photographers in the Netherlands focused on producing artistic photos by means of (‘edeldruk’, or ‘fine printing’) techniques, however, Polak chose in favour of staging his own subject. Internationally, there were a number of photographers who were interested in themes similar to Polak’s during this period. The American photographer F. Holland Day, for instance, staged scenes of the Deposition and the Crucifixion. Guido Rey, an Italian photographer, imitated neo-classical, seventeenth-century, and other painting styles. J.C. Strauss, an American, produced various portraits in the style of Frans Hals. An ‘anatomical lesson’ inspired by Rembrandt was made by the Belgian photographers Louis Guichard and Alexandre. The interest that photographers were showing in the seventeenth century must be understood in light of the revival of Golden Age painting spurred on by Dutch painters of the nineteenth-century. Besides genre pieces in the style of the Old Masters, Polak also staged biblical and mythological subjects, such as the bizarre photo Holofernes or a similar trick photo featuring the head of John the Baptist. Polak’s photo Allegorie (‘Allegory’) appears as if inspired by Symbolist painting, in which symbolic elements alluding to death, seduction, and wisdom alternate with one another. The tabletop photos that Polak took of small Chinese divinity statues are entirely different in concept, but no less staged—a subject referring to the Oriental mystique typically encountered in painting of the 1920s and ’30s.
Even in Polak’s portraits, realism is often only pretence. They are not always portraits in the purest sense, with subjects sometimes playing some kind of role. Examples are Bruges (Bertha Eckstein), a portrait conceived with a medieval theme, and The Man in Armour (the painter O. Socec), which is reminiscent of Rembrandt. Besides these, however, Polak also took portraits in a more objective manner, in which one can observe that significant attention has been given to composition.
During his many travels and stays abroad, Polak photographed avidly. A large number of landscapes and cityscapes from Italy, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland are known to exist. On 4 October 1937, Polak wrote to Henri Berssenbrugge (in a letter preserved at the Print Room of Leiden University): ‘I have hundreds of landscapes of Italy, but I have no small prints of them, and in the end, they mean nothing.’ Famous places such as Tivoli and Pompeii were not overlooked. Polak’s choice of subject betrays a notable preference for the artificial landscape, especially beautifully landscaped parks. Statues and groups of trees were often helpful in determining the arrangement of his compositions.
Throughout Polak’s oeuvre, an eye for composition is prominent. In his portraits, and as well in his landscapes and cityscapes, rhythmic lines and repetitive elements play a clear role. In an architectural photo such as the Villa Castelli, Polak favoured a strong symmetry and took advantage of the lighting to give his composition form and depth.
Polak preferred the platinum print, which was fine in tone and offered high print permanence. He is known to have said that, up until the end of 1915, he did all of his own photographic work himself: developing, printing, and retouching. After moving to Switzerland for medical reasons, he only took the shots and left the finishing to others. A weak point that one sometimes encounters in Polak’s work is the sharpness of his prints: some landscapes and cityscapes are out of focus, without it appearing to be intentional or done in a way that might contribute to the shot’s overall artistic conceptualisation.
On occasion, Polak manipulated an image by hand, as is the case with a photo of Pompeii, in which a plume of smoke rising from Vesuvius has been drawn. Staged in this manner, whether purposefully or not, the smoke appears as if it moves towards the foreground.
In much of his oeuvre, Polak presents himself as one of the better amateur photographers. The subjects he photographed during his frequent travels are generally no different than the photos destined at this time for the tourist market.
Decidedly more important is Polak’s legacy of ‘Old Dutch’ genre, symbolic, and biblical scenes. Where Dutch photography is concerned, his work in these areas is unique. During the era of New Photography, as well as in the years after the war, this work was adamantly rejected for being overly artificial and alien to the medium of photography. This attitude is perfectly illustrated by a comment made by the photographic historian Helmut Gernsheim in his book A Concise History of Photography: ‘With such aberrations of taste the Dutch amateur photographer Richard Polak, the Americans J.C. Strauss, F. Holland Day, (…) won their laurels.’ Now that manipulation has become an accepted photographic tool in recent decades, with staged photography having acquired a place all its own, Polak’s work is viewed from a different perspective.
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Cornelis Veth, Derde jaarlijksche tentoonstelling van fotowerken der N.A.F.V., 26 (15 november 1915) 22, p. 460-463.
Auteur onbekend, Richard Polak’s werk op deLondon Salon of Photography, 29 (1918), p. 479-480.
J.R.A. Schouten, Boekbeoordeeling. Photograms of the Year 1921, 33 (1922), p. 18-19.
Auteur onbekend, Photograms of the Year 1922, 34 (1923), p. 18-19.
J.R.A. Schouten, Boekbeoordeeling. Photographs from Life in Old Dutch Costume, 34 (1923), p. 455-456.
J.R.A. Schouten, Richard Polak en zijn werk, 35 (1924), p. 86.
Auteur onbekend, Rich. Polak en Berssenbrugge te Rotterdam, 35 (1924), p. 242.
Auteur onbekend, Bij de illustraties van Richard Polak, 36 (1925), p. 21.
in Photograms of the Year:
F.C. Tilney, The Exhibitions. The Royal Photographic Society’s Exhibition at the Royal Society of British Artists. The London Salon of Photography at the Galleries of the Royal Society of Painters in Water Colours, 1913, p. 17-22.
F.C. Tilney, Observations on some pictures of the year, 1914, p. 11-19.
F.C. Tilney, Observations on some pictures of the year, 1915, p. 8-15.
W.R. Bland, Observations on some pictures of the year, 1916, p. 10-18.
W.R. Bland, Observations on some pictures of the year, 1917/1918, p. 8-18.
W.R. Bland, Observations on some pictures of the year, 1918, p.8-15.
F.C. Tilney, Some pictures of the year, a critical causerie, 1919, p. 24-32.
F.C. Tilney, Some pictures of the year, critical notes, 1920 p. 28-34.
F.C. Tilney, Pictorial Photography in 1921, 1921, p. 17-22.
F.C. Tilney, Pictorial Photography in 1922, 1922, p. 17-24.
The London Salon of Photography, vanaf 1915.
Photo Club de Lausanne, erelid vanaf 1939.
1923 Eerste Prijs, Exposition Nationale de Photographie, afd. foto’s op papier, Genève.
1946 Zilveren Erkentelijkheidsmedaille wegens zijn verdiensten voor de Nederlandsche zaak, toegekend door het Minister van Buitenlandsche Zaken.
1950 Ridder in de Orde van Oranje-Nassau.
1909 (g) Dresden, Internationale Photographische Ausstellung.
voor 1911 (g) Londen, Royal Photographic Society.
1913 (g) Londen, Galleries of the Royal Society of Painters in Water Colours, The London Salon of Photography.
1913 (g) Delft, Stads Doelen, Vierde Jaarlijksche Delftsche Foto-salon.
1913 (g) Amsterdam, Gebouw „Lux” der NAFV, Vierde Jaarlijksche Delftsche Foto-salon.
1913 (g) Londen, Royal Photographic Society.
1914 (g) Londen, The London Salon of Photography.
1914 (g) Londen, Gallery of the Royal Society of British Artists, The Fifty-ninth Annual Exhibition (Royal Photographic Society).
1914 (g) Amsterdam, Gebouw Lux der NAFV, Tweede jaarlijksche tentoonstelling van fotowerken.
1915 (e) Londen, Amateur Photographer Little Gallery (rondreizende tentoonstelling door Engeland en Amerika).
1915 (g) Londen, The London Salon of Photography.
1915 (g) Londen, Royal Photographic Society.
1915 (g) Londen, The Camera Club (17, John Street), Nederlandsche Club voor Fotokunst.
1915 (g) Amsterdam, Gebouw Heystee, Derde Jaarlijksche Tentoonstelling van Fotowerken (NAFV).
1916 (g) Londen, The London Salon of Photography.
1916 (g) Londen, Royal Photographic Society.
1917 (g) Londen, The London Salon of Photography.
1918 (g) Rotterdam, Gebouw van de Kunstkring (Witte de Withstraat), (AFV Rotterdam).
1918 (g) Londen, The London Salon of Photography.
1918 (g) Londen, Royal Photographic Society.
1919 (g) Londen, The London Salon of Photography.
1920 (g) Londen, The London Salon of Photography.
1921 (g) Londen, The London Salon of Photography.
1922 (g) Londen, The London Salon of Photography.
1923 (g) Genève, Palais Electoral, Exposition Nationale de Photographie.
1923 (g) Londen, The London Salon of Photography.
1924 (e) Londen, Royal Photographic Society’s Gallery.
1924 (e) New York, Camera Club.
1924 (g) Rotterdam, Clublokaal AFV Rotterdam, (BNAFV).
1924 (g) Londen, Galleries of the Royal Society of Painters in Water Colours, The London Salon of Photography.
1925 (g) Londen, Galleries of the Royal Society of Painters in Water Colours, The London Salon of Photography.
1925 (g) Utrecht, Jaarbeurs, (Ver. Oud-Utrecht en UAFV).
1925 (g) Turijn, Internationale fototentoonstelling.
1926 (g) Parijs, (Rue de Clichy), Salon Internationale de la Photographie.
1926 (g) Arnhem, Korenbeurs, (BNAFV).
1926 (g) Utrecht, (Oud Utrecht).
1933 (g) Londen, The London Salon of Photography.
1936 (g) Amsterdam, Tweede Internationale Focus Fotosalon.
1936 (g) Londen, The London Salon of Photography.
1937 (g) Londen, The London Salon of Photography.
1937 (g) Amsterdam, Arti et Amicitiae, Derde Internationale Focus Fotosalon.
1939 (g) Den Haag, Gemeentearchief, Honderd jaar fotografie.
1939 (g) Londen, The London Salon of Photography.
1939 (g) Amsterdam, Arti et Amicitiae, Vijfde Internationale Focus Fotosalon.
1941 (g) Lausanne, (Rue de la Tour), (Photo Club de Lausanne).
1941 (e) Lausanne, Gallerie Bollag (Rue Etraz 3).
1946 (g) Londen, The London Salon of Photography.
1946 (g) Amsterdam, Arti et Amicitiae, Zesde Internationale Focus Fotosalon.
1953 (g) Londen, The Science Museum en The Society’s House, The Royal Photographic Society. Centenary Exhibition (1853-1953).
1953 (g) Leiden, Prentenkabinet van de Rijksuniversiteit Leiden, Een Eeuw Fotografie.
1956 (g) Johannesburg, 9th Witwatersrand International Salon of Photography.
1969 (g) Den Bosch, Noordbrabants Museum, Nederlandse Fotografie, de eerste honderd jaar (rondreizende tentoonstelling).
1978 (g) Leiden, Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal, Belicht verleden. Fotografie in Nederland 1839-1920 (rondreizende tentoonstelling).
1979 (g) Den Haag, Gemeentemuseum, Foto 20-40.
1989 (g) Gouda, Stedelijk Museum Het Catharina Gasthuis, Het Fotografisch Museum van Auguste Grégoire.
Leiden, Ingrid Grootes (ongepubliceerde doctoraalscriptie: Richard Polak (1870-1956). Een kunstfotograaf en de zeventiende eeuw, april 1989).
Leiden, Prentenkabinet, bibliotheek en documentatiebestand (o.a. knipselalbum van Richard Polak).
Antwerpen, Provinciaal Museum voor Fotografie.
Leiden, Prentenkabinet van de Rijksuniversiteit Leiden.
Londen, The Royal Photographic Society.
Washington, Smithsonian Institution.