PhotoLexicon, Volume 10, nr. 21 (June 1993) (en)

Fons Brasser

Tineke de Ruiter

Robbert van Venetië


Fons Brasser is an artist particluarly well known for his drawings, collages, and sculptures. His work has been exhibited at various venues, including two exhibitions at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. A systematic approach to the study of form is encountered throughout Brasser’s work. Since 1983, he has also been working with photography. In terms of working method and presentation, Brasser’s photographic work always manifests itself in the form of a project.




Fons Brasser is born on 11 May 1944 in Haarlem.

Circa 1960–‘77

Brasser leaves home and finds work in the areas of shipping and coastal sea transport. Over the years, Brasser works at many professions, both in the Netherlands and abroad. In his free time, he draws.


Fons Brasser begins working with sculpture.


Brasser has his first exhibition at the Wladimir Gallery in Bussum.


Brasser decides to make art his profession. He shows a portfolio with drawings to Ad Petersen of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Petersen buys four drawings.


An exhibition of Brasser’s drawings is held at the Stedelijk Museum.

Circa 1980

Through Hans Paalman, Brasser meets the writer/artist Armando. The friendship between the two men will play in instrumental role in Brasser’s development as a photographer.

Circa 1981

Brasser starts taking photos to capture works of architecture that fascinate him.


Brasser photographs ‘le nouveau viaduc de Grandfey’ (‘the new Grandfey Viaduct’), nearby Fribourg, Switzerland. This evolves into a photography project.


Under the title Schatten en meten (‘Gauge and Measure’), an exhibition of Brasser’s drawings is held at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.


On 13 July 1983, Armando asks Brasser to travel with him to Berlin. Brasser shoots photos for a book by Armando along the city’s ‘S-Bahn’ railway line, specifically between the stations ‘Olympia Stadium’ and ‘Pichelsberg’. For Brasser, this marks the beginning of an obsession. From 12 August 1983 to 17 December 1984, Brasser photographs the S-Bahn stations of West Berlin. This grows into the photo project Berlin Geisterbahn (‘Berlin Ghost Railway’). In the same period, Brasser photographs the ‘Stelling van Amsterdam’ (‘Defence Line of Amsterdam’).


Piet Cleveringa asks Brasser to collaborate on a project featuring the ‘Hollandse Waterlinie’ (‘Hollandic Water Line’), which is also to include an exhibition held at Fort Asperen and a book. Brasser is asked to photograph the forts and the fortifications. Two months later, in October, the Ministry of Defence grants him permission to photograph a number of the fortifications.

From 18 August 1985 to 2 March 1986, Brasser photographs all of the entrances and platforms of the ‘S-‘ and ‘U-Bahn’ railway lines in East Berlin. This photo project is called Gesperrt (‘Inaccessible’).

Circa 1988–Present

The ‘Bureau Monumentenzorg van de Provincie Noord-Holland’ (‘Agency of Historical Monument Preservation of the Province of North Holland’) commissions Brasser to photograph nine water towers to be designated as monuments. He decides to make combinations of the water towers’ interiors and exteriors. This assignment leads to a larger photo project, extending beyond the borders of the province of North Holland.


The Nederlandse Spoorwegen (‘Netherlands Railways’) commissions Brasser to photograph four railway bridges.


The Province of North Holland selects Brasser for a documentary photo assignment concerning the interiors and exteriors of churches located in North Holland and along the coast of the former Zuiderzee (presently called the ‘Ijsselmeer’, or ‘Lake Ijssel’). On behalf of the Provinciale Stichting Heemschut (‘Provincial Heemschut Foundation’), Brasser photographs several bike routes in North Holland to be published in a brochure.

In August, Brasser photographs two water towers in Groningen on assignment for the city of Groningen.


Monumentenzorg Zwolle (‘Historical Monuments Preservation Zwolle’) commissions Brasser to photograph the renovation of the Oude Spoorbrug (‘Old Railway Bridge’).


As unanimously described in academic literature, Fons Brasser’s photographic work is the product of a ‘scientific’ obsession. A ‘collecting frenzy’ is nevertheless a more appropriate term. Brasser strives to fill his collections to the highest possible degree of completion. With all of his photographic endeavours, he delves into the topographic data, the building history, and the architectural construction. This documentation is an essential component of the projects he undertakes.

Fons Brasser is a late-bloomer, with his decision to become an artist occurring no earlier than the 1970s. His drawings were a success virtually from the start. While Brasser had no previous formal artistic training, he comes from a family whose members are quite adept at drawing and painting. In the area of photography as well, Brasser is an autodidact.

Fons Brasser initially achieved notoriety with his drawings, in which proportion and order play an important role. His early drawings are characterised by the systematic elaboration of a geometric study of form. Brasser is fascinated by visual changes arising through the division or multiplication, and the combining and moving around of a module. Working in series strengthens the systematic nature of Brasser’s investigation. In doing so, he is part of a ‘Dutch’ tradition of artists who conduct their work analytically, e.g. Ad Dekkers, Peter Struycken, and Jan Schoonhoven.

Brasser applies the same themes in his sculptures. Here too he investigates structures and their logical ordering. With sculpture, space becomes a new dimension to be studied, in addition to proportion, surface, and form.

Around 1980, coincidence comes to play a bigger role in Brasser’s work. In the project Schatten en meten (‘Gauge and Measure’), he asks others to draw visual proportions assigned to them on paper. It turns out that no one ever depicts a simple, regular arrangement of a surface exactly the same as someone else. With the collages Brasser produced during this period, tearing the paper produced random forms and dimensions.

Brasser sees photography as a fascinating and seductive medium. Photography began to play a role in his work at the moment that randomness became important for his collages and drawings. What probably appealed to him most was that the results of the photographic process were generally more difficult to control. Brasser nevertheless tries to eliminate chance by first devising a concept from which his subject matter can be approached. In its project-based form, Brasser’s photography is therefore more closely aligned with the way photography was applied by conceptual artists such as Bernd and Hilla Becher or Dan Graham during the 1970s and 1980s than with the work of photographers. In his choice of subject matter, i.e. photographing architecture, one could categorise Brasser as an architectural photographer. Brasser is fascinated by utilities buildings and other works of nineteenth- and twentieth-century architecture no longer in use and about to be demolished. In 1983, he began working on the documentation of nineteenth-century bridges, and from 1983 to 1987, he photographed military architecture. Because Brasser’s photographic works are created as a ‘collection’, he is able to work on several projects simultaneously.

Just as with his drawings, Brasser’s methodology in photography is analytical. ‘Proportion and order’ is an ever-recurring theme. When photographing architecture, the formal aspects may appear to be Brasser’s main priority. This is misleading, however: the research and documentation accompanying each photo is equally relevant. The subject matter is approached and investigated systematically.

Brasser refers to himself as a ‘topography freak’, whose impassioned delving into a give subject is inspired by a disdain for the lack of complete information. He greatly admires and shares an affinity with the work of Eugène Atget, a photographer who used his camera to thoroughly and systematically document the city of Paris around the turn of the century. In Brasser’s photography, two approaches were present from the outset: firstly, a documentary registration of building exteriors, usually shot with a 35mm camera; secondly, using a 6×7 camera to photograph with a greater eye for aesthetics, i.e. more attention to composition, geometric forms, details, light and shadow.

In 1983, Armando showed Brasser his favourite places in West Berlin. During this trip, Brasser discovered approximately fifty-five stations of the ‘S-Bahn’ (for ‘Stadt’ or ‘Schnell’, ‘City’ or ‘Fast’) railway lines of the city that had either been partially or entirely abandoned. The rails lay there unused, simply rusting away and overgrown with greenery. This was an incredible experience for Brasser, who was seized by the macabre atmosphere of these dilapidated places in the city. The scant information about these ghostly stations available in books irritated Brasser, thus sparking a desire to photograph what he referred to as the ‘Geisterbahn’ (‘Ghost Railway’). He proceeded to document the stations systematically with black-and-white shots, both the interiors and exteriors, and continued to do so until 1986. Brasser took varying shots of most of the buildings and platforms, sometimes photographing eight stations in a single day. In a number of cases, he returned to the same location later for a second time.

The Geisterbahn project is not so much about the individual photos, but rather a collection that consists of maps, documents, and photos. The photos are strictly documentary, befitting the project’s conceptual character. Brasser’s aim was not to seek a melancholic representation of these ominously deserted and dilapidated stations.

There exists a certain kind of uniformity in the way Brasser photographed the S-Bahn stations. He typically took one shot of the entry and various shots of the platforms and the railway. Sometimes he favoured a high vantage point for his shots of the platforms, at other times a low vantage point. Towards the close of the project, Brasser chose for more informal camera angles, producing a wide aray of images. A total silence predominates in every shot, with people nowhere to be seen.

In the project Berlin Geisterbahn, the photos were presented two by two (entrance and platform). Just as with most conceptual art, the research and documentation were integral components of the artwork’s presentation.

In the project Gesperrt (‘Inaccessible’), Brasser photographed the entrance and platforms for every ‘S-‘ and ‘U-Bahn’ railway station on the East German side of the Berlin Wall that was no longer in use. For these shots, it was the collecting, versus the presentation, that was most important to Brasser. For this reason, these photos were never exhibited.

In the late 1970s, Brasser became interested in the construction and building history of ‘Le nouveau viaduc de Grandfey’ (‘The New Viaduct of Grandfey’) outside Fribourg, Switzerland. This railway and pedestrian bridge over the River Sarine is the largest of seven railway bridges on the Bern-to-Lausanne train route. Resting on seven large arches are sixty-one smaller arches, which together form the pedestrian arcade (the ‘passerelle’) under the railway.

Brasser returned to Fribourg numerous times in order to photograph and to collect documentation in the form of old picture postcards, newspaper articles, and other data. For this project as well, his preparations were thorough and precise.

Although the Grandfey photos were taken in the same period as those for the Berlin S-Bahn, the approach is entirely different. This project was executed in both colour and black-and-white, with the formal aspects given primary emphasis. Here there is a greater interest in photographic composition, in the play of light and shadow, and in colour. By introducing irregular vantage points—sometimes risking his own life in order to photograph from the bridge’s underside—and by emphasising the photographing of details, the forms of the bridge are reduced to abstract-geometric images. The formal idiom of these photos is similar to his drawings: here, too, repetition and change are the keywords. Repetition is expressed in the rhythm of the bridge’s arches and the uniformity of the sixty-one arches of the ‘passerelle’. Change is depicted through subtle distinctions in form and colour and through the effects of light and shadow.

One presentation form of the Grandfey project consisted of seven horizontal bands of eight to nine photos, in which the seven large arches of the bridge and the sixty-one small arches that rest on top are rhythmically grouped adjacent to and beneath one another. In this manner, Brasser dissected the bridge’s construction, as it were. This large work was eventually damaged and subsequently destroyed by Brasser himself.

Another work—consisting of three bands of three photos each—is entitled My Bridge. This title was chosen in reference to Eadweard Muybridge, in whose work Brasser recognises the same analysis, systematic approach, and obsession. Just as with Berlin-Geisterbahn, the documentation of the Grandfey project also formed an integral part of the exhibition.

Until 1987, Brasser was involved with photographing the fortifications and bunkers of the Hollandse Waterlinie (‘Hollandic Water Line’) and the Stelling van Amsterdam (‘Defence Line of Amsterdam’). This project was as well preceded by an extensive preliminary study. The documentation that accompanies these photographs, however, was never exhibited.

Brasser’s friend the writer/artist Armando was interested in the military commotion and traces left behind by acts of war (especially World War II). Brasser, by contrast, was struck by the aesthetic of the fortifications’ mathematically determined design, of the high earthen walls and the lines of fire and sight. In these projects, which were primarily executed in colour, the relationship between the landscape and the fortifications also plays a role. Brasser presents fortifications as works of sculpture. Once again, these projects reflect his fascination with dimension and order, form and change, ratio and proportion.

Brasser’s water tower project began when he was commissioned in 1988 to photograph nine water towers that were soon to be declared historic monuments by the Province of North Holland. The work of the German artists Bernd and Hilla Becher, who themselves had produced a series of similarly shaped water towers, inspired Brasser to select an alternative form of presentation, specifically, nine combinations of interiors and exteriors. Following the completion of this assignment, he began collecting documentation for more than 200 water towers in the Netherlands, with the aim of photographing their concealed interiors. His study evolved into an independent project. Brasser’s interest lies not so much in the tower as a beacon—where the form is determined by its concealed function. Instead, he focuses on the spaces, the silence, and the towers’ construction. Here the accent lies on the simplicity of the architectural forms, as opposed to the valves, the pipes, and the towers’ ingenious technical construction.

Where Bernd and Hilla Becher emphasise the mutual relationship between the architectural forms of the towers from a typological standpoint through differentiation, Brasser highlights the great diversity in form. In the Bechers’ work, which was photographed with available light, the changing (weather) conditions were maximally eliminated. In Brasser’s interiors, also shot with available light, the lighting is used precisely to emphasise the difference in the towers’ atmosphere. While there are similarities to be observed between the Bechers and Brasser—both deal with the same subject matter, approached in a serial manner—the motivation behind the photos is entirely different.

With this project, the completeness of the collection is no longer the basis of Brasser’s approach: interiors that fail to produce images of visual interest are simply not photographed. In 1991, Brasser completed Zuiderzeekerken (‘Zuiderzee Churches’), a project commissioned by the Province of North Holland. As with his other projects, he started out with combinations of exteriors and interiors. In this case, however, the emphasis ultimately lies on the interiors. Just as with his water towers, Brasser again sought to investigate the simplicity of the geometric forms when photographing these churches. In a number of these photos, the connection to his drawings and sculpture is unmistakable. Similarities can be found in his preference for simple geometric forms, as in some of the Grandfey Bridge photos. Furthermore, in the Grandfey project he combined some of the photos in collages that are highly comparable to the forms he created in his drawings simply by twisting or scaling down a given form or line. Through the manner in which space is represented, a number of Brasser’s other photos shot at Grandfey convey a more sculptural interest. The same can be said of his depictions of fortifications: Brasser photographs bunkers as works of sculpture. This confirms that, in photography as well, three-dimensional form and spatial effect intrigue him.

Brasser shows no interest in photographic technique. He photographs with available light. Developing and printing are generally left to others. Nevertheless, Brasser’s choice of printers—e.g. Harm Botman—confirms he still places substantial value on print quality. His Berlin projects were photographed with a Nikkormat 35mm camera with a 50mm and a 28mm lens. For the Grandfey-project, he worked with a Rollei 6×6 camera. In recent years, Brasser uses two Plaubel Makina 6×7 cameras, with both a standard and a wide-angle lens.

Fons Brasser’s oeuvre holds a unique and somewhat isolated place in contemporary Dutch photography. The reason for this lies in the fact that, first and foremost, he is an artist who works with a variety of media, including photography. While Brasser seems scarcely influenced by his colleagues in the Netherlands, he is entirely aware of work produced by a wide array of international photographers, such as Eadweard Muybridge, Eugène Atget, Bernd and Hilla Becher, and Dieter Appelt. Throughout his ten-year ‘career’ as photographer, Brasser has taken a path entirely of his own choosing. In the early 1980s, he was the first Dutch proponent of the ‘new documentary’ photography. A more aesthetic direction, leaning towards abstraction, is already perceivable in his photographic work dating back to this time. Just as the ‘new documentary’ movement appears to be reaching its peak in the Netherlands, he has now turned to a highly formal approach. More than anything, Brasser is an artist who works autonomously, as well in his photographic work. This autonomous work, however, has also led to commissioned work along the way, both from the government and the corporate world. Aspects such as proportion and order, and randomness versus system, play an important role in his photographic work, just as in his drawings and collages. The manner in which Brasser sets up, prepares, and subsequently actualises his photography projects can best be described as conceptual.


Primary bibliography

images in:

Armando, Machthebbers. Verslagen uit Berlijn en Toscane, Amsterdam (De Bezige Bij) 1983, p. 18, 55, 100.

Avenue 19 (juni 1984) 6, p. 106, 109.

Armando, Krijgsgewoel, Amsterdam (De Bezige Bij) 1986, p. 22, 28, 34, 36, 38, 49, 60, 73, 89, 99, 116, 132, 155, 170.

Hans Brand en Jan Brand, De Hollandse Waterlinie, Utrecht/Antwerpen (Reflex) 1986.

Peter Kant e.a., De Stelling van Amsterdam. Vestingwerken rond de hoofdstad 1880-1920, Beetsterzwaag (Ama) z.j.

K. Elhorst, De Hollandse waterlinie, Gorinchem (De Ruiter) 1988 (serie: Informatie 716), omslag.

Secondary bibliography

Leo Delfgaauw, Maat en regelmaat. Foto’s en tekeningen van Fons Brasser, in Archis. Tijdschrift voor architectuur, stedebouw en beeldende kunst (mei 1986) 5, p. 36-37 (met foto’s).

Ko van Leeuwen, Fons Brasser knipt gaten in de Hollandsche Waterlinie, in Haarlems Dagblad 28 juni 1986.

Jan Zumbrink, Monumentale pracht van kracht. Haarlemmer Fons Brasser fotografeerde verdedigingslinie, in Haarlems Dagblad 10 maart 1987.

Leo Delfgaauw, Over een sculptuur van Fons Brasser, in Fodor (1987) 5, p. 26, 28-29.

Leo Divendal, Fotografie in Haarlem, in Haarlems Dagblad 6 juni 1987.

Daniel Salzmann, Kreise und Vierecke. Fons Brasser in der Galerie Sonderegger, in Freiburger Nachrichten 11 juni 1987.

Paul Depondt, Couleure locale. Brasser in Fotomania, in De Volkskrant 14 november 1987.

Robbert van Venetië, Foto’s als bewijs van een bezetenheid, in Mare 3 december 1987.

Annet Zondervan, Vreemd Perspektief /Strange perspective, in Perspektief (april 1989) 35, p. 38-50 (met foto’s).

Auteur onbekend, Selected curricula vitae, in Perspektief (april 1989) 35, p. 88.

Leo Divendal, Ruimte verbindend element op het platte vlak. Foto-expositie bij galerie Rumpff, in Haarlems Dagblad 23 september 1989

John Oomkes, Verkommerde plekken, in Haarlems Dagblad 29 september 1990.

Walter Tschopp, Fons Brasser 1982-1989. Grandfey – Mein Sonnenschein, in Brennpunkt. Zeitschrift der Bewegung Pro Freiburg september 1990, p. 12-20.

Ida Jager, Fons Brasser toont de vergankelijkheid. Berlin Geisterbahn, in De Volkskrant 27 oktober 1990.

Cees Straus, Op de spookbaan in Berlijn is het erg stil, in Trouw 30 oktober 1990.

Bianca Stigter, Berlin-Berlin in NRC Handelsblad 9 november 1990.

(Folder) Documentaire fotografie. Opdrachten 1991. Provincie Noord-Holland, Haarlem 1991.

Auteur onbekend, Fons Brasser. Watertorens, in Noorderlichtkrant 91, p. 11.

Linda Roodenburg, Fons Brasser. Bezeten van systematiek / Obsessed with systems, in Perspektief (oktober 1991) 42, p. 4-11 (met foto’s).

Herma Hekkema, Abstract, in Nieuwsblad van het Noorden 4 november 1991.

Sjoerd Cusveller, Op zoek naar een nieuw perspectief. Onvrede met architectuurfotografie, in De Architect (1992) 4, p. 95-101.

(Vouwblad) Nicole Roepers, Fons Brasser, tekeningen, collages, fotografie. Leiden 1992


1987 (e) Haarlem, Provinciehuis, Fons Brasser.

1987 (e) Purmerend, Museum Waterland,

1987 (g) Heemstede, Galerie De Bleeker.

1987 (e) Leiden, Galerie Fotomania, Fons Brasser.

1987 (e) Fribourg, Galerie Sonderegger, Cercles et Carrés.

1988 (g) Rotterdam, Perspektief, Vreemd Perspektief.

1988 (e) Haarlem, Vleeshal.

1989 (g) Haarlem, Galerie RumpfF, Fotowerken.

1989 (g) Utrecht, Jaarbeurs (Beatrixgebouw), De tweede dimensie.

1990 (g) Rotterdam, Galerie Fotomania, Nederlandse Landschappen.

1990 (g) Rotterdam, Perspektief, Berlin-Berlin in Rotterdam (Fons Brasser en Joachim Brohm).

1991 (e) Rotterdam, Galerie Fotomania. Fons Brasser: Interieurs 1988-1991.

1991 (e) Groningen, Centrum voor Architectuur en Stedebouw, Fons Brasser. De watertorens (Fotomanifestatie Noorderlicht).

1992 (e) Leiden, De Waag, Fons Brasser. Tekeningen, collages, fotografie.

1993 (e) Heemstede, Het Oude Slot, Fons Brasser. Fotografie.

1993 (e) Haarlem, Frans Halsmuseum (De Vishal), Fons Brasser- De Torens. Fotoprojekt 1988-1993.


Haarlem, Fons Brasser

Leiden, Prentenkabinet, bibliotheek en documentatiebestand.


Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum.

Berlijn, Landeskonservator.

Den Haag, Rijksdienst Beeldende Kunst.

Haarlem, Frans Halsmuseum.

Haarlem, Provincie Noord-Holland, Dienst Welzijn, Economie en Bestuur.

Haarlem, Provincie Noord-Holland, Dienst Milieu en Water.

Haarlem, Rijksarchief Noord-Holland.

Utrecht, Nederlandse Spoorwegen.