PhotoLexicon, Volume 16, nr. 32 (November 1999) (en)

Ellen Thorbecke

Rik Suermondt


Ellen Thorbecke (née Kolban) lived in China during the 1930s as a correspondent for various Berlin-based newspapers and as the girlfriend and wife of the Dutch diplomat Willem Thorbecke. To illustrate her articles, Thorbecke produced a unique series of portraits and street scenes taken in rural China, as well as in the cities of Peking, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. Her photos were published in photobooks, accompanied by texts written herself. With the modern design of her reportages on China, Ellen Thorbecke holds a place all of her own in the genre of ethnographic photography.




Ellen Kolban is born on 26 May in Wilmerdorf, just outside Berlin, as the eldest of two daughters of the German entrepreneur and landowner Rudolf Kolban and the Austrian opera singer Hermine Grundmann. Until 1918, she spends her youth in Berlin as well as at her father’s estate in Nieder-Domaslowitz in Austrian Silesia (Eastern Prussia).


Following her parents’ divorce in 1918, Thorbecke lives with her father in Berlin.

Kolban takes classes in the ‘art of speaking’ (grammar) and studies piano at the Sternisches Conservatory.


Kolban marries the German attorney E. Catleen. Both are studying ‘National-ökonomie’ (‘National Economy’) at the university in Berlin. A daughter, Anita, is born in 1924.


Kolban writes articles on theatre and music as a freelance journalist for the Berliner Tageblatt and the Neue Freie Presse.


Kolban meets Willem J.R. Thorbecke during a reception at the Dutch embassy in Berlin. Willem—the grandson of the Dutch statesman J.R. Thorbecke—serves at the embassy as first secretary. A romantic love affair ensues, which results in two long-drawn-out divorce proceedings.


Kolban gives birth to a second daughter, Evelyn, born from her relationship with Thorbecke. As a member of the ‘Gesellschaft für Organisation’ (‘Company for Organisation’), she oversees the reorganisation of the Berlin company ‘Yva photographie’. Kolban purchases a Rolleiflex camera and begins taking her first photos.

Willem Thorbecke settles in Peking, China, where he is named as an ambassador of the Netherlands in China. At the end of October, Kolban likewise travels to China, having been contracted by the Verlag Rudolf Mosse publishing company to make written and photographic contributions on the Far East for publication in a number of Berlin-based newspapers.

Kolban alternates between Shanghai and Thorbecke’s home in Peking.


Kolban’s reports from the Far East are well received. The Berliner Tageblatt gives her a special assignment to write articles as a special correspondent concerning economic and financial relations between China and Japan. In addition, she writes a series of articles for the newspaper Deutsch-Chinesische Nachrichten (‘German-Chinese Reports’), entitled ‘Chinareise ganz allein’ (‘Traveling in China All Alone’).


In February, the British publisher Kelly & Walsh commissions Kolban to compile the photobook Peking Studies. Her text and photos are supplemented with illustrations by the Austrian cartoonist Friedrich H. Schiff, whom she has befriended in China. In the summer of the same year, Thorbecke brings out her first children’s book Three in One, published by Peiyang Press in Tientsin, China. Once again, Schiff does the illustration work. In the coming years, Thorbecke and Schiff will produce four more children’s books.


The British publisher Harper & Brothers publishes Thorbecke’s second photobook, entitled People in China. Both Kolban’s and Thorbecke’s divorces, as well as the couple’s intention to marry, lead to diplomatic problems. Willem Thorbecke relinquishes his position as ambassador and together they return to The Hague. During their voyage home, Ellen shoots photos that are subsequently published together with drawings by Schiff in the book Het geheimzinnige China/Mysterious China (1937), a publication for the Java-China-Japan Line.

Ellen Kolban marries Willem Thorbecke in Prague.


Willem Thorbecke is hired as a management consultant for Philips and settles once again in China in 1936, together with his family. In addition to Anita, Evelyn now also goes along. Ellen Thorbecke writes children’s books and informative publications on Hong Kong and Shanghai (1941), illustrated with her own photos and drawings by Schiff.


In 1941, the family leaves China and departs for South Africa, where Willem Thorbecke finds work as a political advisor to the South African army. Ellen Thorbecke becomes involved in the ‘China Relief’ organisation.


The Thorbecke family resides in Jerusalem. The Harper & Brothers publishing company commissions Ellen Thorbecke to write texts and shoot photos for the book Promised Land (1947), about the settling of Jewish immigrants in Palestine.


The Thorbecke family resides in Lebanon. Ellen Thorbecke works on a book about Beirut, which is never published.


Via Paris, the Thorbecke family moves to the United States, where Willem finds work as a political advisor for Radio Free Europe and becomes a professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta. Ellen Thorbecke ceases photographing. She continues to write articles and give lectures on the Far East at educational institutions and local Rotary clubs.


Ellen and Willem Thorbecke return to the Netherlands. The couple spends one half of the year in The Hague and the other in Florida.


On 11 September, Ellen Thorbecke dies in The Hague.


On 5 May, Willem Thorbecke dies in The Hague.


In Great Britain and the Far East, the photographer and journalist Ellen Kolban Thorbecke earned modest fame with her books Peking Studies (1934) and People in China (1935). In the Netherlands, she remained relatively unknown. Recently, a small portion of Thorbecke’s China archive was rediscovered in Amsterdam by her daughter, Evelyn. It comprises approximately one hundred 6×6 negatives, a dummy with seventy original, pasted-in photos, and five of her books, including the book Shanghai (1941). A majority of Thorbecke’s negatives and prints have been lost.

Thorbecke’s photobooks Peking Studies, People in China, Het geheimzinnige China (‘Mysterious China’, 1937), Hong Kong (1939), and Promised Land (1947) are preserved in various Dutch libraries. These books, together with the small archive that has been retrieved, provide ample insight into her photographic work.

In many ways, Ellen Thorbecke was an exceptional woman. She was distinctive, pretty, possessed flair, was socially gifted, possessed a broad cultural and political interest, and was richly blessed with artistic talent. She belonged to that category of modern, highly motivated women living in the carefree years of the German Weimar Republic. Thorbecke went in search of her own path and worked to establish a career for herself that was social in its orientation. As the child of the well-to-do landowner Rudolf Kolban and the Austrian opera singer Hermine Grundman, Ellen Kolban’s youth was spent in Berlin during the ‘roaring’ 1920s. There she studied piano, ‘the art of speaking’, and economics. In addition, she wrote articles on theatre and music for the German newspapers Berliner Tageblatt and Neue Freie Presse. Thorbecke’s first marriage to the attorney E. Catleen soon ran aground after several years, ultimately leading to long-drawn-out divorce proceedings and forcing her to earn a living on her own for both herself and her daughter, Anita.

As an employee of the ‘Gesellschaft für Organisation’ (‘Company for Organisation’), she became involved in the corporate reorganisation of the Berlin-based company ‘Yva Photographie’ in 1931. It is possibly at this time that her interest in photography first emerged. Thorbecke purchased a Rolleiflex camera and began teaching herself about technique. In 1932, Thorbecke traveled as a correspondent to China, in pursuit of her big love, Willem Thorbecke, who by this time was also the father of her second daughter, Evelyn. It was only in China that photography started to become a serious undertaking: there she began using the camera as an extension of her own journalistic work.

Thorbecke’s first years in China, from 1932 to 1935, were romantic and inspiring. Yet it was also a confusing period. Due to a legal suit involving her first husband, she was forced to travel back and forth between China and Germany on numerous occasions. It was also during this time that she was reunited with Willem Thorbecke, the Dutch ambassador to China, whom she had met during a reception at the Dutch embassy in Berlin back in 1930, at which time he was still serving as first secretary. Their love affair, however, also brought the necessary complications. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs lodged a complaint against the couple’s plan to marry. In the end, Thorbecke resigned, and in 1935, the wedding was finally allowed to take place in Prague. During the intervening years that preceded, Ellen had taken up temporary quarters at the Austrian embassy in Peking, being separated from Willem. Yet she also paid frequent visits to Shanghai, where, from 5 January 1933 on, she was working as a special correspondent for the Berliner Tageblatt, providing updates on the economic and financial relations between China and Japan.

The photos that Ellen Thorbecke shot in China were initially taken to serve as illustrations accompanying the articles that she was writing for newspapers and magazines back in Berlin. Thorbecke’s contract with the publishing company Verlag Rudolf Mosse of October 1931 states that she was expected to furnish two to four ‘unpolitische Text- und Fotoberichte’ (‘apolitical written and photographic reports’) each month concerning her travels across India and China. Furthermore, in 1932 she worked on a series of articles entitled ‘Chinareise ganz allein’ (‘Traveling in China All Alone’) on assignment for Deutsch-Chinesische Nachrichten (‘German-Chinese Reports’), the only German-language newspaper published in China and Japan. On 30 May 1932, the newspaper’s editorial board complimented Thorbecke on the article she had submitted: ‘We can think of no better introduction to the written portion of our bathing section, than this fluid, extraordinarily interesting report about your travel impressions.’ The editors valued the colourful, journalistically engaging picture that she had portrayed of China, while at the same time, her subjects inspired one to reflective thinking. Parts of Thorbecke’s travel account were included in the dummy for China, Please Smile!, along with photographs that she had taken along the way.

During the years that Ellen and Willem Thorbecke lived in China (from 1932 to 1941, with a break in 1935), the country was ravaged by conflict. The Nationalists’ governmental leader, Chiang Kai-shek, was involved in a civil war with the communists of Mao Tse-tung. In addition, there was the issue of Japan’s policy of expansion, laying claims to Manchuria and leading to the large-scale invasion of China in 1937. Just as his important predecessor Sun Yat-sen, who had founded the nationalistic Kuomintang Party, Chiang Kai-shek wanted to set the country on a modern, Western footing. To achieve this, he upheld the three principles introduced by Sun Yat-sen in the aftermath of the last Chinese emperor’s resignation in 1912: nationalism, democracy, and socialism (i.e. improved living standards for the people). In psychological terms, Chinese society was torn by the conflict between the traditional values of Confucianism and Western thinking with its modern lifestyle, to which the younger generation was drawn. ‘East meets West’ had become a perception. During the early 1930s, China was frequently placed in the spotlight by various Western writers, filmmakers, and artists. In 1931, the American author Pearl Buck published her successful novel The Good Earth, in which she expounded the traditional values of the Chinese peasant population for a Western audience, based on the poignant life story of the farmer Wang Lung. Joseph von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich chose Peking as the location for their second film, Shanghai Express (1932). The poet Slauerhoff was drawn to the more mystical and spiritual side of China, but ultimately encountered its downside in the ‘East Asian wasp nests’ of Shanghai and Macao, which he visited as a maritime doctor for the Java-China-Japan Line. The port city of Shanghai was also the backdrop for the Tintin film, The Blue Lotus (1936), written by the Belgian comic illustrator Hergé, in which a young reporter gets caught up in taking on an international gang of smugglers. Beneath the story’s surface lies the questioning of Western, racist prejudice towards ‘the yellow race’. André Malraux’s novel La condition humaine (‘The Human Condition’, 1933) was outright critical, characterising the enormous contrasts between the impoverished Chinese populace living in the cities versus the decadent lifestyle of the Western foreigners.

Less known is the work of the Austrian adventurer and artistic bohemian Friedrich H. Schiff, who made a name for himself in China with his humoristic cartoons and watercolour studies of daily life in Peking and Shanghai during the 1930s. He managed to capture the behaviour of both the Westerners and the Chinese perfectly with his pen drawings. Schiff, who was good friends with both Ellen and Willem Thorbecke, made a highly significant contribution to the photobooks.

‘East meets West’ as well forms a central theme in Ellen Thorbecke’s publications. One of her first efforts was the dummy for China, Please Smile!, produced in close collaboration with Schiff. This album, meant to serve as a model for a potential publisher, contains a curious combination of pasted photos, texts, and drawings. On the first page, we make the acquaintance of the two leading figures, who are both rendered in drawings: the Englishman, Mr. Pim—the prototype of the Western colonial, with his sun helmet, pipe, and camera—and the hospitable Mr. Wu, a Chinese native. Together the two men travel across China. Based on their conversations, the (Western) reader learns about Chinese customs and traditions, as well as the significance of historic monuments. The aim was to create a better understanding of each other’s cultures and to modify the negative image of China held by those in the West, specifically that of a barbaric country where people are continually fighting. According to the authors, this could best be achieved by devoting attention to the ordinary person and his day-to-day existence. In the introduction, Ellen Thorbecke writes: ‘What Mr. Wu shows to his friend Mr. Pim is not CHINA nor all its problems, it is neither politics nor sinology but the way of men with hearts full of affection and curiosity for this strange country of China which Mr. Pim is eager to see and to understand. Let us go with them, (…) let us admire China’s determination to struggle out of war, poverty and misery into a future of progress, peace and prosperity.’

In the double page that follows, the viewer is presented with a wide array of subjects, ranging from brief reportages on public transportation and road construction, to impressions of the civil war with photos of demolished buildings and soldiers waiting at a train station. Attention is also given to superstition and religious rituals (fortune tellers, the Taoist ‘Temple of Hellish Tortures’), as well as various segments of the population typically encountered in China, such as the ‘sea gypsies’, eunuchs, and beggars. The photos convey a warm interest in these people. When feasible, Thorbecke made direct eye contact or asked them to pose for her camera just for an instant. Her aim was to depict people in their current frame of mind. Some of the faces are marked by hard labour, others by poverty and sadness. Yet there is also the joy inspired by the birth of a child and there is lots of laughter, as encountered in the charming portrait of the enigmatic Mongolian princess Nirgidma Torhout, who Thorbecke characterises in the caption as ‘the smiling Mona Lisa’.

In contrast to Thorbecke’s photos, Schiff’s drawings are much more cliché in nature. On occasion, the sketches with Mr. Pim and Mr. Wu even take on a somewhat of a jocular undertone. In one instance, Schiff has the duo looking at a photo of a caravan of camels, while in the background, one sees the outline of a steam locomotive, i.e. a symbol of Western progress. Across from the photos of hardworking coolies, he places a heavily gesticulating Mr. Pim, who brings Mr. Wu’s attention to modern transport by autobus and lorrie. The message conveyed here reflects the neo-colonial philosophy. Yet the suggestion that life in China will improve as a result of an economic collaboration with the West stands in contrast to Thorbecke’s open-minded photos and journalistic texts.

The dummy China, please smile! is a mixture of social document, sketchbook, tourist guide, and travel diary. It is perhaps precisely because of its diverse scope that publishers showed no interest in this project. In some cases, such as on the pages concerning rural China, the photos and texts bring to mind associations with Pearl Buck’s novel The Good Earth. The intention of both authors was the same, i.e. to provide an account of the Chinese peasant population’s traditional way of life and submissive character in a respectful and empathetic manner. In this regard, Thorbecke was very much aware of her own voyeuristic role as a photographer and journalist, as demonstrated on a page with two photos of an old woman and three children sitting in front of their farmhouse. In the second shot, the woman shields one of the children from the camera. The caption reads: ‘Chinese country people have a marked aversion for having their pictures taken. It is the fate of many foreign photo enthusiasts, to discover just a pair of disappearing legs on the negative, where they had expected to see a wonderful snap shot of Chines life. Chinese people, who are too old or too weak to escape, try to hide their beloved descendants from the Bad Spirits which they believe live in the small black box.’

Children play an important role in China, please smile! Thorbecke was touched by the expression on the face of a girl emptying her small rice bowl with chopsticks. She also had an eye for child labour in a weaving company, as well as for sculptures in the Temple of Fertility, where women brought their offerings in order to induce pregnancy.

It was in this period that Thorbecke began writing children’s stories. In 1934, the book Three in One was published, featuring illustrations by Schiff. Together they would compile four other small books, which were sometimes situated in China and required children to complete and colour in the drawings themselves.

After the unpublished China, please smile!, there followed the beautifully produced photobook Peking Studies, brought out by the publisher Kelly & Walsh in 1934. The publication falls into the same category as the many books about tourism and ethnography, for which a market had arisen in the period between the two world wars due to the expansion policies of the colonial powers. Peking Studies was set up in the same way as its predecessor, with the only difference being that the pasted in originals were now replaced by high quality copper intaglio reproductions. Once again, the cartoon figures of Mr. Pim and Mr. Wu appear amidst the photos, in order to lead the viewer around to observe the monuments and inhabitants of Peking. Thorbecke now turned her camera to the architecture of the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. She also photographed a Buddhist burial ritual and took portrait photos of young students as well as actors at the Chinese theatre. Most striking, however, are her shots of various street types in China, including fortune tellers, barbers, street market sellers, cobblers, and rickshaw coolies. She portrays them as hard-working people, trying to escape their impoverished existences. Western inhabitants and ‘modern’ Chinese people are entirely absent from her reportage, just as the modern-day street scene. This is not the case with Schiff’s drawings, which depict a sophisticated Peking and provide a light commentary on the people and situations captured in the photos. The portrait of a Chinese bride, for instance, has been adorned with the outline of a Western wedding couple attired in black suit, tall hat, and a white veil. And adjacent to the photo of a candy salesman is a drawing of Mr. Pim and Mr. Wu lunching at a snack bar. The running gag throughout the book is the tourist Mr. Pim, who is always taking photos wherever he goes

In the curious, collage-like layout of Peking Studies, the drawings sometimes literally cross over the edges of the photos, with the black and red bars ensuring that the textual and visual elements together form a whole. The layout refers to the dynamic ‘typo-photo’ experiments of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy of the 1920s as well as illustrated magazines of the 1930s. The last page of Peking Studies states that all of the shots were taken with a Rolleiflex. This camera was brought out on the market in 1928 by the company Franke & Heidecke of Braunschweig, Germany. The firm was apparently so impressed by Thorbecke’s photos that they decided to sponsor the book.

With its square ground glass screen and 6×6 roll film negatives, the Rolleiflex was a multi-functional camera that could be used for reportage purposes as well as architecture, landscapes, and portraits. This, along with its ease of use, is what explains why this camera was so favoured by professionals and amateurs well into the 1960s. Ellen Thorbecke, who was minimally trained in photography, saw it as the ideal camera for her journalistic and ethnographic projects. Although her heart lay in portraiture and social reportage, in China she used it for every genre.

Contrary to the Leica 35 mm, which because of its compactness and lightweight emerged as the favourite camera of photojournalists, the Rollei had the advantage that one could photograph situations at waist level without disturbing people. The camera was less ‘hunt-oriented’ and aggressive in character than the Leica, with both casual snapshots and posed photos possible. And when necessary, one could work very quickly with a Rolleiflex, as Thorbecke showed in several of her portrait series of children at play.

Another quality of the Rolleiflex was that the clear frosted glass showed the entire image, which enabled photographers to address composition in the shooting phase. The 6×6 negatives, however, also allowed one to choose the crop afterwards in the darkroom, without any substantial loss in sharpness. In a comparison between the remaining negatives and the copper intaglio reproductions in her books, Thorbecke often chose a tighter framing with the composition in mind, eliminating other distracting visual elements. Her negatives are well lit and developed. Prints were produced on Agfa Brovira paper, furnished with a black edge. Thorbecke is likely to have left the developing and printing to professionals, who followed her stipulations.

In the third book, People in China (1935), published by Harper & Brothers in London, Thorbecke’s double talent as a writer and photographer came to its full fruition. This publication is a sociological study of various types of people living in China during the early 1930s. Thorbecke made thirty-two portraits of (as described on the text jacket): ‘(…) men and women in different walks of life who represent the old and the new order, from the aristocrat and the philosopher to the humble rickshawcoolie and the sing-song girl of the tea-house.’ Together with the wittily written texts, the photos provide an illustration of the ‘(…) varying characteristics of the Chinese (…)’ and the ‘(…) psychological peculiarities and customs of the people (…)’.

Preceding the photos, Willem Thorbecke presents an overview of the history and culture of China in an introductory essay, focusing on the major changes that occurred under the leadership of the ‘father of the fatherland’ Sun Yat-sen in the aftermath of the last emperor’s departure. Thorbecke observes a deterioration of religious values, characterises the Red Army and the communists as bandits, and signals the rise—under Chiang Kai-shek—of a new generation of Chinese people brought up with Western ideas. With all of these sweeping changes, China is experiencing an identity crisis that will hopefully be resolved in the future, when ‘(…) a new credo awakens the five hundred million out of their apathy (…)’.

Willem Thorbecke’s introduction—coloured by liberal beliefs—serves as the framework for Ellen Thorbecke’s portraits. Her style is noticeably modern. With the exception of a few traditional full-length poses (The Thirteen-Year-Old Husband, The Camel Driver) and reportage-like snapshots of Chinese people from the lower social classes (The Rickshaw Coolie), most of the portraits can be characterised as extreme close-ups. This visual idiom is a reference to the Bauhaus and the New Photography, but also to Helmar Lerski’s influential publication Köpfe des Alltags (‘Everyday Faces’, 1931), a series of expressive portraits depicting anonymous German labourers and artisans.

The texts accompanying Thorbecke’s photos are written with empathy, often providing extremely accurate psychological characterisations. The Ultra-Modern Girl is one such case, photographed from a low vantage point in close-up. When considering her facial expression, it appears as if a bright future lies ahead for her. From the text we learn that she comes from a well-to-do family, that she has had a quality education, but also that ‘(…) she talks fast and loud, is formidably independent and capable, very intelligent, and mostly very unhappy (…)’. The same existential irresolution is likewise attributed to The Student, who, with his modern clothing and Western hairstyle, sits outdoors on a bench staring into nowhere in deep contemplation. Thorbecke writes that the young man is experiencing a conflict with his father, a wealthy businessman opposed to Western innovation: ‘The student is twenty years of age and has everything in life—youth, wealth and chances for a great career. Yet his soul is torn by the problems and sorrows which are typical of the spirit of his age. (…) He sits, hour after hour, staring into the waters, groping for what youth has been seeking since the world existed—for understanding and truth.’ The sense of loneliness and alienation, described in such pleasing terms, is enhanced by the empty space of an adjacent bench as well included in the composition.

It sometimes seems as if Ellen Thorbecke adapted her photographic style to the social status and modernity of the Chinese people. This can be observed in the traditional portrait of the The Thirteen-Year-Old Husband and his wife, who pose full-length and in a stately manner in the spirit of the nineteenth-century ethnographic shots of non-Western types of people. The bride and groom show little external affection for each other.

By contrast, in the close-up of The Happy Couple—depicting a modern married couple, with the husband being a doctor and both having obtained their educations abroad—both turn to each other with a look that clearly conveys they are deeply in love.

In planning People in China, Thorbecke may possibly have been influenced by August Sander’s famous photobook Antlitz der Zeit (English title: ‘Face of Our Time’), which was published in Berlin in 1929 as the first volume of a large-scale project entitled ‘Menschen des Zwanzigsten Jahrhundert’ (‘People of the Twentieth Century’). Both publications feature a typological categorisation of people from one specific country, grouped according to profession, age, and social background. It was Sander’s desire to photograph the shifting twentieth-century awareness of his fellow German countrymen, based on their faces, posture, and attire. Sander’s photos are accompanied by a description of the status of the person portrayed: Proletariat Mother, Communist Leader, The Master Builder, Middle-Class Family, Bohemian. Ellen Thorbecke exhibited the same ambition in her portraits of those representing both the old and the new China. But where Sander places an individual in his own surroundings and tries to objectively offer proof of the social tensions in German society, Thorbecke concentrates more on the face, in order to portray the psychological frame of mind of each person, in a country where Eastern and Western philosophies clash with one another. In her ‘subjectifying’ portraits, she tries to penetrate through to the soul of the Chinese by means of language and image. What does he think or feel? In the close-ups and the texts, the sitter’s inner thoughts are captured and merged together in the form of ‘word-pictures’, as the cover text explains.

In Antlitz der Zeit, August Sander registered a desire for stability—a sociology that appears to contradict the future course of history with the Nazis coming to power in 1932. Ellen Thorbecke’s classification of Chinese society would also become outdated by the historic turn of events, once Mao Tse-tung founded the communist Chinese People’s Republic in 1949 and threw all Western ideology overboard. In 1935, Willem Thorbecke resigned from his position at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and returned with his family back to The Hague. The decision was made based on the couple’s plans to marry, but also because of their broader thinking with respect to Dutch colonial policy towards the Dutch East Indies. Now back in the Netherlands, Ellen Thorbecke seized the opportunity to visit a number of Dutch tourist spots and to do a photo reportage on the Dutch fishing village of Volendam. Just as she did in China, Thorbecke turned her camera to traditional lifestyles and photographed fisherman in the harbour, dressed in their local attire. For the Java-China-Japan Line, a shipping company based in Amsterdam, she compiled the special publication Het geheimzinnige China (‘Mysterious China’), her only book that was published in the Netherlands.

In 1936, the Thorbeckes returned to China. Willem was hired as a business advisor with Philips. Together with their children, they initially lived in Hong Kong, and later in Shanghai. Ellen Thorbecke made informative booklets on both cities, featuring her own photographs and texts. Artistically, these popular editions were not of the same quality as her previous publications. Thorbecke was now also taking photographs of her children. In 1941, the family left China because of the war, subsequently moving to South Africa.

For the time being, Thorbecke put her photography on hold. It was not until 1944 that she turned to her camera again. In South Africa, Thorbecke was asked to make a photo reportage about the building of the new Israeli state. It was to be done in the same style as her books on Hong Kong and Shanghai: in other words, a popular approach, void of any political undertone. The family stayed in Jerusalem for a year, where Ellen photographed the steady flow of arriving immigrants. Following the proclamation of the Jewish state, her book Promised Land, featuring an introduction by Willem Thorbecke, was published in London in 1947 by Harper & Brothers. In the texts as well as the photos—now reduced to illustrations—Ellen Thorbecke describes the history of the Jewish people, painting an optimistic picture of the future of Israel.

With the family’s move to the United States in 1946, Ellen Thorbecke’s activities as a photographer came to a definitive end.

For Ellen Thorbecke, photography was a hobby that could easily be combined with her journalistic work. Her archive is small, but exceptional, as only a few photographers were ever so intensively involved with China during the early 1930s. It is not known whether Thorbecke ever maintained contacts with other photographers. She was undoubtedly familiar with the work of the German photographers August Sander and Helmar Lerski. She was also most certainly aware of the ideas of the New Photography as well as the photojournalistic work being done for newspapers and magazines back in Germany. High points in Thorbecke’s oeuvre are the ethnographic photobooks Peking Studies and People in China, which allowed her to display her talent as a writer and a photographer. At the same time, they attest to her knowledge of and love for Chinese culture.

Thorbecke moved in international journalistic and diplomatic circles and allowed herself to be guided by liberal thinking in the execution of her projects. Just as her husband Willem, Ellen Thorbecke was reticent when it came to the mentality of the Western missionaries. Thorbecke never exhibited her photos, nor did she theorise about photography as a form of artistic expression. First and foremost, the camera provided her with a window to the world. And that world was China.


Primary bibliography

Diverse artikelen, in Berliner Tageblatt 1928-1935 (vanaf 1932 met foto’s).

Diverse artikelen, in Neue Freie Presse 1928-1935 (vanaf 1932 met foto’s).

Diverse artikelen, in Deutsch-Chinesische Nachrichten 1932-1935 (met foto’s).

Ellen Catleen (foto’s en tekst) en Schiff (tekeningen), China. Please smile!, z.j. (ongepubliceerd).

Ellen Catleen (tekst en foto’s) en Schiff (tekeningen), Peking studies, Shanghai (Kelly &Walsh) 1934.

Ellen Thorbecke (tekst en foto’s), Schiff (tekeningen) en W.J.R. Thorbecke (inl.), People in China, Londen (Harper & Brothers) 1935.

Ellen Thorbecke (tekst en foto’s) en Schiff (tekeningen), Het geheimzinnige China/Mysterious China. Aangeboden door de/presented by the Java-China-Japan-Lijn, z.p. [Den Haag] (Leopolds) z.j. [1937].

Ellen Thorbecke (tekst en foto’s) en Schiff (tekeningen), Hong Kong, Shanghai/Hong Kong/Singapore (Kelly &Walsh) z.j. [1939].

Ellen Thorbecke (tekst en foto’s) en Schiff (tekeningen), Shanghai, Shanghai (North China Daily News & Herald) 1941.

Ellen Thorbecke (tekst en foto’s) en W.J.R. Thorbecke (inl.), Promised land, New York/Londen (Harper & Brothers Publishers) 1947.



Ellen Catleen (tekst) en Schiff (tekeningen), Three in one, Tientsin-Peking (Peiyang Press) z.j. [1934].

Ellen Catleen (tekst) en Schiff (tekeningen), Beetleland, Tientsin- Peking (Peiyang Press) z.j.

Ellen Catleen (tekst) en Schiff (tekeningen), Raggie’s Adventures in China, Tientsin-Peking (Peiyang Press) z.j.

Ellen Thorbecke (tekst) en Schiff (tekeningen), KingHenry, Shanghai (Kelly &Walsh) zj.

Ellen Thorbecke (tekst) en Schiff (tekeningen), Williams trip to Asia, Shanghai (Kelly & Walsh) zj.


foto ‘s in:

Berliner Tageblatt 1932-1935.

Deutsch-Chinesische Nachrichten 1932-1935.

Neue Freie Presse 1932-1935.


1999 (e) Leiden, Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde, Ellen Thorbecke: foto’s van China (1932-1935).


Amsterdam, mevr. E. Thorbecke.


Rotterdam, Nederlands Fotomuseum