Universiteit Leiden

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Subject guide


The photographs collection of Leiden University Librarie (UBL) contains specimens of almost all photographic processes from the history of the medium, rare objects and artistic highlights. Together, they shed light on the history of photography as a technique, a means of scientific, historic and personal documentation, as well as a powerful and omnipresent medium of visual communication and one of the most popular means of expression from the personal living space. Nearly every artistic current and technical development of photography is represented in the photo collection.

Search for photographs in the Catalogue. You can make a request via the Catalogue. They can be viewed in the Special Collections Reading Room, but only after 24 hours minimum, due to necessary acclimation. Use Digital Collections for the viewing of digitized photographs.

In the field of photography history, the experimental episode  from 1839 to 1860 is called the period of Early Photography. The Leiden photo collection contains a complete – and in the Netherlands the most elaborate – overview of early photographic processes and appearances. All photographic techniques, like daguerreotype, ambrotype, tintype and pannotype are represented in the collection. Specimina from early photographic techniques are mainly part of the subcollections of the NAFV (Nederlandse Amateur Fotografen Vereniging, ‘Netherlands Amateur Photographers Association’), the BNAFV (Bond van Nederlandse Amateur Fotografen Verenigingen, 'Federation of Netherlands Amateur Photographers Associations'), the collections of private collectors Auguste Gregoire (1888-1971) and Maurits Muller Massis (1891-1992), completed with additional buyings and donations. Special mention deserve the early experiments by photo pioneer William  Henry Fox Talbot, Nicéphore Niépce and  Sir John Herschel and an ‘excursion daguerrienne’ by Adolph Schaefer of 1845 to archaeological treasures in the former Dutch East Indies.

With the arrival on the market, around 1860, of prefabricated photographic papers, the age dawns of popularization of photography. At the end of the nineteenth century, photography becomes affordable and within reach for a larger audience. In many cities, photo studios are established, that make use of standardized methods and provide people with more handy and cheap cameras, accessories, photographic papers, ready-made photos and albums. Slowly, photography becomes a mass medium.

At the end of the nineteenth century, painters experimented with the photographic medium. They used photography as documentation while painting certain details, or explored typically photographic effects such as blurring through movement, overshining and random framing, to use this in their painting.

Photography amateurs were very important for the development of the technique, infrastructure and communication channels of photography. Before professional education and presentation platforms came into existence, they took care of the building up and international exchange of knowledge on photography. Also, they founded the first museological photo collections and tried to get artistic, pictorialistic photography into the museum rooms. Leiden University has the richest collection of Dutch pictorialist photography.

In the inter-war period, a reaction occurred to pictorialism. From abroad and often connected with leftish political convictions, a modernist ‘New Photography’ came up. Photographers of the New Photography movement, clearly did not want to imitate styles and platforms of painting, that were rejected for being ‘bourgeois’. Instead, photography, together with graphic design and film, was considered as the mediums to produce the visual language of modern times.

After the Second World War, a kind of documentary photography became prominent, in which man and the ‘condition humaine’ become central point of interest. Photographers pointed their cameras on social issues that became manifest and visual in private lives. They often pursued the ideal to contribute, with their photography, to social change. Also, photographers became more aware of their artistry. Because museums hardly considered photography as art until the end of the twentieth century, photographers often used the photobook as an important platform in which they could express themselves autonomously.

In practice, the circuits of documentary and art photography are often separate. A different subcollection exists of work by photographers who deliberately position themselves as artists and who aim to develop, present and trade their work in gallery and museum circles.

  • Collection guide NFK
  • Collection guide Meinard Woldringh
  • Collection guide Gerard Fieret
  • Collection guide Helena van der Kraan
  • Collection guide Michel Szulc Krzyzanowski

The photo collection of Leiden University contains a large amount of artists’ portraits, that have been acquired from various sources over the years. Portraits of artists have been made by photographers varying from Nadar, Willem Witsen, Edward Steichen (a famous portrait of sculptor August Rodin), Henry Berssenbrugge, Paul Citroen, Stephen Shore (portraits of Andy Warhol), Helena van der Kraan, Koos Breukel, the Amsterdam-based gallery owner Paul Andriesse and others.

Continuously, the Leiden photo collection is enlarged with new acquisitions of photography that matter for our understanding of the medium. Acquisitions are in retrospect, to complete the representation of a historical phenomenon of photography, but also from the oeuvres of photographers that are active and produce now. Sometimes, like in the case of the oeuvre of Hendrik Kerstens, UBL attaches itself for a longer period to a photographers’ work. Also, the curating of exhibitions – in collaboration with museums or photography schools – regularly stimulates the creation of new work.

The photographic heritage collection is accompanied by documentation that enters the collection with acquisitions. Often, this is non-published documentary and archival material on photographers and photography. Beside the regular book colletion in the reference library of the photocollection, this material forms an important source of information for researchers and students . Like the photo collection itself, the Leiden University documentation collection on photography is the oldest in the Netherlands.

The embedding in the university renders the photo collections a center of academic research and education on photography. There are several bachelor and master courses from universities but also from art academies, that make use of the photo collection. UBL is a unique place where original vintage photography can be researched hands-on from different academic disciplines. Several initiatives are being undertaken from the photo collection as well, to stimulate academic activity.

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