“I photographed what I saw. Then you shouldn’t be childish.” With those two simple sentences, photographer Eddy Posthuma de Boer, in an interview with this newspaper two years ago, described his work excellently. The renowned photographer passed away on Sunday in his hometown of Amsterdam at the age of ninety.
When Posthuma de Boer got a box camera during the Second World War, he was sold. This is what he would do from now on: record what he saw. And that was quite something for Posthuma de Boer, who was born in Amsterdam in 1931. At a young age he saw classmates being taken away, an image that would always stay with him: “When my brother and I ran to Olympiaplein, all trams were waiting there. I saw that my classmates were in it, Paul Thousand, who always sat next to me in the school desk, and his twin brother Harold. We still waved at each other. They were 14 when they were finally killed in Sobibor. That’s a story that will never leave your soul,” he said NRC.
Whether this was also the reason that, as a young photographer, he was influenced by humanist photography after the war is a mystery. This social documentary photography, which emerged in Europe after the Second World War, emphasized man and the short life. It was a relatively optimistic movement that wanted to connect people and believed in the possibility of social progress. Photographers Eva Besnyö (1910-2003), Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) and Robert Doisneau (1912-1994) were examples for Posthuma de Boer. Sometimes he captured the positive: the Netherlands in color and (re)emergence. But he wasn’t pretentious about it, sometimes the assignment simply required a positive-toned image, and then he made it.
But in the end Posthuma de Boer would take a different path, apart from his examples. In 1948 he was able to work for the ANP as an assistant laboratory technician, to start his own freelance photographer five years later. He remained that until the end, working for, among other things de Volkskrant, The watchword, Avenue, for which he made reports together with Cees Nooteboom , Time-Life, Holland Herald (KLM magazine) and Studio (the radio and TV guide of the KRO). The photos he made of Circus Van Bever in 1954-1955 are averse to progress and optimism: a lonely child looking at men on horseback and a clown even more tragic than they usually already are.
Together with his generation and colleagues Ed van der Elsken (1925-1990) and Johan van der Keuken (1938-2001), he increasingly focused on existentialism and less on the myth of progress. Pierre Jansen, who was at the time of the Schiedams Museum (today’s Stedelijk Museum Schiedam), saw the kinship and made successive solo exhibitions in 1961 with Van der Elsken, Van der Keuken and Posthuma de Boer.
These three became famous as the greatest post-war photographers who determined the view of both Amsterdam and the world. Curiously, Posthuma de Boer is the only one of the three not included in the Hall of Fame of Dutch Photography presented last spring.
Posthuma de Boer documented poverty in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, children with leukemia and their parents in Baghdad after the boycott in 1990, drug-addicted children sleeping under a tarpaulin in Colombia. On NRC he said: “When I went to Bogotá or Baghdad, I was supposed to photograph what I saw. The tears come later, so to speak. Not that I was crying in the darkroom, but then you think: damn it! That emotion comes out through my photos. Those are the witnesses of what I saw.”
After Posthuma de Boer started his own business in 1953, he not only made news portraits, but he also met more and more poets and writers. He became a member of the De Kring artists’ society and his involvement with the Dutch writing community would lead to several famous author portraits. For example, the portrait of a sturdy Jan Cremer on a motorcycle is known, but also that of a young and surprisingly mild-looking Armando and the two most beautiful writers’ portraits in the Dutch-speaking area: that of Gerard Reve from 1968 and one of J. Bernlef and K. Skippers from 1967.
Everything that characterizes Reve has been set up at Reve, it is a full picture of a vain, posing author who sits completely natural between three wine bottles, books and statues of Mary, the quill pen visible in the background. The photo of Bernlef and Schippers (made for their art book A check for the dentist from 1967), on which the two writers eat a bouncer, is so good because at the time the two wanted to shake up the world by presenting reality more bluntly in literature. Eating people are never charming in a photo, but it worked with Posthuma de Boer.
In an interview with de Volkskrant
In many an interview Posthuma de Boer described his storage system: many folders in which he kept his photos, arranged thematically: his travels, the periods in Amsterdam, jazz, stairs. Perhaps the most beautiful of them all is the folder that reads ‘everyday happiness’. The fact that he could recognize this everywhere gives added value to the photos in all those other folders.