With literary titles such as The blind photographer and The darkroom of Damocles, it is no secret that the writer Willem Frederik Hermans (1921–1995) was passionate about photography. A less well known fact, however, is that he considered retraining as a photographer.
To conclude the Hermans anniversary year, celebrating the centenary of the writer’s birth, Fotomuseum Den Haag presents an exhibition focusing on Hermans’ photography. Hermans’ closed archive was opened by Willem Frederik Hermans institute especially for this exhibition and the accompanying publication. Dozens of vintage and new prints show that while his photos may not have been of the highest level technically, they are permeated with the vision of the writer. The exhibition Rather important photos will be on show from 20 August 2022 to 8 January 2023.

The discovery of the camera
In 1957, when failing to make progress on his novel The darkroom of Damocles, Willem Frederik Hermans turned to photography. He bought a twin-lens Kalloflex (a Japanese version of the Rolleiflex) and became apprenticed to his friend, the photographer Nico Jesse (1911 – 1976). Hermans became a fanatic photographer of his immediate surroundings in Groningen: cats in the living room, the view of the Ossenmarkt, window displays, children playing and people in the street. He enlarged and printed the negatives himself in his darkroom at home. In the period that followed, Hermans took his camera further afield to cities such as Amsterdam and Paris. He stayed in the French capital a number of times, and had a particular eye for graveyards, urinals, advertising columns, markets and statues’ feet.

Documents from the archives reveal that after his photography trips to Paris in the late 1950s, Hermans aspired to a career as a professional photographer. At that time, this was no easy task; to call oneself a photographer, one needed a diploma from a photography school. Hermans made several attempts to get one, but never succeeded. Nevertheless, in 1958 he registered the company name ‘Persfotobedrijf W.F. Hermans’ at the Chamber of Commerce, with the company’s main activity listed as ‘producing press photographs’.

The photographic oeuvre largely consists of street scenes, in which elements of chaos and decay are always discernible. Even in the most fashionable Parisian boulevard, Hermans aimed his lens at a side street where demolition was visible. As in his literary oeuvre, Hermans’ gaze was that of the geologist who recognises the underlying structures in every landscape, and who observes that everything that surrounds us is irrevocably subject to decay.

Yet Hermans did not only photograph lonely houses, crumbling tombs and torn posters; he also attempted to capture people. Whereas Nico Jesse tried to get as close as possible to his models and Ed van der Elsken always struck up a conversation through his camera, however, the shy photographer Hermans invariably remained at a safe distance. He snapped passing women unnoticed from a pavement cafe or spied a kissing couple from the bushes. His shyness was a constant obstacle, meaning that his portraits rarely measured up to those of Jesse or Van der Elsken. He was thus left with ‘safe’ subjects such as small children and cats, and, first and foremost, the safest subject of all: himself. Hermans took self-portraits throughout his life, whether with a self-timer or in a mirror.

Exhibition and publication
Subject to extremely strict conditions, graphic designer Piet Schreuders and literary specialist Bram Oostveen were granted access to the Hermans photo archive, which has been kept at the Royal Library of the Netherlands since 2001 and was opened up by Literatuurmuseum Den Haag. For the exhibition Rather important photos, these two Hermans experts selected dozens of photos from almost 15,000 photos, most of which are on display for the first time. Some of the photos were never even seen by Hermans, because they were produced from negatives that he himself had not printed.

The exhibition presents a mix of vintage and new prints. The title of the exhibition is a reference to Hermans’ archive. A folder entitled Rather important photos contained a motley collection of 57 prints: portraits of Hermans himself, his parents and other relatives and friends, as well as photos of posters, the Arc de Triomphe and houses in Vienna.

The exhibition is accompanied by a publication of the same name, with a wide selection of photos and contributions by Wim van Sinderen (curator at Fotomuseum Den Haag) and Piet Schreuders. The book is published by Hannibal Books, and will be presented during the closing ceremony of the Hermans anniversary year on 1 September in the Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam. The book will be published in Dutch only.

Piet Schreuders is a graphic designer, small-scale publisher (De Poezenkrant, Furore) and co-curator of the exhibition Rather important photos. Bram Oostveen works at the Huygens Institute and was closely involved in the realisation of the 24-volume Complete Works of Willem Frederik Hermans, the final volume of which will be published on 1 September 2022.

With thanks to the estate of Willem Frederik Hermans, the Willem Frederik Hermans institute, the Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands, Literatuurmuseum Den Haag, Hannibal Books and the Erik Bos Foundation.

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