Could the photographer WF Hermans be on a par with the writer Willem Frederik Hermans (1921-1995)? He performs in the exhibition collected from his private archive Pretty important pictures in the Fotomuseet The Hague, free after one of his caustic short stories, A prodigy or a total loss to have been? The title of the exhibition more or less reveals the answer: no, he was far from a prodigy with the Leica camera. The exhibition is also a treasure trove, where post-war Europe and the great writer’s experience come to life.
There are three rooms where guest curator and graphic designer Piet Schreuders and literature specialist and Hermans expert Bram Oostveen show 18 vintage prints (prints by Hermans himself), new large enlargements and 75 slides. Plus some of the, by Schreuders’ estimate, ‘just under a hundred’ cameras that Hermans eagerly acquired in his lifetime, in addition to hundreds of typewriters. The exhibition, with the publication of the last part of Complete works, the end of the Hermans year. The photo book will be published on 1 September Pretty important pictures partly overlaps with this exhibition, but contains a much wider selection.
That Hermans enthusiastically picked up the camera from the fifties is allowed, given a number of widely published self-portraits and e.g. the color photo for the cover of his novel Never sleep again, are generally known. The generations that Damocles’ dark chamber have read, know the key role of Hermans’ favorite camera, the Leica, in the novel. And don’t forget the reference in the title to the photographic process. He called himself ‘WF’ as a photographer, he was called ‘Willem Frederik’ on the cover of his books.
At the start of his writing career, WF toyed with the idea of also becoming a professional photographer. He was inspired in Paris, where he photographed street scenes, cemeteries and posters in public spaces with his newly acquired Leica and a Kalloflex (6×6 cm negatives). Back in the Netherlands, he became an apprentice with his photographer friend Nico Jesse, whose romanticized documentary photo book was successful abroad. Women in Paris (1954) served as inspiration. And he enrolled at the Fotovakskolen in The Hague; a professional diploma was a condition for being allowed to establish yourself as a professional photographer. The first cracks in the self-confidence of Hermans-de-fotograaf must have been shot during the exams at school. Because he was rejected primarily due to a lack of technical skills.
It was not a refusal, Hermans simply resigned: ‘The number for reproduction now’, he wrote indignantly to the school management, ‘is not entirely clear to me. I believed that the rendering I submitted met reasonable requirements. Apparently that has not been the case. I would therefore greatly appreciate it if you would tell me what was wrong with it (…).’ The wounded soul made several attempts to obtain the diploma until the end of 1959, all in vain. The sacred fire then died. Curator Schreuders calls the years 1957-58 Hermans’ most inspired year. But he continued to shoot on black-and-white film and color slides.
Schreuders and Oostveen worked their way through the archive of 10,000 slides, 9,800 negatives and 2,500 vintage prints. A careful work for several reasons. First and foremost because the legacy that the Literature Museum has preserved (and guarded by Hermans’ son) does not distinguish between purely private and artistic work. And also because Hermans never printed many of the negatives, and thus never saw the finished result – let alone gave them his approval for publication. The compilers of Pretty important pictures, a title taken from one of Hermans’ archive folders, has acted conscientiously. But that doesn’t change the fact that, with the exception of a few outliers upwards, mediocrity reigns.
Hermans’ street photographs are often characterized by shyness: due to his self-confessed shyness, he did not dare to approach strangers and apparently felt the need to photograph them secretly. That might also explain why many photos are out of focus: he didn’t take his time. A beautiful photo of children playing on the sloping streets of Bergen, Norway, recalls the work of the French great master Henri Cartier-Bresson. But the face of a little boy in the soap box roaring down the slope, the very eye-catcher, is dim. A nice photo: the cow with big horns approaching the photographer at the Hercules Tower in La Coruna, Spain in 1957. No embarrassment here.
Perhaps technically inept, but nonetheless intriguing is the photo of his parents, taken on 11 November 1957 at their home on Eerste Helmersstraat in Amsterdam. Father smokes in an armchair on the left, mother stands on the right at the table, where she clears the meal that has been enjoyed. Prominent on that table: a large knife, accentuating the woman’s slightly hazy expression. A photo with, perhaps unintentional, tension where it is hard not to think of the sword of Damocles.
Hermans’ self-portraits are among the highlights of his work. Not hindered by his introverted inhibitions, of course, and always with the beautiful unruly character head, he photographed his reflection, in windows, in shiny metal pots and pans in shop windows, on the shiny side of a cigarette machine in Copenhagen (1960). You can almost hear the silence in the mirrors of his Parisian hotel rooms and the street noise in a reflective shop window on Amsterdam’s Kalverstraat. On the latter, he drops to his knees, almost as if he’s doing a frivolous jive. None of the passers-by seem to notice him. Happy.
Many cityscapes (Stockholm, Brussels, Paris, New York, Amsterdam) reveal the interests that also characterize the geologist Hermans var. Eugène Atget, the photographer of the disappearing, decaying Paris of the 19th century, was one of his great examples. Hermans shares with him a fondness for rubble on the street, holes in the ground, side walls on which the last traces – the outlines of stairs, peeling strips of wallpaper – of an already demolished neighboring house can be seen. His landscape images also point to the geologist’s eye for these sediments from bygone eras.
The colors on the slides suck the visitor away Pretty important pictures back to the sixties and seventies, to the fine grain of the analogue film and the accompanying wonderfully saturated color palette. The exhibition as a whole is undoubtedly a rich source of new visual information about the stubborn, introverted and brilliant cynic that Hermans was, even for seasoned Hermans scholars. That the author of I am always right if the photographer has not passed the master’s exam, it is only an afterthought.
WF Hermans: Pretty important pictures, Fotomuseet The Hague, until 8/1. Book of the same name: 208 pages; Hannibal; €45.
Hermans on criticism
Stupid criticism of my novels actually leaves me indifferent, although I sometimes protest because I don’t think a writer should succumb to being misunderstood. Questions about pedagogical principles! Well-intentioned schoolmaster helpfulness, a patient hand with a smooth Spanish straw. Besides that, I don’t get hot or cold. But pictures can’t be defended with words any more than the fun of a joke, which is why I get upset when someone thinks my pictures are ugly. The magazine Photo seems to have heard about this and done it: ‘They should keep their p… from my pictures.’ I never knew I had such an expensive choice of words, Photo! (Quotation from Herman’s article i The password of 16 March 1961.)