Who are in the old portraits in The Hague that photographer Ernst Lalleman found in a squat? He figured it out. The result of that search is the exhibition Who are we in the Photo Museum The Hague.
When Ernst Lalleman and a few friends squatted a house on the Prinsegracht in The Hague in 1987, they made a remarkable discovery. “Junks had lived in the building, it was full of dog shit and was bursting with fleas,” Lalleman, now 56, recalls. The house was otherwise completely empty. Everything had been looted, even the copper pipes. But in a cupboard were six boxes with large color negatives.’
According to notes, the images were taken between April 1959 and August 1960. It was unclear how the nearly thirty-year-old photos had ended up in the drug house. Because Lalleman was already a photographer then – and still is – the find came to him. In his darkroom he made a small black and white print from one of the color negatives. It turned out to be the portrait of a girl. The boxes also contained envelopes from Foto Americain, a photo shop in the center of The Hague. He decided to keep the find.
In 2016 he brought it out again; thanks to the digital revolution, it was now possible to find out what the negatives contained without a darkroom. Lalleman photographed all 234 pieces on a light box and made the images positive on his computer. The series turned out to consist almost entirely of portraits, taken in the studio of Foto Americain. The unknown residents of The Hague, all neatly dressed for the occasion, look rather stiff – the large-screen camera with which the pictures were taken required the sitter to sit still for some time, otherwise the photo might not be sharp.
Lalleman: ‘It is a cross-section of the population of The Hague. I thought: I have cultural heritage in my hands here.’
The portraits are also unintentionally humorous: many women have had themselves immortalized next to a fake flower arrangement. It can be reconstructed that they were able to choose from a handful of different specimens – the bright red flamingo plant was the most popular. The same inflatable mouse on wheels can be seen in fifteen children’s portraits.
Because Lalleman wanted to know who is in the portraits, he put them on Facebook at the end of 2018 under the heading ‘Who are we?’ The photo series went viral. “After three days I had a newspaper on the phone,” he says by telephone from Barcelona, where he moved to live in 2009 because of love. ‘Then a broadcaster called in. Everyone wanted to see if they recognized anyone.’
He says the photos are attractive for another reason: ‘We live in a time when everything is fleeting. Every mobile phone has photos, sometimes thousands, that we swipe through. But this collection requires a long look. The portraits are very authentic.’
He now knows the names of the people portrayed on 51 negatives. He hopes there will be more in the coming months; recently the photos can be seen in the Fotomuseum The Hague. ‘They became such a success that I approached a curator at that museum. He was immediately enthusiastic. Because I am a photographer, I stipulated that I could add something to the exhibition myself. I photographed three of the recognized people for days.’
He also recorded conversations with them, from which he chose a number of quotes. In the last room, these quotes, which are printed on the walls, and Lalleman’s photos explain the lives of Lizette (1949), Ellen (1951) and Walter (1959), who went on record as a baby.
The photographer had heard that Walter’s ancestors came from the then Dutch East Indies, and had therefore selected him in advance. A relatively large number of the more than 300,000 Indisch Dutch who left the Dutch colony after the Japanese occupation in World War II and the ensuing struggle for independence live in The Hague. Because often relatives had stayed behind in Indonesia, many portraits were sent that way.
When he photographed Ellen and Lizette, Lalleman was surprised to discover that they also have Indian blood. After his departure from the Dutch East Indies, Ellen’s father married a Dutch woman. Ellen is on two negatives. A quote makes it clear why: ‘Every few months we went to have photos taken at Foto Americain because my father was at sea. That way he kept abreast of what we looked like, because he was only home for a few months once a year.’
Lizette’s mother also turned out to be from the Dutch East Indies. During the war, her family lost a son; he died in a Japanese camp. Lalleman: ‘The portraits evoke many stories.’
One photo of the six boxes, that of a blond girl, has a name: Marian. She is wearing dungarees, has a sun hat in her hand and looks remarkably casual. ‘I was hoping that the old owner of Foto Americain would know who she is. The photo shop still exists and is now called Foto Americaine. The new owner has tracked down its predecessor. He is in his 90s, but came to the exhibition. Unfortunately, he knows nothing about Marian.’
In addition to processing all reports about a recognition – some suddenly saw themselves on television – refurbishing the photos also took a lot of time. ‘It contains at least 150 hours of image processing, such as color correction and retouching of fabrics. I did not remove the fungi, they are part of the story of the collection.’ Thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign, a catalog was also created.
In the meantime, the photographer has found out that he himself also has a connection with Foto Americain. An album of his family appears to contain two portraits that were taken by the photo shop: of his grandfather in 1939 and of a great-uncle in 1944. ‘And my mother can still remember that she used to marvel at the window of Foto Americain. .’
Photo Americain – Who are we, Photo Museum The Hague, until 24/4. A catalog of the same name has been published to accompany the exhibition (€19.95).
The wooden camera with which all portraits were shot can also be seen in the Fotomuseum Den Haag. It is a Görlitz Stella from circa 1918 with a Kreuznach Xenar 300 millimeter lens. The device, which produces very sharp photos thanks to the large negatives, was used by Foto Americain from the 1920s until 2003. The photo shop lent the camera for the exhibition.