November 7: 2010, L’Oeil de la Photographie magazine notes that the “rediscovery of Saul Leiterʼs work in recent years is clearly a major event in the history of photography. From being a fashion photographer known only to specialists, he has become a pioneer of ‘street photography’ in colour.”
Victor Meeussen, born on this day 1907 is still less well known, though also a ‘pioneer’ in colour.
A commercial industrial photographer, his main client after the war was Esso Netherlands NV for whom he made photos of refineries, factories, companies, oil rigs, shipyards, airports and ports.
Meeussen had learned the process of printing full-colour dye-transfer photographs in the years 1935-’36 on a one-shot 9×12 cm colour camera with three permanently installed filters. His pictures of the town of Bremen adorned with flags for the July 1936 ‘Nazi’ Olympic Games appeared in colour in a newspaper supplement.
From June 1937 until January 1939 he was assistant for the company Wolff & Tritschler, learning colour in smaller formats, and also composition and design, both valuable contributions to his training. Dr. Paul Wolff was a demanding teacher who expected very precise work of his assistant. As lighting assistant, Meeussen had hands-on experience in the German Opel factories working with the 30,000 watts of photo lamps required to expose low-sensitivity colour materials in the difficult conditions.
In 1940 and 1941 he published a number of articles on colour photography in the magazine Kleinbeeld Foto, promoting colour photography as a new style…
A colour image should not be a coloured black and white photo. In black and white without doubt form and light are the main elements, while colours not only represent a colour value, but also an emotional connotation. For example the warm colour red represents happiness, joy, exuberance, cold blue colour contrast, silence, distance, loneliness.
Only when one succeeds in welding the elements of colour and form consciously together, so they, as it were,”meld”, then one is colour photographer.
A Wrong Turn
However during the war Meeussen’s life unfortunately took a wrong turn which has probably resulted in his neglect. Because of his Dutch nationality Meeussen no longer had a work permit for Germany, so returned in February to the Netherlands to live in The Hague with his aunt, the sculptor Lex Meeussen, and found a little work darkroom printing and photographing theatre through a photo agency.
During the Occupation, under considerable pressure he joined the the Customs and Working Community (the cultural department of the SS). The SS recruited him because of his education and training as a German, despite his Dutch nationality, demanding that he support his ‘homeland’. Given a three-day training in Wageningen and deployed as a photographer/reporter he traveled for them to Norway focusing among other things on Nazi genealogy and propaganda.
His political naivety (and likely his sense of self-preservation) resulted in consequences that forced his documentation of an anti-Communist, anti-semitic exhibit held in Den Haag, arranged by the Deutsche Akademie. His photographs stamped “Foto Victor Meeussen, Den Haag, Holland” and “Verbond van Nederlandsche journalisten, V.C.P. Meeussen”, seized by U.S. military intelligence in 1945 or ’46, show a 1940-1943 exhibition of Dutch language materials in a library setting promoting anti-communist and anti-Jewish propaganda with books and magazines laid out on tables and posters and wall-charts.
Deployed as a photographer reporter at the Battle of Arnhem, one of his German officers mercifully perceived that Meeussen was misplaced, so sent him shortly afterwards on a ‘mission’ to Bremen, where he absconded to live with relatives until the end of the war, when he returned to the Netherlands. There he was arrested and placed in a camp, but released on evidence of his integrity and good conduct and taken under the wing by photographer Meinard Woldringh, through whose contact, Esso employee Jan den Boestert, he was hired as a freelance industrial photographer for Esso Netherlands in The Hague.
Colour in the street
In the period 1950-1960, contemporaneously with Saul Leiter, Meeussen photographed in colour in his spare time. He preferred street photography; people and events at markets, in playgrounds or on the beach and at circuses, carnivals, fairs and other festivities, focusing on small events in which emotions were visible: happy children, a couple in love. A thread in this colour work is imagery of caring fathers or mothers with small children in their arms or children in strollers. Typified by his former colleague Rein Meijer as erudite, well-read of German literary works and well versed in the history of art, he was modest. “There was something of effacement in his attitude” says Wouter de Keizer (in a 1952 Photo magazine), sensitive and melancholy, but also a lover of fine humor and puns.
Meeussen worked with small cameras including the 35mm Leica, medium format Rolleiflex and Rolleicord and a Petri half-frame camera (18×24 mm). He also had a Brand 17 view camera, but according to Rein Meijer never used it.
Meeussen experimented with abstractions, play of light and blur, sometimes photographing out-of-focus, deliberately letting lens flare appear in his shots, using slow shutter speeds with moving light and reflections in water.
With this approach Meeussen was close to the ideas of Dr. Otto Steinert in whose exhibitions Subjective Photography 1 (1952) and 2 (1954) he was included. Steinert wrote in the 1952 catalogue that…
the term ‘subjective photography’ emphasised the personal contribution of the photographer to the form and content of the photo. The focus was mainly on experimentation and new solutions which were shaping a new vision. Subjective Photography was a framework within which all sorts of photography were conceivable.
The exhibitions were successful, especially given their international inclusiveness and the common belief that they represented something new after a period of isolation during the rise of National Socialism. Subjective Photography stood in complete contrast to the German movement of The New Objectivity (Der Neue Sachlichkeit), the term coined by Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub, the director of the Kunsthalle in Mannheim, for a 1925 art exhibition which became a rallying-point for Weimar intellectuals rejecting the self-involvement and romantic idealism of the German Expressionists.
Meeussen also showed in Images Inventées (Verzonnen beelden, or Invented Images), assembled by Julien Coulommier and Serge Vandercam and on view from 30 March to 17 April 1957, in the Galerie Aujourd’hui in the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. This international photography exhibition was the result of a collaboration between the Galerie Aujourd’hui (whose director-general was Pierre Janlet) and Otto Steinert’s Staatliche Schule für Kunst und Handwerk at Saarbrücken. Amongst about one hundred photographs shown by fifty-six photographers, the Netherlands participants also included Martien Coppens, Jan Schiet, Willy Schurman, Livinus van de Bundt, Van Houweninge, Pim Van Os, Frans Vink and Meinard Woldringh.
Meeussen was from about 1951 core member of the Dutch Photographers Circuit (NFK), and of his activities there Bernard van Gils said: ‘Of course you get at such meetings people who have a tremendously good analytical skills, such as Victor Meeussen.”
For more than eleven years Meeussen taught photography at the Free Academy in The Hague founded by Livinus van de Bundt. Students, who were free to follow those lessons that they found interesting remember Meeussen as someone who had the gift of being able to talk with great enthusiasm about his subject and to stimulate his students.
Wouter de Keizer typified Meeussen’s personal work as ‘a spiritual genre that is quite lacking in the Dutch photography’ (Photo 1952).