Still life with photographic portrait of Asser, stereoscope and portfolio, Eduard Isaac Asser, c. 1855 salt pressure

Small steps for a photographer, a huge leap for photography. Eduard Issac Asser. Father of Dutch photography.

There’s a night scene (aren’t they all?) in Blade Runner where Deckard (Harrison Ford) makes a call from a video payphone. In a crowded bar in a neon drenched future city, Deckard walks up to what looks like an ATM. He takes out his wallet pays by card, taps in a number & the face of his replicant love interest Racheal (Sean Young) appears backlit in blue & obscured by marker graffiti on the edges of the screen. Decker wonders if Racheal wants to join him at the bar he’s calling from (in “4 Sector”) for a drink.

“I don’t think so Mr. Deckard,” says the replicant Rachel, “that’s not my kind of place.”

“Go someplace else?” suggests Deckard.

Rachael leans down, we see the top of her head briefly before she hangs up & the screen the words “Total Charge $1.25” appear on screen. 

In 1982, a world with video calling as an everyday, no-big-deal thing was something we imagined. Dreamed of. It wasn’t until Skype launched in 2003 that it started to become commonplace.

So heres the Segway. Imagine a world where photography barely exists. Only a few have cameras. One day maybe everyone will have one. But for now it’s just you. That’s Eduard Issac Asser in Amsterdam. As a successful lawyer he had the money for what was an extremely expensive hobby. Money wasn’t all it took however. As an individual he had the inclination & the personality to take on the endless trials, disappointing errors and costly failures that came with a near unknown science. Early photography was extremely hit & miss and reequired experimantation. Asser seemed to relish this.

Self-portrait of Eduard Isaac Asser, c. 1858 photolithography.

The daguerreotype process was such an excruciatingly slow, protracted, labour intensive & crazily expense process that it’s hard to fathom why it was worth the effort for Asser. Yet, of course, it was & for two important reasons. Firstly; to do this, at this time, was beyond exciting. This was cutting edge science tinged with the frisson of what must have felt like performing real magic. Secondly it was worth it for us, for you right now. This is the first time we get to see of that Amsterdam we see often in dream-like etchings, paintings & engravings. Now those scenes & those people metamorphasise as tangible & immediate reality. There’s one image (below) where Asser successfully captures his sister Netje’s children in a family group portrait. The long exposure times are reflected on the faces of the subjects: their concentrated gaze and every detail engraved in the picture. That strange frozen held gaze. That’s what makes these photos so magical. Movable children were (and still are) most difficult things difficult to get sharp.

Compared to an iphone, this was photography in the Stone Age. The distressed look here is genuine. Real chemicals stain, blossom, burn into and pour down over these scenes, over these people. The authentic, textures of these images have aged like quality vintage denim. The imperfections are just perfect.

Still Life with Stereoscope, Hat, Chinese Vase, Silver Trophy Cup and Epee, Eduard Isaac Asser, c. 1855 salt pressure.
Portrait of Netje Asser-Asser, sister of the photographer, Eduard Isaac Asser, c. 1844 daguerreotype.

Asser’s early experiments with the Daguerrotype process were initially photographs of academic art, busts of classical figures and small scuptures – exciting tests of a magical processs.

Perhaps the images that stand out above all the others are Asser’s still lifes. In his still life work, Asser moves away from process & way beyond simply documenting. He began to set up draped backgrounds, to lay fabrics on tables and arranging objects within these lo-fi sets. The objects he used tell a personal story. He put himself into these small everyday tableau of his; his portfolio book, his stereoscope (an early 3D headset), a framed picture of himself, his hat, a silver trophy, his camera lenses, his best Chinese vases, his chemical jars and lab equipment.

He’s creating. He moved from taking to making. Art.

As, in a distant future (one that Asser would never dream of dreaming could be real), a man named Neil Armsrong would say, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Asser is best known for his efforts to make the photographic printing process cheaper by taking a patent on a photolithography process he developed in 1858 (and named after himself), the Procédé Asser. He was an editor of the Dutch photography magazine and member of the Amsterdam photographers’ society Helios.

Portrait of Lodewijk Asser, Eduard Isaac Asser, c. 1853 salt pressure
View of the Mint on the other side of the Singel in Amsterdam, Eduard Isaac Asser, c. 1854 salt pressure
Still life with photographic portrait of Asser, stereoscope and portfolio, Eduard Isaac Asser, c. 1855 salt pressure
Portrait of Tobias Asser, Eduard Isaac Asser, c. 1845 – c. 1847 daguerreotype.
Group portrait of the Asser and Oppenheim families in a garden, Eduard Isaac Asser, 1856 salt pressure.
Still life with photographic portrait of Asser, stereoscope and portfolio, Eduard Isaac Asser, c. 1855 salt pressure

View of the Oranje-Nassau barracks in Amsterdam as seen from the garance factory, Eduard Isaac Asser, c. 1852 – c. 1854 salt print of wet collodion glass negative, gold-tone, varnished with shellac
Still life with sword, basket and stove utensils, Eduard Isaac Asser, c. 1855 salt pressure.
Still Life with Basket, Jug, Jug and Portfolio, Eduard Isaac Asser, c. 1855 salt pressure.
View of the Rondeel guest house in Amsterdam from the home of the photographer, Eduard Isaac Asser, c. 1853 – c. 1855 salt print of wet collodion glass negative, gold tone, varnished with shellac.
Still life with photos, lens, image and other objects, Eduard Isaac Asser, 1855 salt pressure of wet collodion glass negative, gold tone, varnished with shellac.
Ship model, Eduard Isaac Asser, c. 1852 salt pressure.

Objects, each with meaning, bounced off each other when together & told a story and had nuances 170 years ago that are now lost. Today, & with hindsight, new inferences & perspectives can be drawn from Asser’s work; people were sailing in galleons (above) while Asser was experimenting with photography.

Still life with scientific (physical) instruments, Eduard Isaac Asser, c. 1852 salt pressure.

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