Painter & early street photographer. The astonishing early street photography that helped George Hendrik Breitner add social realism to his famous paintings of Amsterdam.
For the Dutch painter George Hendrik Breitner (1857-1923), his interest in photography began as a practical way to capture street life in all its spontaneous authenticity a for use as reference in painting the city and other subject matter. Preserving the fleeting atmospherics of the weather was something he was after too. Inclement, atmospheric weather especially was something he was aiming to capture. Brietner is noted especially for his realistic, renderings of the city streets and harbours. Photography enhanced and accentuated that reality. If you ask ten photographers to shoot the same street, the results will be ten sets of images of ten different streets. There are so many factors involved that everyone can’t help but have a personal style and of course Brietner was no different. Once you know this, and have seen the particular way he chooses his camera angles, his compositions, the instinctive and the particular way he chooses to crop moving passers by, to shoot from low, etc., etc. – it is truly difficult not to recognise, see (and feel) his quite distinctive photographic sensibilities in his paintings.
Breitner’s view of himself as ‘le peintre du peuple’ (the people’s painter) meant that his street photography was all about everyday Amsterdam & Amsterdammers. Impressionism (& social realism) owes just a little of its revolutionary immediacy to the magic of the camera.
A huge part of Breitner’s legacy – aside from that girl in a kimono – is that he introduced radical new levels of social realism into contemporary imagery of the Netherlands. Of course, Breitner’s camera wasn’t his only tool he clearly had an armoury. One quick flick through his sketchbooks reveals an eye and a hand that lacked nothing artistically. Photography simply helped.
Several photographic reference studies are known for Breitner’s Singelbrug near the Paleisstraat in Amsterdam, ca. 1897 (above). It’s an image that could easily (if you squint at it quickly through your eyelashes) have been snapped on an iphone in Amsterdam yesterday.