Elbertus Donkerwolk

1810 - 1859

One of the most underrated figures in Dutch history may well be the hairdresser/photographer/entrepreneur Elbertus Donkerwolk. This charming figure excelled in many areas and he was one of the first known portrait photographers in the Netherlands: his earliest successful recordings date from 1842! The fact that his name is now forgotten may perhaps be due to the fact that he was above all a hairdresser.

The allrounder

Elbertus Donkerwolk (1810-1859) was a hairdresser, or ‘coiffeur’ as he used to call it. Being also a keen businessman, he was not afraid to try new ideas. He expanded his barber practice with additional products, such as perfumes and cleaning powders. In 1840, when he heard about the invention of the Daguerreotype, he immediately studied this new technique. The business potential of the combination of hairdressing and photography did not elude him.
In 1841, Donkerwolk travelled to Paris to follow a course for making Daguerreotypes. He bought a kit and mastered the process quickly. In principle, his goal was to capture the hairstyles he created for his clients. After doing his work as a barber, he wanted to photograph the sitter on her Sunday best. Counting on the vanity of his clientele, he saw great financial opportunities. However, the silver plates that were required for the process were too expensive and he came up with the idea of ​​reducing the size of these plates in order to cut cost. He had his new Daguerreotype camera taken apart to reduce the size of the holder for the plates. That way he could use 1/32th plates measuring 4.1 to 2.7 cm. In addition, because the focal length of the standard Daguerreotype camera he had bought was too short for his plans, he had a ring put between the lens and camera body to obtain the tele-effect he required.

The first successful experiments of Donkerwolk date back to 1842. Having a working procedure that gave satisfying results, he hoped to make good money. That appeared to be somewhat disappointing since the cost of he process was still high and sometimes portraits had to be redone. In hindsight, this was not his most successful enterprise, but, judging from his letters, one from which he took much satisfaction.

After he succeeded in making successful pictures, he never renewed his procedure and continued making the same portrait. Obviously, his ambition was not to create photographically interesting portraits, but to make money. The main variations in his photographs are the subjects and their hairstyles. Donkerwolk was above all a hairdresser and very proud of the results of his work, as one can see in his pictures. For several years he combined this practice of cutting hair and photographing the results of that work. In time, taking always the same picture started to bore him. Moreover, the Daguerreotype is a mean process that started to affect his health. He became allergic to the mercury vapors that escaped during development of his photos. Finally, also because other portrait studios opened at the end of the fourties and competition became fierce, Donkerwolk decided to give up his photographic work. From then on he focused on activities associated with hairdressing. The last years of his life were very unpleasant. Due to his work with the Daguerreotype, he suffered from a mercury poisoning which slowly digested him. Over the years he acquired more and more ailments and the final months of his life were very painful. After his dead he was buried under great public interest at the cemetery Neerbosch, where his grave can still be visited.

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