Eline Portman

1879 - 1928

On the internet I found a series of more than three hundred remarkable photographs. The theme of most of them was the family, however it also contained a fairly uniform series of outdoor portraits. This aroused my curiosity and via the seller of the photographs I tracked down the originator, Eline Portman.

A great-granddaughter on Eline Portman:
I never met Eline in person, but my grandmother talked about her a lot and I was always really interested. Especially in her life and everything that was told to me about it, including many rumours. She was the only one in the family who had done something that had no connection with the petit bourgeois world in which they lived. I admired her. Later on I also became intrigued by her photographs, I invented stories and I heard her speak with the people she photographed. I saw her walk across the fields in Limburg with her rucksack, the clumsy old-fashioned tripod and her precious camera. She made photos because she loved it: the photographed subjects and the act of photographing itself, the interaction with people and with animals.
Eline Portman was born in 1879 in Maastricht as Eline Louw. Her father Hendrik Louw was a banker and the family belonged to the upper middle class. Eline attended a Catholic school for girls and, just like her older brother, she wanted to study, an unusual choice in that time. At the age of 16, via her brother, she got to know the Valkenburg based architect Johan Portman. They had an affair and she fell pregnant. They married when she was 17, before she could start her studies. In 1897 their daughter Yvonne was born. Despite an apparent desire to have more children, Eline would never again fall pregnant. The first years of marriage passed by well. They lived in a large villa on the Emmalaan in Valkenburg and Eline used to enjoy strolling through town with her young child. At the many outdoor cafés that the village already possessed at that time (Valkenburg was a famous tourist resort), she met her friends. Thanks to household help, she did not have to work intensively and actually led a light-hearted and fairly mundane existence.

Johan Portman had a cheerful nature and was a familiar figure in Valkenburg. He did not only occupy himself with architecture but also with the ins and outs of the village. It was not unusual that he, the mayor and other notables of the village would spend an evening discussing the future and the exploitation of tourism and related subjects like the agricultural landscape (with which they were far ahead of their time), the latest developments in education as well as administrative vicissitudes. He was also interested, in the broadest sense, in new techniques and materials related to architecture. For this he made short journeys to Germany and Belgium and during one of those trips he bought a camera and darkroom material. He wanted dedicate himself to photography of buildings and landscapes. However, it soon became apparent that he could not focus enough on his new hobby in order to make it successful.

Eline, as the story goes, regretting that she missed the chance to study, began to show an intense interest in photography. She wanted to know everything about the camera, development methods and different types of photographic paper. She wanted to photograph buildings and thus cooperate with her husband, she wanted to photograph the village, she wanted to travel and visit cities. To practice with the camera, she started to photograph her surroundings which were, in her own words, purely technical, dexterity exercises. She staged small scenes and made portraits of her friends. Somewhere between 1905 and 1910 she started photographing people on the street. This resulted in an enormous oeuvre of portrayed people and animals some of which are shown here. The portrayed were often strangers that she asked to pose for her, tourists she met during her walks with Yvonne or people from the village. This project, which started innocently, increasingly began to obsess her. Her social and church life suffered heavily and more than once her behaviour embarrassed her husband. Nevertheless, she continued her project and made hundreds of portraits.

Valkenburg was a beautiful location for Eline. Not only were the hills, forests and meadows a variable setting for her photographs, from the mid 19th century Valkenburg was also a famous holiday and health resort. The many visitors from The Netherlands, Belgium and Germany provided a constant source of new material. These tourists were generally of good lineage, in contrast to the local population and workers whom she also photographed. It is not entirely clear why Eline finally decided not to photograph buildings. The most probable explanation is that she was satisfied with the images she made. In her photos she was able to show a personal world, in which the people of Valkenburg all had a place. She lived for her photographs: Johan had said that sometimes at 11 o’clock at night she would come out of the darkroom and proudly present the shining portrait of a female farmer, speaking in superlatives about the clouds hovering above her head and the wonderful expression on the face of the woman. If she really liked the photo, she ostentatiously kissed it, while Johan just stood there, keen to go to bed. This became a problem within their marriage, not because Johan did not permit his wife to have her own vocation, he was not that conservative at all, but because she failed more and more in her marital duties. She also began to have problems within the church community. On Sunday mornings, when everyone else was attending high mass, Eline went walking through the fields surrounding Valkenburg. In the quiet atmosphere of the moment she sometimes ran into a young deer or a small child playing outside near a farm. She could then watch for hours and take photos. For the church community, it was odd that a young woman ‘hung around’ in this manner. Johan had once claimed that, it was in this way that his wife had found close contact with God, but there was many a Limburger who considered this statement haughty and blasphemous. Later, Eline told my grandmother that on those Sundays, she sometimes had the feeling she was standing high on top of a church spire, her legs cramping in fear of not falling and her eyes filled with happiness at seeing so high into the sky. This image almost forms a parody of the suspicions of the church community and at the same time, represents an image, that, for me, is symbolic for the artist.

With the outbreak of war, due to the absence of tourists, Eline was more or less forced to give up her project. Some portraits probably date from the beginning of the twenties, but most of them have been made before the war. Around 1925 her health began to deteriorate and she had to be taken to a nursing home in Maastricht, where she died in 1928 at the age of 48. After her death, her portraits were stored in the archives of Valkenburg, where they had remained hidden for the public for a long time. In 1975, a small part of her oeuvre was displayed at an exhibition organized in the local museum of Liege. The exhibition received some positive reactions. I am glad that the name of my great-grandmother occasionally pops up because her photos are very worthwhile.

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