Almost no other body of photography is as strange and idiosyncratic as that of Gerard Fieret (1924-2009). This outstanding photographer was an obsessive recorder of everything that came his way: people, animals, street scenes and himself. Most especially, however, he loved to photograph women – models, students, young mothers, dancers and waitresses – or just parts of their bodies, such as breasts, feet or long legs, in isolation.
Photography: Gerard Fieret
Courtesy: Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag © Estate G.P. Fieret

Although his non-stop photographic activities were concentrated into a period of just ten years (1965-1975), Gerard Fieret generated an enormous oeuvre. In the Netherlands he is seen as a pioneer of photography as a form of autonomous visual art. Over recent years his work has also attracted increasing international interest.

In career terms, Gerard Fieret was often his own worst enemy. Wim van Sinderen, curator at the Hague Museum of Photography, recalls countless unheralded visits by Fieret. He would drop in to stealthily add his signature to works already in the collection, call past to donate bin bags stuffed with photographs or come to deliver long, hand-written letters full of paranoid accusations. Fieret was equally capricious concerning the preparation of exhibitions and publications, interfering in such a way as to make life almost impossible for curators and publishers. Nevertheless, the Hague Museum of Photography managed to organise a major exhibition in honour of his eightieth birthday in 2004 and in 2010 the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag acquired his estate. The possessions he left comprised around a thousand different objects, including two jerry cans filled with hundreds of negatives previously believed to be lost. The acquisition expanded the museum’s already large Fieret collection to total approximately 2500 objects and photographs. In addition to images from that collection, the forthcoming exhibition will include photographs on loan from private collectors, the Special Collections of Leiden University Library, Huis Marseille in Amsterdam, the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Kahmann Gallery in Amsterdam and Deborah Bell Photographs in New York.

Turbulent life

Gerard Petrus Fieret was born in The Hague on 19 January 1924 and had a shaky childhood. After his father abandoned the family in 1926, Fieret was brought up by his mother and two elder sisters, but also spent periods with foster families and in children’s homes. As a young man, he was conscripted to perform forced labour in Nazi Germany. At the end of the war, he returned to The Hague and was enrolled for a year at the Hague Academy of Art (today’s KABK). However, it was not until 1965 that Fieret turned his energies to photography; up to then, his output had consisted mainly of gouaches and portraits in charcoal. Henri van de Waal (1910-1972), Professor of Art History at the University of Leiden, was one of the earliest admirers of Fieret’s photography. It is thanks to him that Leiden University now possesses the world’s largest collection of Fieret’s work and that his photography came to the attention of institutions like the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, which held the first major one-man exhibition of his work in 1971.

Idiosyncratic oeuvre

Gerard Fieret’s photographs are distinguished by odd choices of subject, apparently casual compositions and an explicit or covert eroticism. He ignored photographic conventions, both when taking his shots and in the darkroom. His work reflects the zeitgeist of the 1960s and ’70s, with its abhorrence of academic rules and glorification of nudity as a symbol of liberty. His photographs do show a degree of similarity to those of Dutch contemporaries like Frans Zwartjes, Sanne Sannes and Anton Heyboer, although Fieret hated being compared to anyone else. As soon as he recognized anything of his own style in other people’s work, he would invariably hurl accusations of plagiarism or even outright theft. Not surprisingly, therefore, a prominent feature of virtually all Fieret’s photos is the rubber stamps and signatures with which he painstakingly attempted to safeguard his copyright. His photographs reveal his tendency to repetition and indefatigable urge to experiment. In search of interesting effects, he played with the rules of the various photographic development and printing processes. He threw nothing away, not even obvious failures. At the same time, he rarely printed a negative more than once and, on the odd occasion when he did so, none of the prints are ever identical. A Gerard Fieret photograph is invariably a one-off.