Biography – Comprehensive

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Steef Zoetmulder has always practiced two kinds of photography: publicity and free photography. Technically, he belongs to the first generation of Dutch photographers who put the views of the New Photography into practice. However, his visual language is not so much objective, but more subjective. His entire oeuvre expresses a preference for decorative, to almost abstractimagery. In terms of content and formality, his work is based on the views and movement of the Subjective Photography of Otto Steinert from the fifties.


1911 Stephanus Johannes Theodorus (Steef) Zoetmulder is born in Schiedam on September 10.
1926 On his fifteenth birthday he gets a folding camera and darkroom equipment. Photography became a fanatically practiced hobby.
1931 He completes his secondary school education and is a member of the Rotterdam Amateur Photographers Association (AFVR). At discussion meetings of the association he became acquainted with the views of the New Photography.
He also teaches photographic techniques to its members.
1933-’35 After an administrative training at the Schoevers Institute, Zoetmulder decides to follow the course of publicity at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Applied Sciences. Among his teachers are Jan Kamman and Gerrit Kiljan.
Zoetmulder completes the three-year course in two years. His diploma he gets, for administrative reasons, a year later.
1935 In December Zoetmulder opens his first studio as a publicity photographer at the Rotterdamsedijk in Schiedam. He spends a lot of time on his free work as well; he regularly receives awards and prizes at competitions of amateur photographers.
1936 His studio does not attract enough customers to be commercially successful. Zoetmulder closes the studio and in September finds employment by the Hague International Advertising Publicity Service.
1937-’43 He still prefers the risk of autonomy beyond the constraints of employment and re-establishes himself as a publicity photographer. He sets up a studio at the Schiedamseweg in Rotterdam, the photo and advertising company STEZO, and receives orders from companies and individuals.
On March 31, 1943 bombing destroys his studio and thus the greater part of his archive.
1943-’45 He opens his third studio on the Avenue Concordia in Rotterdam. In the last years of the war he is mainly working as a portrait photographer.
1945-’51 After the liberation he directs his activities again to advertising photography. With the reconstruction, advertising contracts are again coming in.
In 1947 he marries Milly Hagtingius.
Thanks to growing success, he could open a new studio in the Voorschoterlaan in Rotterdam in 1951.
1950-’70 In 1950 Zoetmulder became a core and active member of the NFK until its amalgamation with the BFN in 1970. He sends work to numerous exhibitions and competitions, both as an individual as in a group with the NFK.
1951-’86 Voorschoterlaan No. 108 is also his house, where his studio is located.
Among his clients are building contractor Voormolen BV in Rotterdam, Volker Bouwmij in Rotterdam, several architectural firms, furniture factory Ouwenbroek in Vlaardingen. Advertising firms Nijgh en Van Ditmar, Baas en van Haastrecht and Hoogstraten. Concrete factory De Hoop in Terneuzen, Kemper Beton in IJsselmonde, Fa. Lenderink in Schiedam, the Dutch Newspaper Union, publisher Gebr. Spanjersberg in Rotterdam.
1960 After attending a course, Agfa Color negative/positive Zoetmulder works according to the needs of his clients in color or black/white.
1962-’66 Zoetmulder accepts four students of the Photo Academy St. Joost in Breda for a six-month internship at his studio.
1968 As a state commissioner he adjudicates the final exams at the St. Joost Academy in Breda.
1978 Zoetmulder takes courses in painting and drawing, at the Vrije Academie in Rotterdam. This hobby is becoming increasingly important and in exhibitions we see both his photographic and his painting works.
1983-’86 He is working on a retrospective of the best work in his photographic oeuvre. Advertising jobs play an increasingly lesser role in relation to his free work, consisting mainly of light and glass compositions since 1983. In his studio he organizes exhibitions of his own work, which are open to the public.
2004 Steef Zoetmulder dies on September 4th in his hometown Rotterdam.


In 1926 as a fifteen year old Steef Zoetmulder takes his first steps on a path that would become his life: photography. Besides his professional career Zoetmulder always remained an explorer and lover of all the creative possibilities of his medium, with a focused attention to forms and structures. His occupational and free photography are so aligned, that on many occasions his contract pictures adorned exhibition walls and his free photos are incorporated into advertising contracts.

Photographic techniques Zoetmulder taught himself, but he also wanted a professional basis to build on as a photographer.

He studies at the department of publicity at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Applied Sciences. The experimental, new-business approach of his teachers Jan Kamman en Gerrit Kiljan speaks to him and is instrumental in his development. Zoetmulder himself is already working in the spirit of the new photographic movement; his choice of subjects, viewpoints, fabric and material expression all point in that direction. His photograph of onions in 1934 for example, is much appreciated by his teachers because of the modern business character of the recording.

With his extensive experience in technology and his focused interest in publicity, Zoetmulder is able to complete the three-year course in two years. He also graduates as a designer, but for once does not practice as such. With a short interruption of a few months as an employee at an advertising agency in Den Haag, Steef Zoetmulder always remains an independent publicity photographer. His first studio is not a success, so he chooses for employment. However, this was not him and again he started his own business, now with better results. He is able to build a reasonable clientele just before the war. Among his first clients are: Printer company Roelants in Schiedam, Fa. Tweka Geldrop and various distilleries in Schiedam. With after war reconstruction and increasing economic prosperity, orders from the trade and industry are coming in. He makes photographs for brochures, magazine covers, anniversary publications, record covers and calendars for many companies. It appears from letters from business directors and individuals that he is highly appreciated for the inventive and skillful manner in which he carries out his assignments. These original letters are part of many documents in his archive.

In addition to his professional activities Steef Zoetmulder always devotes time to his free work as well. When on assignment he sometimes sees opportunity to make photos for himself as well; a striking light-fall or composition, a special form that he can not let ‘unseen’. Sometimes nature provided motives, but his studio is pre-eminently the environment where his creativity flourished. There, in his leisure hours he experiments with still life compositions or – sometimes – with portrait studies.

In the oeuvre of Steef Zoetmulder, one finds a wide range of topics, both in advertising and in autonomous work. Zoetmulder has a clear preference for shape: rectangular, round, hard and soft forms, separated in one detail or in combination with each other. Architecture and still lifes with vases and glassware lend themselves well for this kind of photography and are therefore frequently seen in Zoetmulder’s photography.

People play a much lesser role. Even in his portraits, the form seems to be more important than the person photographed. In his most recent work his attention to form sublimates even more; he creates compositions with light and glass. They are almost completely abstract, works that in their lyrical form are reminiscent of the music-inspired experimental abstract art of the fifties, in which Pim van Os also finds his inspiration.

Zoetmulder’s pre-war archives are almost all destroyed in the bombardment of 31 March 1943. A good impression of his work before this period is therefore no longer available. His postwar work shows a fairly constant character. Several principles of the New Photography constantly play a roll: a sharp, clear printing technique with a precise material expression, a low angle viewpoint and a diagonal line. The application of these elements is much less commercial than those specified in the ’30s.

The visual clarity that the New Photography is pursuing with these elements, Zoetmulder exchanges for complex, decorative images.

He purposefully combines the effects of the play of lines and light, suggestive perspective and the associative possibilities of objects and materials. The self-portrait from 1947 is an example of such a complex composition, composed of a multiplicity of diagonals, mirror images, solarization and changing perspective.

Also notable is the attraction that Zoetmulder always has for photo montage, even during periods when the technique was completely out of favor. In his view, a thus constructed image provides multiple possible variations and combinations for creative purposes. Zoetmulder’s free work is predominantly black and white. His specific works of the sixties and seventies largely consists of color images, as well as his abstract glass/light images.
Zoetmulder masters his craft very well technically. He uses a variation of technically advanced cameras, lenses and negative formats.

In articles and lectures Steef Zoetmulder expresses his views and ideas about photography repeatedly. In correspondence with the editors of the journal Cosmorama in November 1936, he gave his opinion about views expressed by Nico de Haas in an article he wrote in photography of 8 “en Opbouw.” Zoetmulder explains clearly why he considers the content of this article relevant, namely because of his belief that photography is “a unique and independent medium with its own expression resulting from the opportunities that optics and chemistry allows us.” The relation to painting, retouching and printing procedures he rejected emphatically.

Regarding the choice of subject matter of the photographer, he was less extreme than Nico de Haas.
Zoetmulder expresses the opinion that the photographer, without being involved in realistic images of life, can still be capable of “pure photographic” performance.

In an interview with Daan Helfferich in 1950 Zoetmulder made the distinction between photography as documentation of ”the existing, right in front of us” where the only creative intervention of the photographer exists in choosing the time and position, and the “pure creative photography”.
This latter form, in which the subject to be photographed, has to be “composed”. Not only referring to still life composition but also in portraits – he favours expression in this “higher” form of photography.

A similar tiered evaluation of creativity in photography can be found in the introduction that Professor Otto Steinert writes in the exhibition Subjective Photography in 1954- ’55. This view is also supported by many other members of the NFK.
These similar views lead to Otto Steinert’s invitation to the NFK including Steef Zoetmulder to take part in the first Subjective Photography exhibition in Saarbrücken in 1951.
Steef Zoetmulder has made his mark with effective publicity photography, where he respected the wishes of a client in combination with an imaginative, professional elaboration of the contract. Consistently he built an oeuvre that is characterized by a frequent use of associative, symbolic motifs and a decorative, sometimes complex, to the minutest detail composed form.

Zoetmulder is a fully committed and deserving representative of the photographic movement that since the beginning of the last century committed to an artistic appreciation of photography, to propagate the imagination of the photographer to higher creativity than the realty expressed in the photograph. Interestingly, the subjective method Zoetmulder has always adhered to has emerged again in a number of contemporary photographers.

That is why the photography of Steef Zoetmulder is enjoying a renewed interest.

Source: LEXICON, The History of Dutch Photography