Jos de Munk

1856 - 1923

Untitled, c. 1900, albumen print 20x27 cm 
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The albumen prints shown here, I found on the street in a shoebox with old photos. They were put there to be taken away as trash. Through the owners of the pictures, I managed to trace their creator: Jos de Munk, tobacco seller from Rotterdam. These are most likely the only surviving photographs of this quiet man, who, in his spare time, appears to have been a passionate amateur naturalist and photographer.

Scale Works

As is often the case with unknown amateur photographers, the life of Jos de Munk has largely been forgotten. He was of humble origin, and has worked all his life in the small tobacco shop of his parents. What I have learned about him is the following. At a young age he married his neighbor girlfriend Onki. The two would remain childless. De Munk worked six days a week in the tobacco store. The story goes that he, because he was never ill and did not fancy holidays, did not miss one day of work for fifty years. This is undoubtedly an exaggeration, but it is clear that he was a man of habits. Every Sunday his time was spent in service of his great passion: biology. In particular, the urban nature in and around Rotterdam fascinated him. He researched everything that seemed worthwile and made notes of his observations in small notebooks. These are unfortunately lost. It is not known how he has mastered photography, but it is clear that he was a virtuoso photographer. During the times that those pictures were taken, around 1900, the camera was a relatively cumbersome device. His photos, however, show he was quick, able and patient. Also his wife Onki, who appears in each photo, seems to have been an athletic type. On their tours in and around Rotterdam, she was deployed to indicate the scale of the plants and animals that the Munk photographed. She could rapidly undress and dress without scaring the animals. It is not entirely clear why De Munk used his wife for scale and did not use, for example, a ruler. Possibly he appreciated the type of photos with body parts of his wife. Since very few pictures remain, it is difficult to interpret this small but remarkable body of work. In the history of Dutch photography it is unprecedented that someone so consistently used the human body to indicate scale. A somewhat similar use of the human body may be found in the photos of large buildings by Pieter Oosterhuis. But the more irrational use of the body by De Munk gives his work an absurdist quality that does not have its equal in Dutch photography.