Bob takes a lot of author portraits for publishers, works for the Groene Amsterdammer magazine and also makes his own photo books, such as Meisjes van veertig (Forty-year-old Girls) which was published in 2004. His career up to now has been rich and varied, but when he talks about set photography his eyes really begin to sparkle. It started with film magazine Skrien, where he worked with culture journalist Jan Pieter Ekker on the column ‘Werk in uitvoering’ (‘Work in Progress’). Ten times a year they published a set photo, initially in black & white, with a brief description of the atmosphere below. ‘My very first time on a set was with Alex van Warmerdam; and I saw Johan van der Keuken filming live... They were heroes. It was really something for me. That they allowed me to be there, with my camera.’
The story that unfolds behind the camera
Bob Bronshoff has his office in an out-of-the-way Amsterdam basement where the sun is reflected in all day long. He is the set photographer who for more than 25 years has recorded the process of making Dutch films. A selection of his photos can be seen in Eye until 11 September 2022. We decided to pay him a visit.
By Annabel Essink01 September 2022
The door to Bob’s studio is like a portal back into the ’80s. Files are arranged in a chronological timeline on the shelves. There are little keepsakes like an old-fashioned, rotary dial telephone and little cuddly toys. ‘I should have cleaned up before you arrived’, Bob laughs, not very seriously. He is a big man with a serious face that often cracks open in a broad smile. He carefully places a number of files on the dusty table. The first ten are filled with negatives, the rest contain prints. ‘At first I struggled with it,’ he says, ‘the transition from analogue to digital. The smell of the darkroom, it’s just wonderful. And how your fingers get wrinkly from the chemical solution. Perhaps photography was more of a craft back then.’
His background wasn’t originally in photography: he studied Dutch. Along the way, he realised he was becoming more and more gripped by photography. ‘Then a good friend advised me: try it for a year. I fit doesn’t work out, you can stop. I never stopped. Perhaps that was the best advice I ever got.’
Whereas in the early days they had to really bang on the door to be let in – ‘film producers don’t generally like complications’ – they now receive invitations. The column has become something of a modest phenomenon, subtly promoting Dutch films even before they have been released. However enormous the sets might look on Bob’s photos – cranes dangling massive artificial suns, faces made up as zombies – the Dutch film world is small. When Skrien finally folded in 2009, film magazine de Filmkrant quickly took over the column, renaming it ‘Actie!’ – now also the title of the presentation in Eye.
When we ask about his working relationship with Jan Pieter, Bob laughs huffily. ‘Jan Pieter has a real tendency to stray in front of my lens. I suddenly see a familiar piece of head and a notebook loom up in a corner somewhere and think: here we go, there he is again! Without Jan Pieter the column would never have come about.’
Together they roam the country on their way to film sets; these are often conveniently in Amsterdam, where they can rock up on their bikes, but sometimes further afield. We meet them in Leidschendam, in a former clinic for eating disorders with the original signage still on the walls, surrounded by gardens. A motorway hums calmly in the background. Director Joren Molten is busy with his film adaptation of Jaap Robben’s book Zomervacht (Summer Coat). As soon as we walk in, we witness a miraculous transition: Bob goes from a man you can’t possibly overlook to a chameleon, blending in perfectly with the tangle of gesticulating arms. He weaves supplely among the forest of cables, not disrupting the shooting in any way. ‘I notice that my gaze and approach change to reflect the films I’m photographing,’ he says. ‘On an Alex van Warmerdam set, the framing of my photos automatically takes on an alienating feel; if it’s a horror film, the images are grizzly and mysterious. Set photography allows me to see through the eyes of the film.’
While Jan Pieter talks to the crew to get a good description, Bob goes in search of an image that captures the essence. This usually doesn’t take long – an hour at most. Longer than that and it can get uncomfortable for the makers. He’s not so much interested in the scenes being filmed as in the story that unfolds behind the camera. ‘I’m happy if the photo tells the story of the shooting, the part that stays with you. In the case of Zomervacht, I was struck by the gentleness of the director, the love and attentiveness of his approach to the actors. They are young people who’ve never appeared in a film before, and some of them have disabilities.’
Back in the studio, he loads the photos onto his computer, humming. He makes a selection for Jan Pieter to choose from. We ask him about his remaining ambitions, after a 25-year career in set photography. ‘I’ve not worked on one of Paul Verhoeven’s sets yet’, he says firmly.