C. J. Kleingrothe

Chinese employed as cheap labor, Sumatra, no date, Albumen print.



Kleingrothe's Images of Technology  

The Reassuring View of the Indies


Peter Kors

In 1885, European plantation owners and the Dutch colonial government began making the costly, long-term investments necessary to sustain the growing tobacco industry of the Dutch East Indies. Roads, railways, harbors and government buildings were constructed; and Medan, on the northeast coast of Sumatra, emerged as a major metropolis. the influx of western Europeans expanded the presence of modern Western culture and increased the demand for professional photographers. Their visual evidence of Western prowess against an exotic background justified colonialism to the resident colonists as well as to those in the motherland.

The German photographer Charles J. Kleingrothe opened his first studio in Medan in 1889. After two years, he was joined by H. Stafhell, and the two formed a partnership that was to last ten years. Kleingrothe and Stafhell owned and operated one of the most successful photography studios in the Medan area, a region that had become known among photographers for its commercial potential. Besides their commissioned work documenting tropical landscapes and the architecture of Medan, they also distinguished themselves as portrait artists.

The Stafhell-Kleingrothe studio was modeled after its European counterparts. Lit by a large window facing north, which gave it an especially clear light, the studio used a painted curtain for a backdrop. The person being photographed was usually placed by a table, chair or some sort offence, which served to unify subject and backdrop. The photographer chose the appropriate backdrop and props and posed his subject in such a manner as to create a harmonious whole.

One studio portrait by Stafhell-Kleingrothe, taken in 1891, depicts a group of Freemasons belonging to the Deli Lodge. Arranged in a dignified grouping, the subjects wear identical dark suits, each man with a ribbon and medal around his neck. Also in the picture are the various symbols associated with Freemasonry—a pair of banners, a hammer, a compass, a sword and a sun. A neoclassical architectural facade with curtained arches is painted on the backdrop.

Stafhell-Kleingrothe also photographed many outdoor events, and one type of these, the "bon voyage party," stands out as being peculiar to colonial life in the Dutch East Indies. These events were for administrators who were leaving for Europe, either on temporary leave or for permanent retirement. Stafhell and Kleingrothe were on hand in 1891 to photograph a party given for the Secretary of the Deli Company, F. Gransberg. The photographs depicting this grand occasion show large groups of European partygoers in sampans and other small river craft sailing up the Bindjei River.

In 1901, Stafhell and Kleingrothe ended their partnership, and the following year Kleingrothe opened his own studio on Kesawan, a busy street in downtown Medan. A photograph of the street shows, among the many shop shingles, one reading "Photography Studio, C. J. Kleingrothe." His specialty became the photographic documentation of the cultivation and processing of tropical agricultural products.

Apparently inspired by the English photographer W. L. H. Skeen, who as early as 1864 produced a series of photographs on tea and coffee production in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Kleingrothe began photographing the various phases of the tobacco, coffee, tea, rubber and palm oil industries. In these elaborate photo essays he shows in great detail the complete cycle of production, from planting to loading the finished product onto cargo ships.

In the beginning of the century, Kleingrothe was commissioned by several of the largest tobacco plantations— the Amsterdam-Deli Company, the Senembah Company and the Deli Company—to produce photographic albums that would serve as visual annual reports. These albums illustrate and illuminate all aspects of colonial tropical agribusiness: the newly constructed bridges and roads, the residences of the administrators and their staff, the barns in which the tobacco was dried and cured, the tobacco fields and processing plants, the hospital, and the coolie barracks. The workers themselves were primarily shown as figures placed against a background of tropical vegetation.

Another large commission led Kleingrothe to document the construction of the Deli rail line. This resulted in an album of photographs called Deli Railway Company. The photographs depict the laying of tracks along the swampy coastal areas, railway stations and railway bridges dramatically spanning ravines. A panoramic image of the terminal station at Belawan conveys the feeling of an important railway junction: a walkway above the tracks leads to the harbot, where freighters and steamships of the Royal Packet Company, which provided transportation between islands, lay anchored.

Kleingrothe's photographs symbolized the expansion of industrial civilization through the superiority of European technology and assured the viewer that colonial dominion would prevail.




C. J. Kleingrothe

Amsterdam-Deli Company tabacco factory, Sumatra,1885, Albumen print.


C. J. Kleingrothe

Amsterdam-Deli Company tabacco factory, Sumatra,1885, Albumen print.



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