Adolph Schaeffer

Ganesha, HinduJavanese stone sculpture, Batavia, 1845. Daguerreotype


Adolph Schaefer and Borobudur


H. J. Moeshart


In 1840, just a year after Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre had announced his revolutionary process to the world, the Dutch government sent Jurriaan Munnich, an army officer, to the East Indies to make Daguerreotypes of buildings and antiquities. He was later appointed to assist the archaeologist W. A. Van Den Ham, who was doing research on Java.

The reports received in the Netherlands a few years later about Munnich's photography were not good, however. The daguerreotype process is sensitive to moisture and temperature, and under the tropical circumstances very difficult to execute. Munnich apparently had too little knowledge of the process to allow for the difficult circumstances in the tropics. He complained that his landscapes did not succeed, probably because of the haze, and that he could not photograph small objects.1

Another daguerreotypist in the Netherlands, Adolph Schaefer, was a German who had set up shop in The Hague, where he advertised himself in the local newspapers in 1843.2 His business did not flourish, though, and he offered his equipment for sale in early 1844. Schaefer applied to the Dutch government to be sent to the East Indies, and his request came just as news of Munnich's failure was beginning to reach the Netherlands.

Ph. F. von Siebold, advisor to the Ministry of the Colonies, recommended that Schaefer's offer be accepted, thinking that the Dutch in the colony could have their pictures taken and that Schaefer might be successfully employed to document the antiquities of the island of Java. This arrangement provided the opportunity to send a professional photographer to the Indies, and the Minister of the Colonies welcomed this chance to replace the "amateur" Munnich.3 The plan was that the government would pay for Schaefer's voyage and equipment and that he would be allowed to repay the borrowed funds by making daguerreotypes.

Schaefer received a large sum of money to go to Paris to buy new equipment and to visit Daguerre for some first-hand instruction. According to Schaefer, Daguerre took great interest in Schaefer's plan to photograph in the tropics and taught him some new techniques. Schaefer spent a total of more than 4,000 guilders on equipment, chemicals and plates,4 and when he departed from the Netherlands, he had with him ten wooden crates and forty-nine tin cans with chemicals and silvered plates.

Schaefer arrived in Batavia, on the island of Java, in June 1844. For some time, nothing was heard from him, except for an interview in the Javaasche Courant,5 according to which he had given a successful demonstration of his art. The government decided he should pay back the borrowed money promptly, and he was ordered to photograph the statues in the collections of the Bataviaasch Genootschap voor Kensten en Wetenschappen (Batavian Society of Arts and Sciences). The prices Schaefer asked for his photographs were, according to the government, much too high. He demanded 120 to 150 guilders per daguerreotype, while prices of 10 to 15 guilders were usual in Europe. It was decided to pay Schaefer a total of 800 guilders, and in April 1845 he was ordered to "start without delay" to photograph the archaeological objects of the Bataviaasch Genootschap.

Once this work was completed, Schaefer was directed to go to the Residence Surakarta, where he presented himself to W. A. van den Ham, the archaeologist. In September 1845 Schaefer departed from Batavia with his horses and cases for a ride of 450 kilometers to the Residence Kadu, where he started photographing Borobudur, the great Buddhist temple, under van den Ham's direction. To get there, he was allowed the free use of the post-office horses, a necessity because of the amount of luggage he had. Once at Borobodur, he started documenting the intricate bas-reliefs carved into the stone corridors of the structure. He was to get an extra salary for this work to pay for his expenses, but the amount would not be determined until after he had made six pictures and sent them to the government. His monthly salary was ultimately raised to 600 guilders.

At the end of 1845, the Resident of Kadu informed the Governor-General of the Dutch Indies that Schaefer had given him thirteen frames, in which fifty-eight daguerreotypes of Borobudur had been mounted. In a memorandum, Schaefer outlined the troubles he had making these daguerreotypes. The preparation of the plates, which Schaefer did himself, was made very difficult under his existing circumstances. There was no suitable space for a darkroom in the house that had been set aside for his use, and wind and dust could enter freely into the traditional, open building. Schaefer asked that a European house be built with doors and windows that could be closed, and in which an adequate darkroom could be made.

Making the pictures themselves was even more difficult because the narrow corridors in Borobudur made it impossible to get the appropriate distance between his camera and his subjects. The focal lengths of his lenses were too long to focus on the extended stone bas-reliefs in the narrow corridors, and he was not able to show a complete bas-relief in a single daguerreotype. Schaefer solved this problem by making several daguerreotypes and mounting them next to each other in a frame, but when he sent the daguerreotypes to van den Ham for his opinion, the archaeologist had much to criticize. For scientific purposes, he insisted that the bas-reliefs should be photographed in their original sequence. Van den Ham felt that the composite pictures did not give an effective impression of the real structures.

Schaefer estimated that to photograph all the reliefs on Borobudur, 4,000 to 5,000 plates would be necessary, and four to five years of work would be required. He was prepared to undertake this task, but only under certain conditions. He wanted to be employed as a civil servant by the government of the Indies, with either a pension for him and his family or payment of 150,000 guilders in monthly installments during the work.6 This was an enormous sum for the period, beyond the financial capabilities of the colony. Also, it was difficult for the government to justify employing a photographer at that time since photography had not yet gained an accepted position as a part of daily life.

Schaefer suggested publishing his daguerreotypes as engravings as a means of raising the money for the project, but this offer was not accepted. By this time, van den Ham had died; and, with scientific direction of Schaefer's work no longer possible, the Governor-General decided to stop the project. Schaefer was told to move to Samarang, establish himself there as a photographer and start paying back his debts to the government, an amount that had grown to 24,000 guilders.

With this move, the final part of Schaefer's unfortunate sojourn in Java began. In the succeeding years, it became clear that repaying his debt would be impossible. Samarang did not have enough European inhabitants to supply the number of customers necessary for a successful portrait business; and, in the summer of 1848, the Resident of Samarang informed the Governor-General that Schaefer had earned very little in previous months. He was considered to be someone without means. Schaefer was allowed to move for a year to Surabaya, Madura and Sumanap to try his luck there; but, in August 1849, still not able to repay his debts, he returned to Batavia. The government sold his equipment at auction, where it brought only 227.11 guilders.

Nothing is known of Schaefer's life after this. The Governor-General sent his daguerreotypes to the Netherlands, where they were added to the collection of the Royal Academy at Delft. They were later donated to the Ethnological Museum at Leiden, and were later moved to the collection of the Study and Documentation Centre for Photography of the Leiden University.

The ill-fated enterprise by the Ministry of the Colonies and Adolph Schaefer to make daguerreotypes documenting records of the Indies was much ahead of its time. Despite the failure of the earlier poorly equipped amateur, the Ministry had hoped Schaefer would be better qualified, but this was fulfilled only in part. Even with his superior knowledge and training, the tropical circumstances made execution very difficult. Nevertheless, the beautiful daguerreotypes Schaefer made in Java stand as testimony to the skill and quality of his art.

1. National Archives, Ministry of the Colonies, 3 November 1843, Nr. 3.
2. E. Mensonides, Een nieuwe kunst in Den Haag, in Die Haghe, Jaarboek 1977.
3. National Archives, Ministry of the Colonies, Letter of 5 May 1843, Nr. 25.
4. National Archives, Ministry of the Colonies, Letter of 16 February 1844, Nr. 21/96.
5. Javaasche Courant, Nr. 16, 22 February 1845.
6. National Archives, Ministry of the Colonies, Letter of the Governor-General to the Minister of the Colonies, 2 October 1851, Nr.



Adolph Schaeffer

Borodubur, view of part of the first gallery before restoration, 1845. Daguerreotype.


Adolph Schaeffer

Borobudur, Bas-reliefs from the west outer wall, first corridor, first gallery, 1845. Daguerreotype.


Adolph Schaeffer

Balinese Hanuman, or white monkey genral statue, 1845. Daguerreotype.


Adolph Schaeffer

Balinese Ranga mask, 1845. Daguerreotype.


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