The Early Days of Photography in the Dutch East Indies: The Story of the Daguerreotype


The development of photography in the early 19th century saw the introduction of the Daguerreotype, a groundbreaking photographic method developed by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce and Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in the 1830s. This method quickly captured global attention, including in the Dutch East Indies.

After extensive experiments with various materials and chemicals, Daguerre successfully created a photograph on a copper medium, which he named the Daguerreotype. As detailed by Piti Ermawati in “19th Century Photographic Media: Daguerreotype, Calotype, and Collodion,” published in Jurnal Rekam (Vol. 13, No. 2, October 2017), Daguerre’s method represented a significant milestone in the field of photography.

News of the Daguerreotype’s success rapidly spread to different countries, including the Dutch East Indies. Jean German Taylor, in his article “Aceh in Photo Narratives, 1873–1930,” published in New Perspectives on Indonesian History Writing (2013), noted that the Dutch East Indies government quickly recognized photography’s potential. This led to the commissioning of photographs of natural landscapes and ancient relics by Jurrian Munnich, a health service official, in 1842.

Munnich, accompanied by archaeologist W.A. van den Ham, used the Daguerreotype technique to capture images in Java. However, his efforts were thwarted by technical issues and the tropical humidity, resulting in disappointing outcomes. Achmad Sunjayadi, in “Capturing Aesthetics: Photography in Colonial Tourism Promotion in the Dutch East Indies,” published in Wacana (Vol. 10, No. 2, October 2008), highlighted these challenges, stating, “Out of 64 images, the results were very disappointing.”

The news of Munnich’s failures reached the Netherlands, where Adolph Schaefer, a German who owned a photo studio, saw an opportunity. With the help of Franz von Siebold, an advisor to the Minister of Colonial Affairs, Schaefer obtained a recommendation to continue the photography work in the Dutch East Indies. Before departing, Schaefer learned directly from Daguerre in Paris, quickly mastering the Daguerreotype technique, as noted by Jane Levy Reed in Manoa (Vol. 12, No. 1, 2000).

Schaefer arrived in the Dutch East Indies in June 1844, but it wasn’t until early 1845 that he began his assignments. His initial task was to photograph the collections of the Royal Batavian Society of Arts and Sciences, producing around 66 successful images. This success was reported by the Javasche Courant on February 22, 1845, which praised Schaefer’s work in Buitenzorg.

In September 1845, Schaefer set out to photograph the Borobudur Temple, a complex task due to the narrow corridors and the lack of a proper darkroom. Despite these obstacles, Schaefer managed to produce 58 high-quality photos, as documented by Herman J. Moeshart in “Daguerreotypes by Adolph Schaefer,” published in History of Photography (Vol. 9, No. 3, 1985). These images, now preserved at Leiden University, represent the earliest photographic documentation of the Borobudur Temple.

Schaefer’s work laid the groundwork for future photographic endeavors in the Dutch East Indies. The efforts to document Borobudur were continued by Isidore van Kinsbergen in the 1850s and later by Kassian Cephas, the first indigenous photographer, who captured several temples in Yogyakarta and the Karmawibhangga reliefs at the base of Borobudur in 1890.

The early days of photography in the Dutch East Indies highlight the challenges and successes of pioneering photographers like Jurrian Munnich and Adolph Schaefer. Their work not only documented historical sites but also paved the way for future generations of photographers, leaving a lasting legacy in the field of photographic documentation.