Life Interview by Marc van Kempen
Recently I had the pleasure to meet with Dutch society photographer Govert de Roos, born in 1953 and currently living in Amsterdam. The door of his studio, in an industrial area on the outskirts of Amsterdam, was already slightly opened to let me in. Govert came to the door to open it further for me. I instantly recognized his familiar, engaging and friendly expression, which I have often seen on TV and I noticed that one immediately feels at ease when entering his place.
Govert de Roos during the interview by © Marc van Kempen
Passing through a hallway, with many of his beautiful works of mainly world famous artists, you enter his huge shed that was once converted into a professional studio. Inside this shed I again found an abundance of beautiful images of famous artists hanging on the wall. This included people that have been visiting this place, such as Kate Bush, Grace Jones, The Jackson 5 and Patricia Paay. But I also found artists like David Bowie, Rod Stewart, Blondie and not to forget his world famous photograph of John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the well-known bed scene in an Amsterdam hotel. Also actors like Anthony Hopkins have posed for Govert, on whom later a nice anecdote. And many more, too numerous to mention all.
The moment I arrived, Govert was scanning his old 6x6 cm negatives and we agreed that he would just continue to do so during our conversation. This gave our talk a natural, dynamic and relaxed vibe.
While preparing my questions, I was most interested in discovering who the person behind the name Govert de Roos really is. I approached this by dividing his life into five decades and thought about how he may have experienced these periods, first as a young boy and later as an experienced photographer. I was curious about his feelings and the enthusiasm towards his photographic work at certain points in his life and whether there has been any difference over the years. What does Govert experience in the current period of photography compared to his early days? Are there essential differences? Is the passion of the young Govert still alive or has it taken on another dimension after all these years? How do all the technical developments of the past decades fit into the photographic work and methods of Govert? These were few of the many questions I had.
After I explained the purpose of the conversation, the eloquent Govert enthusiastically took over! And whether it was meant to be…almost in chronological order…we went through all my questions with ease. In front of me sat a passionate photographer.
“The feeling behind it…p000… you’re asking me for quite a bit” Govert said with a smile and he started to tell his life story.
I am now 61 and around age 60, memories from the past start to become a bit stronger. And my memories also came. On the wall hangs a photograph of Grace Jones. The image from that time, for example, just comes back again and this also happens with the old folders that you look through. It puts you back in time in your memory.
Why did I want to become a photographer?
I had never thought about the profession of photographer. No, I wanted to become a furniture maker, a coal merchant or a truck driver. The first thing I wanted to become was a farmer. I wanted to go to the agricultural college in Enschede. That was during the 4th year of primary school. It was only when I was 10 or 11 years old, when I became first interested in photography. That was in Nunspeet. There I got a little camera ‘box’ from my parents. At one point the film roll fell out and I held it into the water, which of course was pointless.
Eventually I went from primary school to the technical school. During this period I got a job at a printing company. In the printing company they had a lithography department. At some point I had to bring coffee over there. I entered the dark room once and I just saw a photo emerging inside the developer bath. At that moment I remembered my primary school time, when I was busy with that roll of film, which I wanted to develop in normal water. Soon I bought some photographic developer with a package of paper and I just started to experiment with it. I did that for years. Negative on the paper and then making contact prints. My first camera was an “Iford Sportsman”. My father was a furniture maker and he made an enlarger for me from an old view camera.
How did you then get all your knowledge?
By simply experimenting, asking people questions and reading books, I eventually got the hang of it. Furthermore, I started to get interested in music, which was my greatest passion. Bands like The Beatles, The Small Faces, The Bee Gees or Nina Simone came to the Netherlands now and then. At one point, I went there. Of course together with that Iford Sportsman. I was about 14 years old then. In the meantime I was saving for a “Yashica Mat” because I wanted to have a 6x6 cm camera. In the concert hall, the artists went through a stage door. As a 14 year old, I was waiting there for them outside. A porter was standing there and he advised me to get a press card. I naturally followed his good advice and since I was attending a graphic school, I made my own press card.
When I arrived at the hall, I presented myself to the porter and proudly showed my press card. All the other times I didn’t have to show it to him anymore. The porter now knew me and just did let me pass through, granting me entry. From that moment on, I was able to photograph concerts. My camera brought me to places I previously could never have come to. I can safely say, that photography has brought me even further into the world, because it gave me access to special people who you would normally not be able to get close to.
My friends were jealous, because I was together with John Lennon in a Hilton Hotel room with my self-made press card. They wanted to be there too, but I was there! At that time I had my self-made press card with me. Actually, I was more shy than any other boy in the neighborhood. I had long hair, so I could hide behind my hair. I don’t know, but the drive was somehow greater than, the shame or something like that. Or call it shyness. You could hide behind the camera, because you are in a different world then. You aren’t there anymore at that moment. Just like a war photographer.
What kind of family do you come from and are they also creative people?
Not in the sense of musical qualities or art, but my father was a good furniture maker and he had a lot of love for his profession. And that love for what I do I have learned from him.
Didn’t your parents ask “Why are you entering such an uncertain profession?
” No, my oldest brother went to college, like many of his peers at that time. My parents were happy enough because I was earning my own pocket money from age 14 For example, after the concerts, I quickly made my prints and brought them to ‘de Volkskrant’ (a newspaper) in the ‘Wibautstraat’ in Amsterdam. With a little bit of luck, my images would then be used in the reviews of the concert. I got fl. 17.50,- for that (about 8 Euro today). I used that money to buy materials, such as film and photographic developer. Or for example at speedboat races in 1969. I took pictures there with some text underneath and brought them to the final dinner. I asked people there if they wanted to buy them. At the end of the night I had fl. 300,- (about 135 Euro).
It was a combination of several things I’ve been able to take advantage of. I could earn my money with it; I came to places which I would otherwise not have gotten access to; I came backstage; I was allowed to enter the dressing rooms and I lived in the entertainment world. I was part of the entertainment industry. What everyone at that age would have wanted.
But I realized that I was not the only one who was out there. There were others that could photograph. In 1974 there were around 15 photographers at a meeting with an artist. But I did not want to make the same standard trashy flash photos as the rest. I wanted to make it better and especially different from all the others. (Note: Govert shows me a photo in which he is seen with David Bowie. All those photographers were making the same photo. I didn’t want that. With that image I could do nothing. I would have ended up with a simple flash photo, like those other photographers).
I always tried to separate the artists from the rest of the crowd. And I pulled tricks. A nice anecdote from 1972 is for example a press conference in a Hilton suite with Rod Stewart, of whom I was a big fan. At one point I said to the people of the record label, which I knew well, that I had to go to the toilet and that I would come back later. I did not come off the toilet until I heard that everyone had left. Then I came off the toilet. The guy from the record label, who eventually helped me a little bit, said to Rod Stewart “Oh Rod, sorry here’s Govert de Roos, a very important photographer from the Netherlands and he works for The Music Express”.
And yes, sometimes you need to get a little bit of help from the outside and that guy from the record label played along well. “Just five minutes” said Rod Stewart. And with a big smile I managed to get him on the balcony, because I told him that I did not want the same boring sofa picture as the rest, with the same background. Rod Stewart figured it out and said to me “Oh, you’re so clever”. He figured me out. I could make 6 pictures and Rod Stewart said “That’s enough”. He had figured me out, but he also granted me this time. With that I had something explicit and different from all the rest of the photographers.
An artist like Rod Stewart also understood it. Ultimately we both came from the same laborers’ environment. In fact we were all brats of the street. And those people understood that; by doing it differently you gave yourself a chance in society. You also needed someone who could help you get further and someone who granted you something. Because of this method of approach and work, people of the record label helped me a little bit more than others. Years later I could photograph Rod Stewart with Britt Ekland in the Memphis Hotel. I got 10 minutes exclusively! That was really great for me. And that was actually one of my first real sessions with a world famous artist which went around the world.
I became aware of the fact that if you put a lot of energy into that one different image, it will become valuable to you and it will pay itself off. For an exclusive publication of Rod Stewart photographs in Germany I received DM 900,- (about 460 euro).
Similarly, there is a nice story about photographer Laurens van Houten who wanted to photograph Elvis Presley. That was phenomenal, because nobody was allowed to photograph in Las Vegas. He managed to pull it through by getting under the table of Elvis Presley with his camera and taking his world known photos that have brought him a lot of money. With the first shot you could hear a click and Elvis heard that too. Laurens thought he would be screwed. However, Elvis winked and he was then allowed to photograph the whole concert.
You had the nerve to ask for money for your work, so you weren’t that humble as you said in the beginning?
No, but there was sort of a threshold or whatever you may call such. But I always asked the question “what should I ask for that job”? I always asked the customer. And then they would for example propose fl.600,- (about 270 Euro). I was basically not that concerned or thinking too much about money. I turned it around. Customers just gave it to me, they in a way granted it to me. In the current economy though, it has become a different situation, I must say. Back in the days they didn’t act complicated about it. They just paid me as any other, already established photographer. Over the last 10 years that has changed.
I will give you another example. Take Adam Curry and Patricia Paay. I could sell those images to ‘De Telegraaf’ (a newspaper) and it was the first official portrait of Adam and Patricia. “What was it worth” I asked? “Govert, do you really have a portrait shot of them? It is very important to us. Could you live with fl. 5000,-?” (about 2270 Euro) was their answer. I didn’t ask for it. The figure I had in my head was fl. 1500,- (about 680 Euro). But it was offered to me and I never asked for it.
And since we’re talking about money...we did not only do it just for the money. When I had the first shot of Linda with her baby (assigned by Linda herself), I was called by a German gossip magazine and they offered me DM 150.000 if I would send the photographic films immediately to Germany. Of course I did not do that, because they were for Linda. And she did not want that.
Those were really different times. Nowadays I feel that photography as a profession is over. Not as a hobby, it will remain like that and that is also nice. But you should not have the illusion that you can earn well with it in these times. The 80s were my success years. At that time, I myself for example had big assignments every day for 6 weeks, and sometimes I told my assistants “I want a day off”. Nowadays that isn’t possible anymore.
You are also known as the Playboy photographer from the Netherlands. How did you get into that?
My entry to Playboy was actually very simple. I photographed Patricia Paay as staff photographer. Patricia was approached by Playboy. She told Playboy that she did not want just anybody to photograph her naked, but Playboy really wanted to have her. “Govert may do it and I want him as the photographer” she told Playboy. Playboy’s editor Jan Heemskerk wanted to use his own photographer because he did not believe in Govert. Jan Heemskerk wanted to have his own mood in the photo. Then we agreed that Govert would still make the pictures, but without any obligation. Three days of shooting and then Playboy would decide whether or not to buy the pictures. Eventually they were very happy and that edition of Playboy is one of the most sold editions. Because of Patricia, her efforts of course. We received a fax from the international department of Playboy America with a great compliment that “Playboy Netherlands had found a photographer who managed to capture the spirit of Playboy. I would advise you to continue with this photographer”.
It was my luck that I could do a session with Patricia. And Patricia absolutely talked Playboy into getting me and because of that, I got the chance. And because of this success I was asked more often by Playboy. In my entire life I have done about 45 photo shoots for Playboy over 15 years. About three per year. So actually, that isn’t that much. Pleunie Trouw, VVD celebrities and Sylvia Millekamp soon followed and I also made my name because of them.
I’m really not that good, I always thought. That photographer and that photographer and that photographer are much better than me and I often questioned why they were not taken for the job. I got lucky, maybe by always being at the right place at the right time. I must say though, that I have always worked very hard for it. I got up with it and went to bed with it. And the passion of that little boy is still there.
What is the difference from the past compared to current times with all the techniques and new things in photography?
Most photographers have now become very good with Photoshop. Now I don’t see that much difference between photographers any longer. It is currently harder to distinguish yourself with images and to develop your own signature. Skin edits and stuff. I think it is not so unique anymore. But at the same time I don’t really mind it that much, because it is the current age. It is actually the same with music.
How did your family respond to your fame?
Oh, occasionally the children noticed something about it in the theater or so. I never wanted to stick a label on, just act normally. The family had not much difficulty with it either.
I would also not be able to do it just as before. I have become a lot older now and maybe also more direct. I wouldn’t be able to do a band like the Dolly Dots for example. However, Rob de Nijs or Willeke Alberti wouldn’t be a problem. They are peers. You have to understand your subject. Andre Hazes, Golden Earing, Emile Roamer, or whoever. Otherwise, you won’t get the best out of it.
How did you do that in the TV program ‘De Naakte Waarheid’? Women who were quite uncertain and had to be photographed more or less naked?
Gaining confidence, that was the case and sometimes I had to talk for three hours. It is actually not explainable on one A4. It’s quite hard if it is difficult to get through to someone. But I always managed to do it. I did not show them or let them judge the pictures at that time. A few days later we would always look together, when it settled down. The client was always ultimately the one who decided what the final outcome would be.
Would you do it again if you were 30 years old now?
No, I would choose another profession in these times. Become a farmer. I had a drive. My father had a minimum wage and he often came home tired. And as a good craftsman he never got paid what he actually deserved. I didn’t want that, I wanted a respected job. Photography! I put my energy into it and I knew that I could do it.
That undertaking started at quite an early age in 1971. At age 18, I was temporarily working for the befriended photographer of Nico van der Stam at ‘de Flevohof’. There we made and sold pictures of the visitors. We had the equipment for it and the money just came rolling in. Per month I would earn up to fl.2200,- to fl.2500-, net (about 1000-1135 Euro). That was quite a lot of money for those days. While a normal salary for me as photographer would have been around fl. 400,- (about 180 Euro) per month. So the whole investment of the machines at ‘de Flevohof’ was earned back within a very short time. I could have become co-partner, but I decided not to do that.
“Leen (Nico’s friend), wake up” I said... “I am willing to earn money, but this is not photography”. Money was a means of independence, but I didn’t just do it for the money. It had to be fun for me. I wanted to create beautiful things and not just undertake it that way. Like I said, I did quit that job quite soon. The nice thing was that I realized, that photography gave me opportunities. But not in that market, because for me that had nothing to do with photography.
Nowadays that is different. Certainly if I look at what my children have to do. The crisis weighs heavily at the moment. Also on the existing assignments at this time. Earlier, I could sometimes turn jobs down if I was on vacation and now you must stay focused on the tasks. These are simply different times compared to the past. You need assignments in order to maintain everything. And to purchase your materials or to repair them. V system, H1, H3 with backgrounds.
On your websites your teachers are mentioned. That adorns you.
Nico van der Stam and Claude Vanheye and Paul Huf. The people who I have learned the craft from. Especially Paul Huf I admired. With him I had close contact and he thought I was his successor. That is quite an honour I think. I am old school in terms of photographers that I admire. The five photographers that make up my list of favirites are Ansel Adams (for his technique), Yousef Karsh (for his nice portraits), Richard Evadon (for his ideas and solutions), David Bailey (for his fashion and happy photography) and Newton (for his madness).
And the Dutch photographers? Ed van der Elsken, Sanne Sannes, Gerard Petrus Fieret?
Ed van der Elsken I came to appreciate much later. His approach is totally different compared to mine. I could not have done it the same way as he did. I did protect people in all fairness. And Ed van der Elsken photographed very differently. Other aspects of people that he shot, I did not. For example, I was with Prince in the locker room, listening in the suite to recordings he had made earlier that evening. Prince asked me what I thought about it. Ed van der Elsken would have absolutely made pictures of that. I thought that was a bit too private. So I did not do that at that time.
I was especially fascinated by Paul Huf, Erwin Olaf (technically brilliant). Currently I am very impressed by Stephan Vanfleteren. I think he is an incredibly good photographer. He is one of the few people of current time that has achieved to create his own mark.
You have a charming personality. I talked to someone to whom I said I would come here. The first thing she said was that she would immediately dare to get out of her clothes, do you recognize that?
That often still surprises me. Yes, I recently had the Dutch women’s volleyball team visiting me for a shoot. Many people told me that it was not going to happen. But it did work with everyone. They thanked me afterwards for the boost that I had given them and that I was able to convince them and that I photographed them that way. I thought that was such a nice compliment. Apparently I have that ability.
Many people want to be photographed. Andy Warhol once said that everyone wants to have his or her “15 minutes of fame”. And if you come up with the right story, you can fill those“15 minutes of fame”. Everybody will then say yes. It’s not what you’re asking, but how you ask for it. And again, with this, there is also a “granting” factor.
A good example is the following. André Rieu had a musical collaboration with Anthony Hopkins. Nobody could know that he was in his recording studio and nobody was allowed to photograph there. I shall spare you the story of how it all came about, but eventually I had shot a roll of film. Later he was in Maastricht on ‘het Vrijthof’. He came five seats past everyone and asked me “Hey Govert, how are you?”. My hero recognized me and my hero asked me how I was. That were my own “15 minutes of fame”. I got goose bumps. I was very proud of that.
Technique I learned, because I felt that I needed to become a good photographer. Everyone can learn technique, because that’s a matter of time and a lot of energy to be put into it. And besides that, I sincerely love people. Because I want to make a portrait as beautiful as possible,so that in the future, the grandchildren will say “What was grandma beautiful”. I wanted to make iconic, valuable and characteristic pictures for the people. I find it hard to take a bad picture of someone. No hard images.
You have experienced five decades?
Actually, from the 60s until now. The 60s was learning, the 70s shooting, the 80s my breakthrough, the 90s and the present time, what I do now.
You have also made the picture of Lennon and Yoko Ono.
As a young boy I had quite the guts to make that picture. It’s also a damn good shot. A difficult photo with backlighting. I tried it once again but I am not exactly able to do it the way I did it back then.
Do you have something else to say? Something you have never done? Or do you have any tips for new photographers?Or would you say, don’t even try to start, just keep it as a hobby?
The one about the teachers I had never been asked before in interviews. And tips, I wish I had them. I’m actually now at the stage where I need tips from them.
There is perhaps a future in autonomous work, the free work. Create something that distinguishes itself and what others don’t make. I now have a phase of 45 years of experience and lighting is my thing. And thereof you could perhaps hear someone else says that Govert has made that one.
I regularly clash at the educational institute because I think that conceptual thinking is bullshit, but that is very personal. Because I would never really do that. In the past you came up with an idea and you would work it out over a short period of time and you made it. The next day there was another idea and picture in your head and you would make that. Nowadays you are taught at the educational institute to develop a theme and you think about it for days and after that you are working for a year to create that theme. For example, making 20 portraits, but then after the first good image , portraits get weaker towards the 20th.
With earlier photographers you could still see their signature. Now you see all the tricks of Photoshop. I put the camera down and if I have students here in the studio, I set up the light in a good way and position the people, and then all the students can press the button. But whose image is it then? Is it done by the student or by me? Does the camera take the picture or is it the photographer? Whose eye is it? Everyone can push the button, but it is the photographer who needs to put up the scene. That is craftmanship, that is insight.
Another example from the past is “grain”. Recently I spoke to someone about the use of grain in the picture. This person said “then I’d just quickly do that in Photoshop with a plugin.” You can’t do that! In my whole life I have developed over 15.000 rolls of film and I was always excited about the result of the grain. That was always different. You can’t make it universal. It was always a surprise. Photoshop however always creates the same grain. With developing, you always had a different grain. By the use of it, you could make your trademark.
If I have an advice I would say “Don’t use Photoshop anymore”. Instead, create an image. Because of Photoshop everything looks similar nowadays. I only know a few photographers who make it in this profession.
Another example are 100 musicians who all play the same piece. You instantly recognize who the musician is, while the music is the same. Every top artist has his own trademark. Photographers nowadays should also work on that.
More of Govert's work can be seen on www.govertderoos.nl
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