GERARD PETRUS FIERET at the Fotomuseum, The Hague

There are no failed photographs

I must confess to never having come across Gerard Petrus Fieret before. My loss.

Fieret died in 2009 aged 85. His main body of work as a photographer was created between 1965 and 1975. Some of it is very much of its time – girls in mini skirts – but most of it looked as though it came from another era, the 1930s or 40s. There were echoes of Cartier-Bresson with the candid, sometimes seemingly random street scenes while some of the shadowy portraits and nude studies were almost like those of Man Ray. But Fieret lacked the sophistication of Ray and Cartier-Bresson, his images are raw, crude, naïve even and shock and attack the viewer with the precision of a surgeon.

Fieret himself was crude and unsophisticated. In middle age, with his wild, unkempt hair, dishevelled beard and scruffy garb, he resembled a tramp. He looked and, on the evidence of the short film about him, behaved like a vagabond. He lived in a cluttered damp and dirty basement in the suburbs of The Hague with a blind cat and a succession of women of doubtful morals for company. Not for him a flashy Leica; his camera of choice, or more likely necessity, was a cheap Russian Zenit. His dank apartment served as kitchen, living room, bedroom, studio and darkroom – although the final stages of his print making were carried out in the street where he rinsed the newly developed pictures, pouring the water into the gutter. He would often throw the wet, new prints onto a pile rather than hang them up to dry with the resulting damage adding to, not distracting from, the image’s appeal.

To say Fieret was eccentric would not suffice. It went much further than that and progressively his deteriorating mental health became more apparent. In later years he would sit on the pavement and busk in the streets of The Hague, playing his pan pipes. Finally, he devoted himself to feeding and caring for pigeons in the city streets and was forced to leave his home when it became overwhelmed by his feathered friends.

To say his work was gritty and honest would be to undersell it. The photographs truly see the world through his disturbed eyes without any gloss or affectation. The title of the show gives a clue – no photo was ever discarded, each one had something to say. And not for him the nice silky smooth exhibition prints seen elsewhere in the museum – these pictures are as crude and direct as the man himself. They are un-retouched, grainy, frequently fuzzy. They are annotated, creased, torn and often stained. It is almost as if the collection had been rescued from a skip. Each print bears at least one, usually several rubber stamps with his name, address and copyright notice and many of them have his signature scrawled across them in fat, black felt-tipped pen. But Fieret was known and he was recognised. His work was bought and collected by museums and he was even commissioned to design some plates for the Delft pottery. But he was a true outsider and that’s what made the man and his work unique.

His subject matter was as unrestricted and uninhibited as the man himself. There are candid street scenes, often the same subject taken from a different angle and then printed together. There are women of various ages and degrees of beauty in various states of undress and there are self-portraits, lots of self-portraits. But these images are much more than mere photographs; they are testament to a man’s extraordinary life.

This is the most exciting exhibition of photographs I have seen in a long time, made all the more satisfying by the fact that I was seeing these images for the first time and that it was work by an artist I had never heard of. For me, at least, a real discovery.  Highly recommended.    Michael Hasted    10th August 2017


The exhibition continues until 10th September 2017