New York

Cas Oorthuys

Prakapas Gallery

A set of pictures that brings the past into the present with more urgency than Phillips’ is Cas Oorthuys’. Oorthuys was a Dutch photographer who was sent to a concentration camp by the Nazis for taking “illegal” pictures of conditions in Amsterdam, but returned to photograph again at the end of the occupation in 1944–45. To speak of these pictures as good or bad is irrelevant. Oorthuys worked within a very narrow and dangerous range of circumstances, where even the slightest mishap could have meant not only no photographs, but no photographer. These are the only pictures that were possible, and we must accept them as such. Like Robert Capa’s combat photos, Oorthuys’ work has a kind of inevitability that has nothing to do with the esthetic or technical quality of the negatives. Sometimes a camera can be a prosthetic device after all, if not for an individual, then for history, for the moment and the conditions in which the photographs are made. Oorthuys’ pictures are of that sort.

I think the most chilling of these pictures is one made from an upstairs window, of a German soldier rounding up people at random in the street. Except for the machine gun and the careful distance he keeps, he might be one of them. He walks his bicycle as they do theirs. He, too, is a member of the society. We feel in this image the constant dread of having to live in a society where your fellow man can, without provocation and with impunity, turn on you at any time.

Colin L. Westerbeck Jr.