The story of the mysterious photographer Otto Verkuyl

Pierluigi Ortolano he is a 48 year old worker. Every night he moves from his San Salvo on the border between Abruzzo and Molise to the hinterland to work in a factory that assembles Fiat vehicles. In moments of pause to overcome the monotony imposed by his profession, he cultivates his passions, especially photography. It was precisely during one shift, in May 2017, that he landed on Catawiki, one of the most famous online auction sites, and from one camera to the other came across the announcement of a package with 141 rollsImprinted, but not developed, from the 1960s in Holland“. “I said to myself, “I have to take this,” and asked other people to help me if the price got too high” says. Luckily only one other person took part in the auction and he didn’t want to bid over 200 euros.

The story of the discovery of Pierluigi Ortolano

The package arrived a week later. The signs on the films included information about the locations where they were taken, such as “circus”, “holidays”, “ships”, and they were all from the same brand, Agfa, suggesting that it was probably a single photographer. The films were perfectly preserved despite the 1971 expiration date. They were wrapped in a sheet of newspaper from 1969 Randstadwhich is also the name of an urban agglomeration These include Amsterdam and 16 other cities in the Netherlands.
Upon arrival in Italy, the rolls of film are entrusted to the experienced hands of photographer and printer Franco Glieca, who uses around 4,000 negatives to develop the first in a long series of images that tell the story of a man’s passion for his camera. but also the story of a family over a period of probably two years. We see three little girls on bicycles gazing into space against a barren landscape, in a gloomy atmosphere almost reminiscent of the twins The glow. From that moment on, Pierluigi understood that he was dealing with someone who knew his job well: “If they’re all like that, let’s move on“, he said to Glieca.

The Randstad Project 1969

The project bears his name Randstad 1969 and only becomes one Traveling exhibition, across regional borders to reach cities such as Rome, Brescia, Genoa. However, as the photos develop, curiosity about the immortalized motifs and their author grows. The topographical signs and clues left by the prints awaken the desire to know their identity and prompt Pierluigi to set out on the trail. The turning point is a photo in which one of the three girls can be seen getting off a school bus while the other two greet her. On the back of the vehicle there is the inscription “Garage Pollè” with a telephone number, which is no longer active.
Hopes began to fade when he shared the photo on a Facebook group for transport enthusiasts in the Netherlands in February 2018, where he not only received no response but was also expelled. “The mystery begins there. As if anyone knew the story of this photographer. Also because the place where he lived is not very big“, claims Pierluigi. Pollè, the company founder’s granddaughter, wrote to him shortly afterwards and asked him for a copy of the photo. “There I told her, “I’ll send you the copy, but you have to tell me who the three girls are.”“, told.

The turning point

Through Pollè, Pierluigi learns that the school bus was on the Verkuyl family property at the time of the shooting. An older gentleman, Leo Kranenburg, then becomes president of the club Historic Halfwayto reveal more details about the photographer and unlock searches. He was called Otto Verkuyl. He was born in 1925 and died in 2008. He was a farmer, but in reality his work is similar to that of a sharecropper or small landowner, managing the crops of some lands for his family, those of his employees and retail sales. He often traveled with his car, a Beetle, but especially with his camera.
In August 2018, Pierluigi is ready to fly to Amsterdam. Once he arrives, he takes an Uber that drops him off in front of the Verkuyl house, seen in a photo amid a vast expanse of snow-covered fields. “When I came down, my wife said to me, “Are you okay?” because I wasn’t talking anymore. It was like finding myself in a black and white photo after 50 years. But suddenly I saw everything alive and colorful” He says. The door was there, within reach, but he didn’t have the courage to knock. In fact, he had only just found out that Mathilda, Otto’s first daughter, had died in 2016, a year before he bought the films, and he was not sure if a stranger would be accepted without suspicion.

Otto Verkuyl, vintage photography

The meeting with Otto Verkuyl’s family

During an exhibition in August 2020 in Alfedena, Abruzzo, a journalist from New York Times he appears before Pierluigi with the intention of taking care of it Randstad 1969. The article will never be published, but the newspaper’s interest will be decisive in contacting the photographer’s family. “We grew up taking photos of our dad, so it was normal for us. Italy is too far away, so we want to leave it there“Writes Adriana, Otto’s third daughter, in an email from September of the same year, in which she attached a photo of an announcement on the occasion of her parents’ 50th marriage anniversary.
Time passes, but the attempts continue, until the turning point. “When Pierluigi wrote to me I felt like I was in a fairy tale, something like that you only see in movies, but this time it was all real“. Simone Veldhuis is 32 years old, heads customer service at a large Dutch wine company and is the eldest of Mathilda’s three children, who has the most memories of grandfather Otto. He describes him as a very silent person who had been suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in recent years. Photos developed for Randstad 1969 They allowed her to fill in some gaps and get to know him better than she had hoped: “It’s really cool to see how he thought and looked at the world through the photos he took“, he claims.
His sister Pauline, a 28-year-old healthcare teacher student, remembers him as a great “observer.” Pierluigi started talking to her on Instagram when he realized that she was only responding to the stories about the photos in which his mother was depicted. In July 2022, five years after purchasing the films, he finally managed to organize an online call with the photographer’s granddaughters, who told him some anecdotes about their grandfather told by their mother.
One of them allowed him to find Otto in the only image that shows him on the other side in front of the lens, shrouded in a chiaroscuro that makes his face barely visible. It was a rainy fall day and the photographer had taken his wife and three daughters to the circus. Outside the tent, the path back to the car was littered with puddles, but she didn’t want her daughters to get wet. So he decided to take off his shoes, roll up his pants and carry them to his destination before his wife probably took a photo of him.

Who was Otto Verkuyl?

From the stories of Mathilda to Pauline and Simone, a portrait of a protective man who is devoted to his family emerges. For example, during her mother’s first week of school, Grandpa Otto drove his car behind the bus to make sure his eldest daughter got to school safely. The granddaughters knew about hers Passion for photography But none of them could imagine that such a great talent was hidden. In fact, after his death, Otto left a huge amount of film scattered in various boxes around the apartment where he lived. But the development of each film required enormous effort and after a few thousand euros it was decided to stop everything.
Today, this house welcomes women in difficulty after becoming a cultural asset. Instead, some film boxes ended up in the hands of a family friend, who then possibly gave them to someone to sell them online. “For us it is as if we were reflecting the spirit of the time in which the photos were taken, with our experiences and what has happened over the years in the region, but also inside the house, from the trees to the garden, has changed“, thinks Simone.
The most recently developed photo shows the three girls again together with two other children, this time on a swing, while the only one of them looks towards the camera from behind. To make it even more special, it was printed in seven copies, like a limited edition. When Pierluigi looks at it, he is still amazed by the perfect geometry of the rocking boards, as if it were a frame within a frame that only those who have worked on this project for so long can fill with meaning without losing the aura of mystery that surrounds it surrounds Otto Verkuyl, the Dutch photographer who will never see the photos that accompanied the story of his life.

Alexander Leone

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