Outside of a small circle of historians interested in Indonesian culture, Kassian Cephas is scarcely known. A court photographer for Java’s Yogyakarta Sultanate in Java during the late 19th century, Kassian Cephas was Indonesia’s first professional photographer.
Born in 1845 during Dutch colonial rule, Cephas was trained by a Dutchman at the request of Sultan Hamengkubuwana VI. (According to oral tradition, his father was Dutch and his mother Indonesian). By the early 1870’s, Cephas was appointed as court painter and photographer. His responsibilities were to take portraits of the royal family.
Recognizing his skills, the Dutch Archaeological Union commissioned Cephas to photograph Indonesia’s iconic buildings and ancient monuments for posterity.
After the hidden base of the Borobudur temple complex was discovered in 1885, Cephas was requested to record the hidden panels with his camera. To expedite the documentation, the base was briefly uncovered in 1890, and then covered again in 1891.
In recognition of his photographic contribution to archeology, Cephas was appointed as an “extraordinary member” of the Batavian Society of Arts and Sciences following the completion of the Borobudur project. Subsequently, he was also made a member of the Royal Institute in recognition of his work with for the Dutch Archaeological Union.
Along with his architectural photography, Cephas continued working as a court photographer. In 1896 he photographed a visit to Yogyakarta by Thailand’s King Chulalongkorm. Later, in 1899 he documented the four-year commemoration of the accession of Hamengkunegars III to the throne as Crown Prince of the Yogyakarta Sultanate.
Cephas retired when he reached 60 years of age, and passed away seven years later in 1912 due to illness.
Although he was an accomplished court photographer and architectural photographer, Cephas is mainly celebrated in Indonesia today as the first Indonesian to become a professional photographer.