An exploration of the German photographer Herbert List's fascination with the classical world, art and the human form
"The pictures I took spontaneously - with a bliss-like sensation, as if they had long inhabited my unconscious - were often more powerful than those I had painstakingly composed. I grasped their magic as in passing"
- Herbert List
Herbert List was a classically educated artist who combined a love of photography with a fascination for surrealism and classicism.
Born into a prosperous Hamburg merchant family, List began an apprenticeship at a Heidelberg coffee dealer in 1921 while studying literature and art history at Heidelberg University. During travels for the coffee business between 1924-28, the young List began to take photographs, almost without any pretensions to art.
In 1930, though, his artistic leanings and connections to the European avant-garde brought him together with the photographer Andreas Feininger, who introduced his new friend to the Rolleiflex, a more sophisticated camera that allowed a deliberate composition of images. Under the dual influence of the surrealist movement on the one hand, and of Bauhaus artists on the other, List photographed still life and his friends, developing his style. He has described his images as “composed visions where [my] arrangements try to capture the magical essence inhabiting and animating the world of appearances.”
After leaving Germany in 1936 for political and personal reasons, he turned his hobby into a profession. Working in Paris and London, he met George Hoyningen-Huene, who referred him to “Harper’s Bazaar.” Dissatisfied with the challenges of fashion photography, List instead focused on composing still lifes in his studio. The images produced there would later be compared to the paintings of Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico, and paved the way for List’s role as the most prominent photographer of the Fotografia Metafisica style.
Greece became List’s primary interest from 1937 to 1939. After his first visit to the antique temples, sculptures and landscapes, his first solo show opened in Paris in the summer of 1937. Publications in Life, Photographie, Verve and Harper’s Bazaar followed, and List began work on his first book, Licht Ueber Hellas, which wasn’t published until 1953.
Working in Athens, List hoped to escape the war but was forced by invading troops to return to Germany in 1941. Because of his Jewish background, he was forbidden to publish or work officially in Germany. Several works, stored in a hotel in Paris, have been lost.
Portraits of Berard, Cocteau, Honegger and Picasso during a short visit to Paris and a series on the Panoptikum in Vienna had characterized List’s main work before the war ended in 1945. In 1946, he photographed the ruins of post-war Munich and took the job of art editor of Heute, an American magazine for the German public.
In 1951, List met Robert Capa, who convinced him to work as a contributor to Magnum, but he rarely accepted assignments. He turned his interest towards Italy from 1950 to 1961, photographing everything from street scenes to contemplative photo-essays, from architectural views to portraits of international artists living in Italy.
In 1953, he discovered the 35mm camera and the telephoto lens. His work became more spontaneous and was influenced by his Magnum colleague Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Italian Neo-Realism film movement.
Over the next few years, he completed several books, including Rom, Caribia, Nigeria and Napoli, this one in collaboration with Vittorio de Sica.
In the final decade of his life, List’s interest in photography was finally fading out. He followed some publications for his 70th birthday with interest but declined offers for retrospectives of his work. From then on, he focused all his attention to his collection of Old Master drawings.
By the time he died in Munich in 1975, his photographs had been almost forgotten. Interest has revived recently, though, thanks to a fine monograph published by Schirmer Mosel and many exhibitions. His work is represented in the greatest collection of photography, from the MOMA NY to the V&A in London, The Getty Museum in LA to the Pompidou Center in Paris.