Born in Munich, Erich Hartmann was 16-years-old when he went with his family in 1938 to Albany, New York, as a refugee from Nazi Germany. The only English speaker in the family, he worked in a textile mill, attending evening high school and later taking night courses at Siena College. Hartmann enlisted in the US Army, serving in England, France, Belgium and Germany. At the end of the war, he moved to New York City, where he worked as an assistant to a portrait photographer and then as a freelancer.
Hartmann first became known to the wider public through his work for Fortune magazine in the 1950s. His poetic approach to science, industry and architecture shone through the photo essays Shapes of Sound, The Building of Saint Lawrence Seaway and The Deep North. Throughout his career, he pursued many long-term personal projects, and photographic interpretations with literary echoes. In his later years, he photographed the remains of the Nazi concentration camps, resulting in a book and exhibition, In the Camps. At the time of his death, he was engaged in a photo project called Music Everywhere.