Herbert List was a classically educated artist who combined a love of photography with a fascination for surrealism and classicism. Born in October 7, 1903 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. In 1951, Herbert List met Robert Capa, who convinced him to work as a Contributor to Magnum. Herbert List was a Magnum Contributor from 1951 to 1975.
“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. “
In 1930, his artistic leanings and connections to the European avant-garde bring him together with Andreas Feininger. Feininger introduces him to the Rolleiflex, a more sophisticated camera facilitating deliberate composition of his images. Under the binary influence of the surrealist movement on one side and Bauhaus artists on the other, List starts to develop his own style by photographing still life images and friends. He describes his images as being composed visions where his 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”. Dissastisfied 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 is List’s main interest from 1937 to 1939. After his first visit to the antique temples, sculptures and landscapes, his first solo show in Paris opens in the summer of 1937. Publications in Life, Photographie, Verve and Harpers Bazaar followed and List works on his first book called “Licht Ueber Hellas”, which won’t be published until 1953. During his work in Athens, List hopes to escape the war but is forced by the invading troops to return to Germany in 1941. Some of his work, which is stored in a hotel in Paris, is lost forever. Because of his Jewish family descent, List is not allowed to publish or work officially in Germany.
In 1951 Herbert List meets Robert Capa, who convinces him to work as a contributor to Magnum. List turns his interest towards Italy from 1950 to 1961: from street scenes to contemplative photoessays – from architectual views to portraits of international artists living in Italy. In 1953 he discovers the 35 mm camera with the telephoto lens. His work is now more spontanous and is influenced by his Magnum colleague Henri Cartier Bresson and the Italian Neo Realism film mouvement. List completes several book projects in the following years: Licht Ueber Hellas (1953), Rome (1955), Caribia (1958), Nigeria (1961) and Napoli (1962) in collaboration with Vittorio de Sica.
List more or less gave up photography in the early 1960s. Despite his earlier fame throughout Europe, his particular style was no longer fashionable. By the time he died in Munich in 1975, his work had been almost forgotten. Interest has revived recently, though, thanks to a fine monograph published by Monacelli Press, which features 250 of List’s photographs divided into five sections: Metaphysical Photography, Ruins and Fragments, Eros and Photography, Portraits, and Moments.
Herbert List died in Munich, April 4th 1975.
Official site: www.herbert-list.com