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Gernsheim, Helmut

    Image Credit: International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum

    Full Name: Gernsheim, Helmut

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1913

    Date Died: 1995

    Place Born: Munich, Bavaria, Germany

    Place Died: Castagnola, Ticino, Switzerland

    Home Country/ies: Germany

    Subject Area(s): photographs


    Photography historian and photographer.  Gernsheim was born to Karl Gernsheim a literary historian at the University of Munich and Hermina Scholz (Gernsheim).  He completed his Abitur in 1933 and studied art history in Munich from 1933-1934. Despite his father’s conversion to Christianity, the younger Gersheim was forced to abandon his schooling when the Nazi government forbade those “non-Aryan descent” in universities.  Between 1934-1936 Gernsheim retrained to a more practical occupation, photography, at the State Institute for Photography in Munich, graduating with a journeyman’s level. He specialized in color photography. He headed the portrait studio Pigorsch in Küstrin/East Prussia in 1936 and between 1936 and 1937 was a photographer for the company Uvachrom AG in Munich. He traveled to London in the summer of 1937 for photographs in the National Gallery and found he was unable to return to Germany. He first was a guest of an English family, then intermittently freelance for various companies. In July 1940 he was classified a ‘friendly enemy alien’ and interned first in England and then deported to detention camp at Hay, New South Wales, Australia. Freed from that status, he met and lived with Alison Eames (d. 1969) in 1942 (married 1946), with whom he collaborated on with many publications, and secured work for the Warburg Institute, London (through 1945) and the National Buildings Record where he created a photographic inventory of historic buildings and monuments in London, some before their imminent destruction by bombs. His first book, New Photo Vision, a collections of lectures he gave while an internee in Australia, appeared the same year.  The influential American writer and historian, Beaumont Newhall, visited him in London in 1944 urging him to actively collect photographs, which he started in 1945.  His war photos were exhibited in the Churchill Club, at the Courtauld Institute and at the National Gallery. Gernsheim gave up photographing completely to concentrate on the research and collecting of historical photographs. His research led to his 1952 discovery of the earliest known photograph, 1826, by Joseph Nicephore Niepce (1765-1833). He was the first to publish Lewis Carroll’s photos as well.  The “Gemsheim Collection” was by this time so prestigious many were lent many museums in the USA and Europe, including “100 years of photography, 1839-1939”, which travelled throughout Germany (1959-1961). He published numerous articles on the history of photography. Beginning in 1953 he worked as co-editor of the Photography Yearbook. Together with his wife, he published a sweeping monumental History of Photography in 1955; it became a standard for photo history.  During these years Gernsheim lobbied intensely for a national photography collection, but despite eminent supporters of the project, it never came to fruition.  He sold his photography collection to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin. In 1966, he retired to Switzerland (Castagnola, Ticino). He re-married after his first wife died. In Switzerland he lectured on African art and photography until his own death in 1995.

    Gernsheim was one of the first (and certainly the most important early) photography historian. The Independent termed him “one of the most influential figures in the history of photography.”  His work came under praise from Kenneth Clark and Nikolaus Bernard Leon Pevsner though through his ascerbic personality he delt other historians a very public ire. Chief among these was his disparagement of the Royal Photographic Society. At a time before the value of historical photographs was appreciated, he started collecting, researching and publishing about photography, preserving many forgotten photographers of the 19th century.

    Selected Bibliography

    • New photo vision. London 1942
    • Twelfth-century wall paintings. 1947
    • Julia Margaret Cameron. Her life and photographic work. 1948, 2. rev. Aufl., London 1971, rev. u. erw. Neuauflage 1975
    • The man behind the camera. London 1948
    • Lewis Carroll – Photographer. 1949, 2. rev. Aufl. 1969
    • Focus on architecture and sculpture. An original approach. to the photography
    • of architecture and sculpture. London 1949
    • Beautiful London. 103 photographs. Vorwort von James Pope-Hennessy. London 1950, New York 1951
    • Masterpieces of Victorian photography. London 1951
    • with Alison Gernsheim und Quentin Bell: Those impossible English. 1952
    • with Alison Gernsheim: Roger Fenton. Photographer of the Crimean War. 1954, 2. Aufl. 1973
    • The history of photography. From the earliest use of the camera obscura in the eleventh century up to 1914. London 1955, 3. rev. u. erw. Aufl. u.d.
    • The history of photography from the camera obscura to the beginning of the modern era. 1969, New York 1985
    • with Randolph Churchill: Churchill His life in photographs. 1955
    • and Gernsheim, Alison. L. J. M. Daguerre. The world’s first photographer. New York 1956. Engl. Ausg. u.d.T. L. f. M. Daguerre. The history of the diorama and the daguerreotype. London 1956, 2. Aufl. 1968
    • with Alison Gernsheim: Victoria R. A biography with four hundred illustrations based on her personal photograph album. New York 1959. Engl. Ausg. u.d.T.: Queen Victoria. A biography in word and picture. London 1959
    • with Alison Gernsheim: The recording eye. A hundred years of great events as seen by the camera 1839-1939. New York 1969. Engl. Ausg. u.d.T.: Historie events, 1839-1939. London 1960
    • Creative photography. Aesthetic trends 1839-1960. New York 1962, rev. Neuaufl.1991
    • with Alison Gernsheim: Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. A biography in. word
    • and picture. 1962
    • with Alison Gernsheim: Creative photography. 1826 to the present. An exhibition from the Gernsheim Collection. (Ausst.kat. Wayne State University) 1963
    • Fashion and reality. 1963, 2. Aufl. 1981
    • with Alison Gernsheim: A concise history of photography. London 1965, 2. rev.
    • Aufl. London 1971, 3. Aufl. New York 1987
    • Hrsg. mit Alison Gernsheim, Einleitung: Alvin Langdon Coburn, photographer. An autobiography with over 70 reproductions of his work. New York 1966, 2. veränd. Aufl. 1978
    • The 150th anniversary ofphotography. In: Hist. Photogr. 1, 1977, H. 1, S. 3-8
    • The origins of photography. New York 1982
    • The rise of photography 1850-1880. The age of collodion. London, New York 1987 (= The history of photography. 2)


    [obiturary] “Helmut Gernsheim” The Times (London),  July 25, 1995,  p.17; Wendland, Ulrike. Biographisches Handbuch deutschsprachiger Kunsthistoriker im Exil: Leben und Werk der unter dem Nationalsozialismus verfolgten und vertriebenen Wissenschaftler. Munich: Saur, 1999, vol. 1, pp. 187-9.

    Contributors: Cassandra Klos


    Cassandra Klos. "Gernsheim, Helmut." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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