Forced to leave Germany because of his Jewish heritage, photographer Herbert List was a lover of classicism, with connections to the European avant-garde movement of the ’30s.
Born in Hamburg, Germany, List studied art and history at Heidelberg University. It was here that he almost certainly developed a love for the great marble statues of Greece and Rome which would later largely feature in his work, and which clearly affected the way he regarded the human form.
His artistic leanings and friendship with notable photographers of his day led Herbert List down a road that allowed him to express his artistic inclinations without any previous pretensions to art. His work is remembered as understated, minimalist and homoerotic with a surrealist undercurrent.
List met Andreas Feininger in 1930. Feininger was a notable American photographer who had already had considerable commercial and artistic success in the world of photography. With more experience than List, Feininger introduced him to the Rolleiflex, a more sophisticated camera which would grant him greater compositional control.
List began to develop his style by photographing his friends and still lives using the Rolleiflex. Combining ideas from the surrealist movement and gleaning inspiration from the Bauhaus artists of Germany, List claimed his intention to “capture the magical essence inhabiting and animating the world of appearances.”
In 1936, with Nazism on the rise, List, who had Jewish heritage, fled Germany and began to work in Paris and London where he soon caught the attention of the editors of Harper’s Bazaar. However, he soon became dissatisfied with the limitations of fashion photography and spent a significant period focussing on still lives in his studio.
List’s still life work has since been remembered as some of the most defining work of the Fotografia Metafisica style, a style characterised by it’s surrealist tropes and the desire to depict dream states.
From 1937 to 1939, List became obsessed with Greek culture. Some of his most important and memorable work was produced under the shadows of the ancient temples, amongst the billowing olive trees and writhing marble statues of Athens. Here his love of art and history collided in some of his most beautiful sun-drenched photos.
Able to leave the artistic and commercial restraints of a fascist Germany behind him, List’s Greek work is intimate and personal. Amongst various erotic studies of the male physique, List explored the ideas of masculinity, sexuality, classicism and romanticism. His images of young men and classical antiquity in Greece have helped define the visual language of the country.
Athens had symbolised an opportunity for List to escape the war, but he was forced to return to Germany when troops invaded Greece in 1941. Because of his Jewish background he was forbidden from exhibiting or working in Germany. Many of his secret works were stored illegally in a hotel in Paris but have since been lost.
After maintaining a low profile throughout the remaining years of WWII, List happily took up his mantle once more, taking the job of art editor of Heute, an American magazine for the German public in 1946.
In 1951, Robert Capa, who had admired List’s work from afar convinced him to work as a contributor to Magnum, the photo agency he had co-founded some years beforehand. Despite Magnum’s reputation as leader in the field of international photojournalism and documentary photography, List rarely took on assignments, preferring to shoot his own contemplative street scenes, with a focus on the architecture and people of Italy. He later began to shoot with a 35mm camera and subsequently published several books including Rom, Caribia, Nigeria and Napoli, this one in collaboration with Vittorio de Sica.
Towards the end of his life, List faded into obscurity somewhat, as he swapped his camera for the pencil and chose to focus more on drawing than taking photos. His attention was absorbed in the process of completing Italian Old Master drawings, which are now kept by collectors and other institutions in Europe.
Despite earlier fame throughout Europe, his particular style of photography was no longer fashionable by the late 1960’s. Though his work was almost forgotten, his legacy remains thanks to a later appreciation for his strong, unparalleled compositions, and unique vision. The quiet simplicity which List so masterfully employed in his work perhaps speaks of an inner-serenity discovered by the artist after leading a turbulent and persecuted life.
‘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’
All images © Herbert List