Obituary: Andreas Feininger

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The Independent Culture
"TO ME," wrote Andreas Feininger, "any photograph worth looking at must be a reflection of life, of reality, of nature." Bauhaus architect, Life magazine photo-journalist, obsessive chronicler of the natural world - for 60 years Feininger was an incessant maker of photographs.

He was born in Paris in 1906, the son of the painter Lyonel Feininger. The family moved to Germany where Lyonel Feininger taught and worked with Marcel Breuer and Joseph Albers at the Bauhaus school of art and design. Andreas joined the Dessau Bauhaus in 1922, and by the late Twenties had qualified as an architect.

But it was photography, not architecture, which was to be his principal preoccupation and he soon began to make important technical and aesthetic experiments. Staring transfixed into the camera's lens, modernistically severe in wire glasses and spotlit against a dark backcloth, he made a self-portrait (in 1927) which was an enduring statement of his radical intent.

In 1931, Feininger was working as an architect in Hamburg. He was selling photo stories too, principally through the Berlin agency Dephot. When he moved to Paris in 1932 to work for Le Corbusier, he spent his spare time photographing on the streets, intrigued not by people, but by street signs, doors and shutters, gateways and shop windows.

But the idyll of European modernism ended as the Nazis gained power, and in 1933, Feininger left for Sweden. His first book of photographs, Menschen vor der Camera ("People in Front of the Camera"), appeared in 1934. In Stockholm, he finally abandoned architecture and became a professional photographer.

At first, he photographed buildings and industry, and worked on his photo- book Stockholm, which was published in 1936. Recherche technical processes, including the shimmering reversals of solarisation, the graphicness of reticulation, and the sculptural qualities of bas relief became increasingly intriguing to him. His 1939 book New Paths in Photography (published in the United States after his move to New York in 1939) remains a classic explanation of modernist photo-technique.

When Feininger arrived in America, he soon found commissions. He worked for the Black Star agency and by 1941 was a photo-journalist on Life magazine. Though early assignments revolved around architecture and industry, it was the work which emerged from his increasing preoccupation with the minutiae of the natural world which established him as a formidable presence in photography.

He suggested stories to Life which manifested his absorption in landscape. He travelled throughout America, to the Rockies, the Ozarks and the Mississippi. His intense study of the natural world had begun in the late Forties; a carpenter ants' nest photographed in 1948 becomes a stalagmited monument in a universe of insects, the egg capsules of a whelk, made in the same year, is a convoluted marvel of modern engineering.

Form had always intrigued him, and he began to look to the very structure of the animal world for subjects for his photographs. He shone bright light through the skeletal skull of a crucifix catfish and produced a photograph of intense and sculptural strength. He took a section of a horse's hip joint and made a lunar landscape of pitted starkly lit bone. "I look at objects of nature," he wrote in 1974, "primarily with the eye of the structural engineer who is fascinated by the inter-relationship of function and form."

When he left Life in 1962, Feininger had completed over 300 assignments, shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and held his first one- man exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History. Most recently he helped to assemble 80 of his favourite black-and-white photographs, taken between 1928 and 1988, for a retrospective exhibition that has been touring Europe since 1997.

Feininger became highly respected as a writer and exhibitor. During the Sixties alone he published a book almost every year. In 1965, he issued his most important technical publication, The Complete Photographer; looking through it more than 30 years later, its vitality and commitment, the directness of its language, are as striking as ever. "To see as the camera sees," he advised, "a photographer must mute all his senses except sight. There is no feeling, meaning, implication or value involved except the graphic values of form and texture, colour, light and dark."

Feininger's technical expertise, aesthetic insight and plain speaking earned him a huge audience. By the end of his life, he had published more than 50 books, technical works and collections of his own photographs. But he never became a guru. His books were for everyone, his photographs elegant, serious studies of a world which we can all recognise. His writing demystifed photography at a time when it was fashionable to make it complication and elusive. For Andreas Feininger, the natural world was a marvel of shape and pattern, of endlessly intriguing physical complexity, not a salve for the troubled soul, nor a panacea for angst.

Andreas Feininger, photographer and writer: born Paris 27 December 1906; married 1933 Gertrud Hagg (one son); died New York 18 February 1999.

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