READ ANY mention of Fritz Henle and the term Rollei photographer usually makes an immediate appearance. In this era of user-friendly, compact cameras, when not using 35mm film is the exception, it is hard to imagine that a reputation could be built around the fact that a photographer used a small camera. But in the Thirties and Forties, using a small camera such as a Rollei was a highly distinctive practice, at least in the United States, and Henle, who had become accustomed to using it in Germany was able to turn his experience to his advantage. Henle capitalised on the reputation, with books carrying titles like With the Eyes of a Rollei Photographer and he enjoyed the nickname of 'Mr Rollei' (apparently with the tacit approval of the Rolleiflex company).
Henle worked with a canon of greats, on some of the most important magazines in the US, which partially shaped the visual awareness and tastes of the pre- and post-war generations. His part in the collective activity of a school of photography and a photographic aesthetic is what makes him important; but modern appraisals of the period pass him by. With hindsight, his images appear solid and capable, worthy of interest because they reflect the mood and taste of their own time, but not quite inspirational enough to transcend that and score a reevaluation in the present.
Born in 1909 in Dortmund, Germany, Henle studied photography in Munich. It was then taught as a craft, with students instructed in faithful workman-like reproductive work, using awkward, large cameras, doing little to encourage artistic imagination. Henle worked at nights printing for the local equivalent of a high-street chemist to earn enough money to buy a Rolleiflex, a new twin-lens reflex camera that had appeared on the market in 1929.
Soon after graduating, he signed on a passenger shipping line for a voyage to India and East Asia. The photographs he took in this period became the material for his first book, This is Japan (1936), and with these pictures he arrived in the United States in 1936. He was employed by Fortune the forerunner to Life magazine.
Life was founded in November 1936, and Henle became one of its first staff photographers. Life was dedicated to good photo-imagery - telling a story through pictures rather than through words. The German photo magazines had earlier pioneered a style of informal documentary, facilitated by the use of small roll-film cameras which gave photographers the chance to be unobtrusive and spontaneous. This style was perfectly suited to Life and Henle was an able proponent. Life sent him on assignment, amongst other places, to Mexico, Hollywood and San Antonio. In the latter place he made one of his best-regarded stories, 'Texas High School'.
After leaving Life in 1938, Henle worked freelance, often for Harpers Bazaar and there he began an association with the influential art director Alexy Brodovitch. Brodovitch also did the layout for Henle's book Paris (1947), with photographs taken when the German invasion was imminent but left unused until the Liberation. (They were also published in the New York Times Magazine.)
For Harpers Bazaar he began to work as a fashion photographer, taking the models outdoors, and photographing them in normal attitudes in backgrounds appropriate to the clothes, which was in itself a fairly radical approach. He also developed a formidable reputation as a portrait photographer, usually spending hours or days with his subjects, studying their habits and mannerisms. His work included an extensive series on Georges Braque, some of which was used by the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, with Braque's first solo show in the United States.
'The rewards have been many and the satisfaction may be all the greater because I consider myself a self-made man in photography,' Henle wrote in 1964: 'I have been my own boss practically through my whole career; I have made the decisions which have led to assignments and the realisation of projects close to my heart.'
Certainly he was no slouch when it came to either self-promotion or producing material, and he set himself goals. Moving to the Virgin Islands in 1954, he executed projects around the islands and the Caribbean, including short documentary films, and made the islands his home base, travelling for commercial assignments to Europe and the mainland US.
His work included travel photography, nudes studies and industrial photography.
Henle retained his love for the Rolleiflex: 'But for my way of seeing and composing the groundglass of the Rollei is vital. There is never any hesitation; when I see the image on the groundglass I know this is it.' Writing frequently for photography magazines, he kept to his reputation long after the uniqueness of the smaller format had passed.
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