Obituary: Erich Hartmann

Eve Arnold
Wednesday 03 March 1999 00:02 GMT

WHEN ERICH Hartmann joined the Magnum photographic co- operative in 1951 the direction of the group (and of the time) was photojournalism - but not for Hartmann. He chose a more personal path in which to express himself: the photographs he made for Fortune magazine of science and industry showed a uniquely human face.

It was just a step from this phase of his career to his assignments for major corporations to photograph their factories and their workers. He was the first to bring the techniques of photojournalism to corporate photography. By his example he opened an entire new field for photographers whose main venues were newspapers and magazines. He said, "I want to photograph objects in ways they have never been seen before."

His work showed a purity, depth and considered approach, at a time (in the 1970s) when photographs were being extolled for their snapshot quality. He was also an early colourist and he had one-man exhibitions in New York, London, Paris, Amsterdam, Tokyo and a number of cities in Germany.

Hartmann was born in Munich in 1922 and left Germany as a teenager in 1938 when the Nazi threat increased and his family emigrated to America. During the Second World War he volunteered for the US Army and served in Europe. After the war he moved to New York and learned photography as an assistant to a portrait photographer and, from 1948 to 1950, at the New School for Social Research, with Charles Leirens, Berenice Abbott and Alexei Brodovitch. He was first associated with Magnum in 1951 and became a full member in 1954.

In the late 1960s and 1970s he lived in London. He documented the construction of the Britannia aircraft for the Bristol Aeroplane Company and he photographed for the leading colour magazines: the Sunday Times, the Observer and the Telegraph, notably on such stories as "Shakespeare's Warwickshire" and "The Norman Conquest Descendants". For the Weekend Telegraph he made sensitive colour pictures of "Styles of English Architecture", in a series of photo- essays for which Sir John Betjeman wrote the words, and he also travelled with Betjeman to the Faeroe Islands.

Later Hartmann returned to Germany where he had lived in the shadow of the Nazis until he was 16, and chose a project for himself: the death camps. He made an unforgettable book, In the Camps (1995). He said, "I simply felt obliged to stand in as many of the camps as I could reach, to fulfil a duty that I could not define and to pay a belated tribute with the tools of my profession."

The book is a magnificent tribute. There is hardly a person in it. So solitary is it, so desolate, that we people the pages with our own ghosts, we bring to it our own fears and imagery. These imaginings have the feeling of poetry.

We see a room full of broken shoes; another room of battered satchels; another of torn children's clothes; the windowless barracks in four tiers in which multitudes tried to survive; or a square in which a gallows hangs in the wind. The railway tracks which many took into the camp; a single gas chamber in Auschwitz.

Photographs from the book continue to travel as an exhibition in the United States and Europe; it has been at the Royal Armouries in Leeds since last November.

It is hard to go from examining the book to describe all Erich Hartmann did for the Magnum co- operative when he served on the board or was vice-president (1975 and 1979) or president (1985). Burt Glinn describes how he and Hartmann came to Magnum at the same time, almost 47 years ago:

We have photographed together and met together and consulted together about ethics and journalism, and we have attended 46 Magnum General Meetings, the first with only eight other photographers and the last with more than 50, but all of them passionate, contentious and personal.

He goes on:

Through all these years Erich, more than anyone else, has been my moral compass. No matter how knotty the problem he never settled for the facile compromise. He was always wise, judicious, and ferocious to find the right answer rather than the easy one. When I suspected that I was pursuing my self-interest rather than the common good I would glance over at Erich and if I encountered his quizzically cocked eyebrow I would shut up.

Erich Hartmann, photographer: born Munich 29 July 1922; married Ruth Bains (one son, one daughter); died New York 4 February 1999.

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