OBITUARY : Helmut Gernsheim

Peter Ride
Friday 04 August 1995 23:02 BST

Helmut Gernsheim was one of the most influential figures in the history of photography. There are very few fields in the arts where writers have been able to make a seminal contribution during this century. Photography is one of them. Until very recently photography was not taken seriously as an art, its development and history was certainly not studied, and hardly any museums, galleries or public organisations held collections of photographs for anything other than record purposes.

Gernsheim was one of a handful of people whose original research, collecting and writing took the field seriously and changed the way it was regarded. His work found an eager and receptive audience which was keen to discover photography's heritage and treasures. His scholarly and encyclopaedic book The History of Photography (1955), co-written with his wife Alison, became the authoritative source on the subject. In this, and in his other publications, he re- introduced the work of neglected but hugely significant master photographers like Julia Margaret Cameron and Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll).

His influence on historians of the future generation cannot be overestimated. The breadth and detail of his research was enormous, and Gernsheim's approach to the history of photography became widely considered as a definitive model. Subsequent writing and collecting has often, rightly or wrongly, been based upon it and followed his selection of individuals and countries which, in his appraisal, had made a significant contribution.

Born in Munich in 1913, Gernsheim trained there as a photographer. Being part Jewish and highly critical of Nazism he used an offer of work to escape from Germany to Paris and London in 1937. He worked in Britain as a commercial photographer, with clients such as P&O and Rolls-Royce, until the outbreak of the Second World War, when as a "friendly enemy alien" he was interned.

Gernsheim was given the option to transfer to Canada, but instead the ship he travelled on was re-routed to Australia. There he spent a year in an infamous detention camp at Hay, in eastern New South Wales. To pass the time and to contribute to camp recreational activities, Gernsheim began to study and teach the history and aesthetics of photography using material sent by friends in the United States.

In late 1941 Gernsheim obtained his release, by volunteering his services to the British National Building Record, which was attempting to photograph buildings and monuments of national importance which were under threat of being bombed. He returned to London, where he worked until the end of the war photographing central sites such as Westminster Abbey, 10 Downing Street and St Paul's Cathedral. Gernsheim's work was highly commended by critics such as Kenneth Clark and Nikolaus Pevsner, included in several travelling exhibitions and later published by him in Architecture and Sculpture (1949) and Beautiful London (1950).

In 1942 Gernsheim published a critique of contemporary photographic practice, New Photo Vision, adapted from the lectures he had written in the Australian internment camp. It criticised the "antiquated, fuzzy, sentimental, sugary work" which was produced and exhibited in the British salons and argued the case for modernism.

The book became a turning-point for Gernsheim as it aroused his interest in historical research and, most importantly, put him in contact with some of the principal figures in photography at the time. Beaumont Newhall, an influential American writer and historian, visited him in London in 1944. Newhall urged him to direct his energy towards collecting photographs, arguing that British photography would reform itself but unless committed and discriminating collectors began to preserve the great images of the 19th century they would soon be lost for ever.

Over the next decade Gernsheim managed to collect works by the leading British, French and German early photographers. These included important images by Fox Talbot, including a copy of his work The Pencil of Nature (the first published book of photographs), Hill and Adamson, Fenton, Cameron, Le Gray and Daguerre, all of which have since come to be regarded as masterpieces of the 19th century. One of his most sensational discoveries and acquisitions was of the earliest known photographic image, taken by Niepce in 1826.

In 1955, the considerable research of both Alison and Helmut Gernsheim was published as The History of Photography, covering the years 1839-1914. Alison Gernsheim, with whom he had lived since 1942 (they married in 1946 when he was naturalised), worked as a private secretary to a Member of Parliament and was also a talented historical researcher. She collaborated with Gernsheim on all his books. Between 1948 and 1966 they published 17 volumes, including monographs such as Julia Margaret Cameron (1948), Roger Fenton, Photographer of the Crimean War (1954) and Alvin Langdon Coburn, Photographer (1966) and historic surveys such as Creative Photography: Aesthetic Trends (1962) and A Concise History of Photography (1965).

Gernsheim spent considerable energy trying to encourage the establishment of a national or international collection of photography to which his collection would be the nucleus, and of which he would be the curator. He gained the support of a wide range of people, but was unable to persuade any of the British galleries or museums to accept his proposals. A public appeal on BBC television failed to get a response (though it did lead to a meeting with Lord Snowdon) and a proposal to a Unesco committee, on which he represented Britain, to support an international collection was overshadowed by an appeal for funds to preserve the Abu Simbel in Egypt.

Gernsheim's prime interest was in a permanent exhibition, to be drawn from his collection. His exhibition "Masterpieces of Victorian Photography" was seen to popular acclaim at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1951 as part of the centenary celebration of the Great Exhibition, and a later exhibition, "One Hundred Years of Photography", toured internationally. In 1964, after years of negotiation with organisations in the United States and on the Continent he finally sold his collection to the University of Texas at Austin, which established the Gernsheim Collection of Historic Photographs as a study centre.

After the sale of the collection, Helmut and Alison Gernsheim retired to Switzerland. Alison died in 1969 and he remarried in 1971. Gernsheim continued his work as a writer, lecturer, and advisor to publications such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Known as one who had not mellowed with age, Gernsheim conducted very public and entertaining feuds with fellow historians and bodies such as the Royal Photographic Society. He maintained a keen interest in photography in Britain, providing enthusiastic support for the establishment of British photographic galleries and museums such as the Photographers' Gallery under Sue Davies in 1971 and the National Museum of Photography Film and Television under Colin Ford in 1983.

Peter Ride

Helmut Erich Robert Gernsheim, photographer and historian: born Munich 1 March 1913; married 1942 Alison Eames (died 1969), 1971 Irene Guenin; died 20 July 1995.

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