Herbert List was a classically educated artist who combined his fascination with Surrealism and Classicism with his love for photography. His austere, classically posed black and white compositions, particularly his Greek and Italian homoerotic nudes, became a prominent influence on both fashion and contemporary photography.
Born in Hamburg, Germany, in October of 1903 to a wealthy business family, Herbert List studied art and literature between 1921 and 1923 at the University of Heidelberg. In 1923, he began to travel for the family’s coffee business, Kaffee-Import Firma List & Heineken. List made contacts and visited plantations in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Brazil and El Salvador; during this four year period, he began to record his travels photographically.
Through his connections to the European avant-garde, List became associated with American photographer Andreas Bernhard, known for his dynamic black and white city scenes and natural structures. Bernhard introduced him to the Rolleiflex camera which allowed for more sophisticated compositions. Beginning in 1930, influenced by the Bauhaus artists and the emerging surrealist movement, List began photographing still life and portraits of friends, often employing draped fabrics, masks, and double exposures.
Once the National Socialist Party was in control of Germany, the Gestapo began to pay attention to Herbert List’s openly gay lifestyle and Jewish heritage. In 1936, he left Germany for Paris and decided to begin a professional career as a photographer. During 1937 List maintained a studio in London and held his first solo show at Galerie du Chasseur d’Images, the first Paris gallery dedicated to photography. Starting in 1936 with a reference from fashion photographer George Hoyningen-Huene to Harper’s Bazaar magazine, List began a three year period working as a fashion photographer for various magazines, including Verve, Vogue, and Life.
Dissatisfied with fashion photography, List returned to his still life and portraiture work. He traveled throughout Greece from 1937 to 1939 where he took photographs of ancient temples, sculptures and landscapes; two hundred of these photographs would be published in his 1953 “Licht Über Hellas: Eine Symphonie in Bildern”. During this time, List supported himself with work for magazines and the press, and by doing portraiture work.
Working in Athens, Herbert List hoped to escape World War II; however, when troops invaded Greece, he was forced in 1941 to return to Germany, where, due to a grandparent’s Jewish heritage, he was denied the ability to work or publish professionally. Near the end of the war in 1944, despite his Jewish heritage, he was drafted into the German military and served in Norway as a map designer. A trip to Paris during his military service allowed him the opportunity to photograph images of Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Jean Arp, Joan Miró, and other artists.
After the war, List continued to live in Munich until 1960, where he photographed its ruins and produced freelance photo essays for newspapers and magazines such as Look, Picture Post, Heute, and Harper’s Bazaar. List was made art editor in 1948 for the Swiss-German language, daily free newspaper Heute, which was published by the Allied Forces. In 1951 through an invitation by photojournalist Robert Capa, he started contributing photographs to Magnum, an international photographic cooperative.
Through the next decade Herbert List focused his interest on photographing life in Italy. where he shot photo essays, street scenes, architectural views, and portraits using a 35 mm camera and a telephoto lens. His work became more spontaneous and was influenced by the Italian neorealist film movement and the work of his Magnum colleague Henri Cartier-Bresson. List ’s travels for his photographic work was extensive, including trips to Spain, France, Mexico, and the Caribbean.
List’s publications include “Rom”, a collection of his work in Rome, published in Munich in 1950:“Caribia”, his Caribbean Island series published in 1958: “Nigeria”, published in 1963; and “Napoli”, a 1962 collaboration with Italian director Vittorio de Sica. List is best known for his 1988 book “Junge Männer”, a collection of seventy images of young men lounging in the sun, wrestling, or gazing at the camera. The introduction of the book was written by English novelist Stephen Spender, who fictionalized List as Joachim Lenz in his novel “The Temple”.
Herbert List passed away in Munich on the 4th of April in 1975. His archive of photographs, originally part of the Ratjen Collection, is now housed in the National Gallery in Washington DC. His work is held in many private and public collections, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Boston’s Museum of Fine Art, Kunsthaus Zürich, Cologne’s Museum Ludwig, Munich;s Stadtmaueum, and the Musée Picasso in Paris.
Herbert List, “Self Portrait, Herrsching”, 1947, Silver Gelatin Print
Herbert List, “Man and Dog”, 1939, Gelatin Silver Print
Photographer Unknown, “Herbert List and Max Scheler, Venice”, 1952, Silver Gelatin Print, Mas Scheler Estate
Herbert List, “Young Man Under Reed Roof, Torremolinos”, 1951, Gelatin Silver Print