October 8, 1903 – Herbert List:
“The pictures I took spontaneously, with a bliss-like sensation, as if they had long inhabited my unconscious, were often more powerful than those I had painstakingly composed. I grasped their magic as in passing.”
1936 was a decisive year for Herbert List: the Nuremberg Racial Laws were announced the year before and private life in Germany became very regulated. Close friends such as actor Erika Mann and her gay brother Klaus Mann, and photographer Andreas Feininger had already fled Germany. List, who was half-Jewish, received warnings that his openly gay life and his contempt for the Nazis were reported to the Gestapo.
He left Germany and with it his bourgeois existence as the child of a rich coffee merchant and his part in the family business. List escaped to Switzerland, then to the Italian Riviera. Photographer George Hoyningen-Huene helped List to find cheap places to live in London and Paris and to find work as a photographer. List and Hoyningen-Huene travelled together to Greece, and in 1937 he worked in a studio in London and held his first one-man show at Galerie du Chasseur d’Images in Paris. Hoyningen-Huene referred him to Harper’s Bazaar magazine, and 1936-39 he shot photographs for several magazines, including Vogue.
The winter of 1936-37 must have been rough for List. Despite his contacts, he remained deeply dissatisfied with the work offered and frustrated with the results of his efforts to establish a professional network. This might have led to the realization that his escape to freedom and a life on the Mediterranean had turned into the hardship of emigration.
During the late 1930s he returned to Greece, where he took photographs of ancient temples, ruins, sculptures, and landscapes that were published in books and magazines.
However, in 1941, during World War II, he was forced to go back to Germany, but because one of his grandparents were Jewish, he was not allowed to publish or work professionally. In 1944, he was drafted into the German military, despite being gay and of part Jewish ancestry. During the war he served in Norway as a map designer.
A trip to Paris gave him the chance to take portraits of Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Christian Bérard and his lover Boris Kochno, who worked for the Ballets Russes, Georges Braque, Jean Arp, Joan Miró and Cecil Beaton.
“Like drawing, photography is the art of leaving out, the one is made to stand for the many, right detail for the whole, clear, concentrated form for profusion… Less is almost invariably more.”
List apprenticed at his family’s coffee company, which led him travel to Brazil, Guatemala, and Costa Rica. He began taking photographs during these business trips, and his legacy became black and white homoerotic photographs of young men.
In his earliest photographs List shot portraits of friends and composed still lifes with a Rolleiflex camera, using male models, draped fabric, and masks, along with double-exposures. He had a fascination with both Surrealism and Classicism.
One of the most arresting images from 1937 is of the veiled statue of German sculptor Josef Thorak in front of the Nazi Pavilion at the Paris World Expo of 1937. List notes some prophetic words on the back of the print: “Germany is marching but does not see where to”.
In Paris, List was hired by magazines to shoot fashion, but he soon returned to still life imagery, producing photographs in a style he called “fotografia metafisica”, which represents dream states and fantastic scenes, using mirrors and double-exposure techniques.
After World War II, he concentrated his work in Italy, where he began using a 35 mm film camera and telephoto lenses. In 1951, List met the great war photographer Robert Capa who invited him to work as a contributor to Magnum Photos an international photographic cooperative founded by Henri Cartier-Bresson, but owned by its photographer-members, with offices in New York City, Paris, London and Tokyo. But List rarely accepted assignments. For the next decade he produced a great deal of work in Italy.
In the 1950s and 1960s, he lived in Italy, Greece, Spain, France, Mexico, and the Caribbean.
In 1960, he shot portraits of gay icons Paul Bowles, W. H. Auden, and Marlene Dietrich.
List gave up photography in the early 1960s to concentrate on drawing. He died in Munich in 1975, and his archive was acquired by the National Gallery in Washington DC. His style inspired the work of Herb Ritts and especially Bruce Weber.
A book, Jünge Manner (1988), contains more than 70 images of young men lounging in the sun, wrestling and innocently regarding the camera. It has an introduced by British writer Stephen Spender whose roman à clef The Temple, written in 1939 but not published until 1988, has List as a thinly fictionalized character cheekily named Joachim Lenz.