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Photographer of the “Economic Miracle”

Heinrich Heidersberger, born in Ingolstadt on June 10, 1906, stands for West German architectural and advertising photography of the 1950s and ’60s like no other photographer. From his beginnings, it was by no means clear that he would find a home in photography. After several extended periods in Denmark as a so-called Viennese child, he spent his school days in Linz, Upper Austria, and then tried his hand at studying architecture in Graz, which he abandoned in favor of art: drawn to Paris in 1928 by the Académie de l’Art Moderne, founded only a few years earlier by Fernand Léger, he would soon swap his brush for a camera and begin experimenting with photography.

In 1931, he left Paris and spent the next several years as a painter and photographer mainly in The Hague and Copenhagen, where he photographed natural science reportages, among other things. Then, in 1936, together with his wife Cornelia “Corry” Botter, whom he had secretly married a year earlier in the Danish capital, he moved to Berlin—likely also in order to maintain his citizenship. From the marriage were born the children Börge, Toni, and Gerhard. In the state capital he worked as a photo journalist for the publishing houses Ullstein and Scherl. He had some of his first assignments as an advertising and architectural photographer and several of his photographs appeared in Photographie, an annual international publication, as well as Das deutsche Lichtbild.

Although he never became a member of the NSDAP or other National Socialist organizations, he managed to establish himself as an architectural photographer in National Socialist Germany. A testament to his work is the photo book “Ein deutsches Flugzeugwerk. Die Heinkel-Werke Oranienburg“ (“A German Aircraft Manufacturing Plant. The Heinkel-Werke Oranienburg“), published in 1938, documenting the plant designed by Herbert Rimpl, one of the most successful Nazi architects. As Rimpl put it—very much in a National Socialist manner—Heidersberger’s photographs made the “beauty of work” perceptible. He was also the architect who procured Heidersberger a permanent position as plant photographer and head of the photo department at the Reichswerke Hermann Göring in Salzgitter, where he worked nearly uninterrupted until the end of the war, and even became indispensable there. This is where he also met Charlotte Berger, assigned to him as a photo lab assistant—she would accompany him throughout life until her last days. In the steel mills, where thousands of forced laborers were used, he documented the construction of the production facilities. Only a few photos of his work have survived since most of the company’s photo archive was destroyed towards the end of the war. Fittingly, a few years later Stern magazine commissioned him to document the dismantling of the plant in a photo series.

Unlike numerous photographers who were utilized in propaganda campaigns during the Second World War—including Hans Hubmann, Hilmar Pabel, and Benno Wundshammer—and who later benefitted from the connections they made there in the fledgling, new media landscape in the Federal Republic of Germany, Heinrich Heidersberger maintained no contact with other photojournalists or photographers from the Nazi period. However, this did not negatively impact his emergence as one of the leading architectural photographers in Germany.

Before achieving success from the 1950s onward primarily as an architectural photographer of the renowned architects of the Braunschweig School, who prized how he represented their architecture, he worked immediately after the war as an interpreter and photographer for the English army. By 1946, he had founded Studio Five, his photo studio in Braunschweig, and at the beginning of the following year he realized his first exhibition at the Kunstverein there—making it one of the first, if not the first, photography exhibition in German post-war history. Henri Nannen became aware of him, likely through journalists from the Braunschweiger Zeitung, whose publishing house was located close to Heidersberger’s studio. Nannen gave him his first assignments as a photo reporter for the newly founded Stern magazine. During this time, his photo reportage was published on Germany’s first exports after the war, as well as his photo series Kleid aus Licht (Dress of Light), which caused an early photo scandal in the Federal Republic in 1949. In the Löwenstadt itself, Heidersberger documented the demolition of Braunschweig Palace; a first commission from Volkswagenwerk GmbH finally brought him to Wolfsburg in 1952. His commissions for the Brunsviga Maschinenwerke, the sugar processing plant in Schöppenstedt, the Jenaer Glaswerke Schott & Gen. in Mainz, or the ECA buildings in Rühme, also drew the attention of Braunschweig architects Friedrich Wilhelm Kraemer, Dieter Oesterlen, and Walter Henn. In the years that followed, Heidersberger documented a considerable number of the buildings they designed.

In 1954, an associate arranged a job for him as a photographer on-board the MS Atlantic, which at the time shuttled between New York and Havana and the Caribbean. He captured the carefree life of the American middle class on board during the day, but also demonstrated his talent as a documentary and street photographer in the cities, freed from his responsibilities. Soon after his return, he married his second wife, the actress Renate Krüger, and their children Benjamin, Henriette, and Konstantin were born. During these years, the technically gifted autodidact began experimenting intensively with photography. Similar to Peter Keetman or Oskar Kreisel, he photographed images of oscillating light, known as Lissajous curves, but unlike either photographer, he was able to generate significantly more complex light figures with his specially constructed Rhythmograph. It is no surprise that the room-sized machine, which can still be admired today in his Wolfsburg studio, was declared a “kinetic work of art” by photographer and photo theorist Gottfried Jäger. One of his frequently exhibited Rhythmograms was awarded the silver medal at the Triennale of Milan XI in 1957. In the same year he was appointed to the German Photographic Society and the Deutscher Werkbund.

After moving to Wolfsburg in 1961, where the municipality provided him with a studio in the castle of the same name, he became the chronicler of “Volkswagen city.” The photo book Wolfsburg—Bilder einer jungen Stadt (Wolfsburg—Photos of a Young City) was commissioned by the municipality. In this seminal photo book—a coup of modern city marketing—the photographer portrays city and factory as a unified entity. The photo book was conceived to rectify the popular clichés of a “city created in a test tube” and paint a modern picture of the city. His photographs thus symbolize the optimism of new beginnings, the energy and elegance of a city where the “economic miracle” was seemingly concentrated. Even before this, commissions had repeatedly brought him to Wolfsburg, for example when he photographed the new town hall building by architect Titus Taeschner, which was dedicated in 1958, or in 1961, when he captured on photo paper not only the VW Pool facility with its iconic diving tower, but summer as well. Ten years later, as part of a commission for the Olympic Village in Munich—where the Soviet Union lodged at the “Wolfsburg” house, whose athletes’ rooms and reception areas were adorned with 477 of Heidersberger’s photos mounted on lightweight aluminum plates—one of his most famous photographs was created: the Kraftwerk der Volkswagen AG (Volkswagen Power Plant). This image, which created an identity for both the plant and the city, is now part of numerous museum collections worldwide, including the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin, the MAST Foundation in Bologna, and the Møllersamligen Art Collection in Oslo. The photo is symbolic of a changed perception of industrial work far removed from dirt and dust.

In Wolfsburg, he was one of the co-founders of the artist group Schloßstraße 8, which was also based at Wolfsburg Castle. Gustav Kurt Beck was a member as well and with the group he played an instrumental role in awakening the cultural life of the city. In the 1980s, Heidersberger married Charlotte Berger, his longtime photo lab assistant. At the same time, he was politically active: working together with Pastor Hartwig Hohnsbein and Walter Kaufmann, head representative of the IG Metall union in Wolfsburg, he successfully lobbied for a citizens’ petition calling for the creation of a “memorial to the victims of Fascism.”

After exhibiting his photographs in the 1960s at the Kunstverein Wolfsburg and twice at the Neue Galerie in Linz, along with another exhibition in Wolfsburg in 1971, his works were presented over the following decade at the Stadt- und Lichtbildgalerie in Ingolstadt, The Photographers Gallery in London, and the Denmarks Fotomuseum in Herning. Almost invariably, it was his experimental, artistic work, such as his Rhythmograms, that drew the interest of exhibition organizers and curators. But in 1984 he was also included in the exhibition Image et Imaginaires d’Architecture at the Centre Pompidou in Paris with his photo of the Farbwerke Höchst Jahrhunderthalle / Feierabendhalle in Frankfurt Höchst, the Osram Administration Building in Munich, and the Kraftwerk der Volkswagen AG, making the 1980s the decade of his international breakthrough. His photographs of the Wolfsburg Cultural Center by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto were requested by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1998 and shown in the exhibition Alvar Aalto: Between Humanism and Materialism. Hence, it is clearly Heinrich Heidersberger’s ability to succeed in the most diverse photographic fields and consistently combine aesthetic principles with functional aspects that made him one of the most outstanding photographers of the post-war period. He remained true to his passion into old age. In October 2003, he was awarded honorary citizenship by the city of Wolfsburg for his “dedicated work in the cultural field.” The Institut Heidersberger had already been founded there the previous year in his studio at Wolfsburg Castle. On July 14, 2006, a few weeks after his 100th birthday, Heinrich Heidersberger died in Wolfsburg. He left a photographic body of work comprising around 130,000 negatives and 20,000 prints.