Helmut Gernsheim  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Helmut Erich Robert Kuno Gernsheim (1 March 1913 – 20 July 1995) was a renowned historian of photography, collector, and photographer. Born in Munich, Germany, Gernsheim went on to study art history at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, took up photography in 1934, and graduated from the State School of Photography, Munich, after two year's study. In 1937 he managed to flee Germany (he was half-Jewish) and started working as a colour photographer in the UK using the German Uvachrome process. He was given British citizenship in 1946.

At the outset of World War II he was interned for a year along with other German nationals during which time he wrote his critique on photography, New Photo Vision, which was published in 1942 and led to his becoming a friend of fellow critic Beaumont Newhall. After being released from internment he worked for the National Buildings Record, photographing important monuments with a view to revealing their artistic merits. These photographs became the basis of two more books, and in 1943 were described by The Architectural Review as "nothing short of a rediscovery of the Baroque monuments".

In 1945, at Newhall's prompting, he started collecting the works of historic British photographers which were fast disappearing since few people valued them, amassing work by such luminaries as Julia Margaret Cameron, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Hill & Adamson, and rediscovering the long-lost hobby of Lewis Carroll when in 1947 he stumbled across an album of Carroll's portraits in a junk shop. Ultimately this collection, along with an estimated 3-4 million words of notes on the subject that he amassed with the help of his wife Alison, led to his writing the 180,000 word book The History of Photography. When the first edition was published by the OUP in 1955 it became an instant classic and the definitive reference work for historians of photography for decades afterwards, being described by Beaumont Newhall as "a milestone in the history of photography" and by other reviewers as "the photographer's bible" and "an encyclopaedic work". Along the way, in 1952 Gernsheim discovered the long-lost world's first permanent photograph from nature, created by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826 (View from the Window at Le Gras).

Ultimately Gernsheim needed to find a home for his vast collection of photographs and notes, and sought unsuccessfully to found a national museum of photograpy in the UK (ultimately a National Museum did not happen until 1983). In the end, after many fruitless discussions with authorities and potential sponsors in several countries, he sold everything to the University of Texas at Austin in 1963 where it formed the basis of a new Department of Photography.


  • The New Photo Vision, Fountain Press. London, 1942.
  • Julia Margaret Cameron; her life and photographic work, Fountain Press, London. 1948
  • Lewis Carroll, photographer, Max Parrish, London. 1949
  • Focus on Architecture and Sculpture, Fountain Press. London 1949
  • Beautiful London, Phaidon. 1950 — photographs by Helmut Gernsheim
  • Masterpieces of Victorian Photography, Phaidon Press. London, 1951
  • Creative Photography: Aesthetic Trends 1839-1960, Faber & Faber Limited. 1962
  • Alvin Langdon Coburn: Photographer, (with Alison Gernsheim), Praeger. New York 1966
  • The History of Photography from the Camera Obscura to the beginnings of the Modern Era (with Alison Gernsheim), Oxford University Press 1955; revised edition Thames & Hudson. 1969
  • The Origins of Photography, Thames & Hudson. 1982

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Helmut Gernsheim" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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