The Agfa collection, Cologne
|Der Sphinx in Gizeh
The collection, which features nearly 20,000 cameras and other photographic equipment, as well as over 3,000 pictures and documents on the early history of photography, had for decades led a shadowy existence in the company's museum in Leverkusen, which attracts precious few visitors. Since the Wallraf-Richartz Museum / Museum Ludwig moved to a new building right next to the cathedral, a small part of the collection has been on permanent display there.
Today, the collections in the former Agfa Historama, together with the collection of Fritz J. Gruber – the organizer (since 1951) of the legendary Photokina exhibitions – the estate of Cologne photographer Chargesheimer and early photographs from the private collection of Hamburg photojournalist Robert Lebeck, represent one of the most important collections of photographs in Germany. Alongside Hamburg's Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Essen's famous photographic collection in the Folkwang Museum and the collection of photographs in Munich's Stadtmuseum, Cologne today is one of the most important places where the history of photography is collected and researched.
The collector Erich StengerAt the heart of the photographic history collection are the pieces which Professor Erich Stenger (1878 – 1957) collected over decades of pioneering work. As a young man, he had been interested in the early history of photography long before it became a trendy pursuit. He concentrated mainly on early photographic equipment; at the time, people were almost more impressed by the achievements of technology than the photographs themselves. After all, this was long before photography had become recognized as an artistic medium in its own right. Erich Stenger worked untiringly for decades, using publications and exhibitions in an attempt to help photography gain the status of art.
The most important 19th century photograph albums can be viewed in Cologne, like the album containing 22 calotypes by photographic pioneer Henry Fox Talbot, which Talbot sent in 1844 to the world-famous natural scientist Alexander von Humboldt to try to win support for the invention of photography.
One absolute rarity marking the transition from painting to photography is an album from 1848 containing the very earliest photographs taken by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson. For a huge painted portrait of Scottish clergymen, they first photographed their subjects and then painted from the photograph. Though the painting itself has long been forgotten, the photographs on which it was based have become a photographic history document of the very first order.
Early travel photography: the world in pictures
|Der große Zamang
Travel photographs and shots of archeologically significant sites were an important focus of early photography. Long before tourism made the world accessible to just about everyone, photographs were the only real way to see with one's own eyes far-off regions which had previously been merely the subject of literary descriptions. In Cologne, impressive examples from the Orient, Asia and Africa are on display.
Maxime du Camp brought back over 200 salted paper prints from a journey to Egypt which he undertook in 1848/50 together with the writer Gustave Flaubert. While Flaubert collected impressions for his romanticized image of the Orient for use in his novel Salambo, Maxime du Camp succeeding in taking impressively factual pictures of buildings and places, all of which today represent important archaeological documents. As Flaubert commented: "This was a wonderful example of facts taking the place of assumptions".
The extensive collection of prints by early "pictoralists" around 1900 is testimony to Erich Stenger's preference for artistic photography. "Pictoralism" sought to achieve "artistic" images, competing with the landscape and portrait paintings which were common at the time. Heinrich Kühn, Gertrude Käsebier, Alfred Stieglitz, Eduard Arning and Edward Steichen are represented here with time-consuming gum prints, carbon prints and photo-engravings, all of which attempt to refine the image atmospherically. "Pictoralism" remained a short intermediate phase in the battle for public recognition of photography.
|The Painter Otto Dix with carnation
Two years before his death, Stenger's collection was sold to the photo giant Agfa, where his pictures lay dormant for quite some time until they were supplemented once again in 1969 by a large collection of 306 photographs by Hugo Erfurth, a well known and extremely prolific portrait photographer in Dresden. It is thanks to him that we have portraits of many important artists from the Weimar Republic (1919 – 1933), including pictures of Käthe Kollwitz, Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, Paul Klee, Carl Orff and René Sintenis. Taken against a neutral backdrop, his studio portraits develop their full power simply by dint of the chosen pose and the photographer's concentration on the body and facial expressions.
There is no doubt that anyone interested in the history of photography will find that the Cologne collection has an abundance of material to view.
former member of the Goethe Institute online editorial team
Translation: Chris Cave
Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion
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