Erich Hartmann was a German-born American photographer. Hartmann was born July 29, 1922 in Munich, Germany, the eldest child of Max and Irma Hartmann who lived in Passau, a small city on the Danube near the Austrian border in which they were one of a five Jewish families. Erich Hartmann's family belonged to the middle class, and his father, a social-democrat who served during World War I and been imprisoned by the British, was highly respected. In 1930, only eight years old, Erich took his first photographs. Life became increasingly difficult after the Nazi takeover in 1933, including personal, financial, business, and family restrictions and the beginning of deportations of Jews to the first so-called 'labor camp' in the village of Dachau. The Hartmann family moved to Munich that year, in search of a more tolerant and cosmopolitan environment. The situation only worsened, however, and the family determined that they had to leave Germany. In August 1938, they accepted the opportunity to emigrate to the United States, having received the necessary affidavit of support from distant relatives there. They sailed from Hamburg to New York, staying initially in Washington Heights, before settling outside Albany, New York.
The only English speaker in the family, Erich Hartmann worked in a textile mill in Albany, New York, attending evening high school and later taking night courses at Siena College. On December 8, 1941, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US entered the war, and Erich enlisted in the US Army. Trained in Virginia and at Ohio State University, he had to wait until 1943 before serving in England, Belgium (Battle of the Bulge) and France, and with the liberating forces as a court interpreter at Nazi trials in Cologne, Germany.
At the end of the war he moved to New York City where, in 1946, he married Ruth Bains; they had two children, Nicholas (born in 1952) and Celia (born in 1956). During these years, he worked as an assistant to portrait photographer George Feyer, and then as a freelancer. He studied at the New School for Social Research with Charles Leirens, Berenice Abbott
, and Alexey Brodovitch
. His portrait subjects over the years included architect Walter Gropius, writers Arthur Koestler and Rachel Carson, musicians Leonard Bernstein and Gidon Kremer, actor Marcel Marceau, fellow photographer Ed Feingersh, and many other literary and musical personalities. Music played a great role in his life and work: "Music captured me before photography did,"
he recalled. "In my parents' house there was not much music except for a hand-cranked gramophone on which I surreptitiously and repeatedly played a record of arias from Carmen. This was before I could read!″
In the 1950s Erich Hartmann first became known to the wider public for his poetic approach to science, industry and architecture in a series of photo essays for Fortune magazine, beginning with The Deep North
, The Building of Saint Lawrence Seaway
and Shapes of Sound
. He later did similar essays on the poetics of science and technology for French, German and American Geo and other magazines. Throughout his life he traveled widely on assignments for the major magazines of the US, Europe and Japan and for many corporations such as AT&T, Boeing, Bowater, Citroën, Citibank, Corning Glass, DuPont, European Space Agency, Ford, IBM, Johns Hopkins University, Kimberly-Clark, Pillsbury Company, Nippon Airways, Schlumberger, TWA, and Woolworth, for all of which he used color.
In 1952 he was invited to join Magnum Photos
, the international photographers’ cooperative founded in 1947 by Robert Capa
, David Seymour
, George Rodger
and Henri Cartier-Bresson
, he served on the board of directors from 1967 to 1986, and as President in 1985–1986.
For more than eight weeks in 1994, Erich and Ruth Hartmann undertook a winter journey to photograph the remains of the Nazi concentration and extermination camps, and places of deportation, throughout Europe. He was determined to take only black and white photographs and to capture only what he saw, immediately when arriving, no matter whether days looked like nights. He returned to New York with 120 rolls of film, from which he made a first edit of 300 photographs and a final selection of only 74 frames. These, together with text by Ruth Bains Hartmann, formed the book and exhibition In the Camps
, published in 1995 in English, French, and German and exhibited in more than twenty venues in the US and Europe in the years since.
In all of his travel, for work and pleasure, Hartmann carried a small camera with a few rolls of black and white film, prepared for every visual opportunity. He also deliberately pursued a series of imaginative projects including experiments with ink in water, stroboscopic light effects, beach pebbles constrained in boxes, and others. In the late 1990s, with an eye to a future retrospective exhibition, Hartmann began making a definitive selection from fifty years of this personal work in black and white. Just a few months before his death he began discussions with a gallery in Austria about organizing an exhibition called Where I Was
On February 4, 1999 Erich Hartmann died unexpectedly from a heart attack in New York.
In the late 1960s and 1970s he lived in London. He documented the construction of the Britannia aircraft for the Bristol Aeroplane Company and he photographed for the leading colour magazines: the Sunday Times
, the Observer and the Telegraph
, notably on such stories as Shakespeare's Warwickshire
and The Norman Conquest Descendants
. For the Weekend Telegraph he made sensitive colour pictures of Styles of English Architecture
, in a series of photo-essays for which Sir John Betjeman wrote the words, and he also travelled with Betjeman to the Faeroe Islands.
Later Hartmann returned to Germany where he had lived in the shadow of the Nazis until he was 16, and chose a project for himself: the death camps. He made an unforgettable book, In the Camps
(1995). He said, "I simply felt obliged to stand in as many of the camps as I could reach, to fulfill a duty that I could not define and to pay a belated tribute with the tools of my profession."
The book is a magnificent tribute. There is hardly a person in it. So solitary is it, so desolate, that we people the pages with our own ghosts, we bring to it our own fears and imagery. These imaginings have the feeling of poetry. We see a room full of broken shoes; another room of battered satchels; another of torn children's clothes; the windowless barracks in four tiers in which multitudes tried to survive; or a square in which a gallows hangs in the wind. The railway tracks which many took into the camp; a single gas chamber in Auschwitz.
It is hard to go from examining the book to describe all Erich Hartmann did for the Magnum co-operative when he served on the board or was vice-president (1975 and 1979) or president (1985). Burt Glinn
describes how he and Hartmann came to Magnum at the same time, almost 47 years ago: "We have photographed together and met together and consulted together about ethics and journalism, and we have attended 46 Magnum General Meetings, the first with only eight other photographers and the last with more than 50, but all of them passionate, contentious and personal."
He goes on: "Through all these years Erich, more than anyone else, has been my moral compass. No matter how knotty the problem he never settled for the facile compromise. He was always wise, judicious, and ferocious to find the right answer rather than the easy one. When I suspected that I was pursuing my self-interest rather than the common good I would glance over at Erich and if I encountered his quizzically cocked eyebrow I would shut up."