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Helmut Gernsheim

Gernsheim, Helmut
Born 1 March 1913
Died 20 July 1995
Education Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, State School of Photography, Munich
Occupation photographer and photo historian
Known for photography collection
Spouse(s) Alison Eames
Irene Guenin

Helmut Erich Robert Kuno Gernsheim (1 March 1913 – 20 July 1995) was a historian of photography, collector, and photographer.


  • Life 1
  • Honors and awards 2
  • Bibliography 3
  • References 4
  • External links 5


Born in Munich, Germany, Gernsheim studied art history at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. He took up photography in 1934 at the urging of his brother who thought it a more practical profession, and graduated from the State School of Photography, Munich, after two years' study. He started working as a colour photographer using the German Uvachrome process before going to Paris for an exhibition of his work and then to London to work on a commission from the National Gallery, London. He was given British citizenship in 1946 and continued to live in London for most of his life.[1]

At the outset of World War II, Gernsheim was interned as a "friendly enemy alien" for a year at Hay in New South Wales, Australia[2] along with other German nationals. While interned, he lectured other internees on the aesthetics of photography and wrote his critique on photography, New Photo Vision, which was published in 1942 and led to his becoming a friend of fellow critic and historian Beaumont Newhall. Gernsheim earned his release from internment by volunteering to work for the National Buildings Record, photographing important monuments in the London area with a view to revealing their artistic merits. These photographs b ecame the basis of two more books. They were praised by critics including Kenneth Clark and Nikolaus Pevsner and in 1943 were described by The Architectural Review as "nothing short of a rediscovery of the Baroque monuments".[1] Around this time he met and married his wife Alison Eames Gernsheim. He joined The Royal Photographic Society in 1940 become a Fellow (FRPS) in 1942.[3]

In 1945, at Newhall's prompting, Helmut and Alison Gernsheim started collecting the works of historic photographers, especially British ones, which were disappearing. They amassed a huge collection containing work by such luminaries as Julia Margaret Cameron, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Hill & Adamson, William Henry Fox Talbot, and Louis Daguerre. They rediscovered the long-lost hobby of Lewis Carroll when in 1947 Helmut 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 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".[1] 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). Helmut and Alison continued to publish numerous articles and books on various aspects of photography and a variety of photographers.

Ultimately, Gernsheim needed to find a home for his vast collection of over 33,000 photographs, 4,000 books, research notes, his own correspondence, and collected correspondence including letters by Daguerre and Fox Talbot.[4] He sought unsuccessfully to found a national museum of photography 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 at the Humanities Research Center.[5] His collection of modern photography was retained by him and ultimately passed to the Forum Internationale Photographie (FIP) at the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen, Mannheim.[6]

Alison Gernsheim died on 27 March 1969 and Helmut Gernsheim remarried in 1971. Helmut Gernsheim died on 20 July 1995.

Honors and awards

  • 1959, German Cultural Prize for Photography
  • 1968, appointed consultant to Encyclopædia Britannica
  • 1974, appointed trustee of the Swiss Foundation of Photography
  • 1979, Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Texas
  • 1981, Distinguished Visiting Professor at University of Arizona
  • 1981, Gold Medal of the Academy of Fine Arts at Salsomaggiore
  • Honorary Fellow of the Photographic Historical Society of New York
  • Honorary Fellow of the Club Daguerre, Frankfurt[7]


  • Photo Histories text © 2013 Graham Harrison The history men: Helmut Gernsheim and Nicéphore Niépce
  • Alvin Langdon Coburn: Photographer, with Alison Gernsheim, New York: Praeger, 1966.
  • Beautiful London, New York: Phaidon, 1950. (photographs by Helmut Gernsheim)
  • Churchill: His Life in Photographs, Helmut Gernsheim and Randolph S. Churchill, eds., London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1955.
  • A Concise History of Photography, with Alison Gernsheim, London: Thames & Hudson, 1965.
  • Creative Photography: Aesthetic Trends 1839–1960, London: Faber & Faber Limited, 1962.
  • Edward VII and Queen Alexandra: A Biography in Word and Picture, with Alison Gernsheim, London: Frederick Muller, 1962.
  • Focus on Architecture and Sculpture, an original approach to the photography of architecture and sculpture,, London: Fountain Press, 1949.
  • Fotografia Artistica: Tendinte Estetice 1839–1960, Bucuresti: Editura Meridiane 1970.
  • Historic Events 1839–1939, with Alison Gernsheim, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1960.
  • The History of Photography From the Earliest Use of the Camera Obscura in the Eleventh Century up to 1914 with Alison Gernsheim, London: Oxford University Press 1955; revised edition Thames & Hudson. 1969
  • Incunabula of British Photographic Literature: A Bibliography of British Photographic Literature 1839–75 and British Books Illustrated with Original Photographs, London and Berkeley: Scolar Press in association with Derbyshire College of Higher Education 1984.
  • Julia Margaret Cameron; her life and photographic work, London: Fountain Press, 1948.
  • L. J. M. Daguerre. The History of the Diorama and the Daguerreotype, with Alison Gernsheim, London: Secker & Warburg, 1956. [With “Bibliography of Daguerre’s Instruction Manuals” by Beaumont Newhall.]
  • Lewis Carroll, photographer, London: Max Parrish, 1949.
  • The Man Behind the Camera, Helmut Gernsheim, ed. London: Fountain Press [November] 1948 (foreword by Rathbone Holme). [With chapters on Cecil Beaton, Gernsheim, E.O. Hoppé, Angus McBean, Felix H. Man, Mrs. K.M. Parsons, W. Suchitzky, Harold White, and J. Allan Cash.]
  • Masterpieces of Victorian Photography, London: Phaidon Press, 1951.
  • The New Photo Vision, London: Fountain Press, 1942.
  • The Origins of Photography, New York: Thames & Hudson, 1982.
  • The Recording Eye. A Hundred Years of Great Events as Seen by the Camera, 1839–1939, with Alison Gernsheim, New York: Putnam, 1960.
  • Roger Fenton, Photographer of the Crimean War. His Photographs and his Letters from The Crimea, with Alison Gernsheim, London: Secker & Warburg, 1954.
  • Those Impossible English, with Alison Gernsheim, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1952. (text: Quentin Bell; photographs selected by Helmut and Alison Gernsheim).
  • Victoria R. A Biography with Four Hundred Illustrations based on her Personal Photograph Albums, with Alison Gernsheim, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959.


  1. ^ a b c Dialogue With Photography by Paul Hill and Thomas Cooper, publ. Thames & Hudson 1979
  2. ^ The Independent obituary. Accessed 6 June 2011
  3. ^ Royal Photographic Society membership records. See:
  4. ^ Helmut Gersheim International Photography Hall of Fame
  5. ^ Helmut Gernsheim Harry Ransom Center. The University of Texas at Austin. Accessed 27 December 2010.
  6. ^ See:
  7. ^ Helmut Gernsheim, The Origins of Photography, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1982. p. 274

External links

  • Anglo-American Name Authority File, s.v. “Gernsheim, Helmut”, LC Control Number n 79004055. Accessed 19 December 2007, Unaccessible as of 16 November 2011.
  • New York Times obituary. Accessed 6 June 2011.
  • The history men: Helmut Gernsheim and Nicéphore Niépce on Photo Histories
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