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July 1996

Out of the Past: A close-up of pioneering photographer Umbo at the Haus der Kunst

Photographer Umbo's exhibit in the Haus der Kunst

Otto Umbehr spent the last decade of his life working the cash register of the Hannover-based Kestner Gesellschaft. However, his humble end obscures his early success as Umbo, one of the pioneers of modern photography. Fortunately, Umbo's death in 1980 did not leave him unsung :a 1979 exhibit in Hannover heralded him as the trailblazer of 1920s photography. The Haus der Kunst's current exhibition-, "Umbo: From Bauhaus to Photojournalism", -is a retrospective look at his work that runs until July 28. Umbo revolutionized artistic and journalistic photography through his innovative black-and-white and close-up photographs. His street scenes-, Mysterium der Straße (1928) and Unheimliche Straße(1928), for example, -evince his ability to manipulate ordinary scenes into eerie and graphically interesting tableaux by bending shadow and perspective. Ruth mit Maske (1927) and Ruth. Die Hand(1927), representative examples of his close-up portraits, explore the tension between public and private personae. Born in 1902 in Düsseldorf, Umbo was unhappy and disaffected in his youth. He looked to the arts for the guidance and stimulation his family did not provide. He enrolled at the Bauhaus in Weimar in 1921,but was forced to leave in 1923 because his rebelliousness did not agree with the school's strict environment. Other than a few sketches submitted as assignments, -now exhibited at the Haus der Kunst, -nothing survives from Umbo's time at the Bauhaus. But it was there he acquired his spare sense of composition that characterizes his photography. After leaving the Bauhaus, Umbo set off for Berlin where he worked odd jobs, mainly in the film industry. Umbo's work as an assistant cameraman became his second major artistic influence: he was fascinated with the pioneering technology used in the budding film industry. The turning point for Umbo's career as an artist came in December 1926, after he collapsed from hunger and exhaustion in the bathroom of the Romanisches Café, his Berlin haunt. He moved into the home of his friend, artist Paul Citroen, and during his recovery he and Citroen experimented with photography. Although Citroen quickly lost interest, Umbo armed himself with a small travel camera and decided to become a photographer. Umbo continued to circulate among Berlin's bohemians, -a café culture of artists and actors,-documenting the lifestyle of his friends and acquaintances. His photographs from this period provide a candid glimpse of Berlin's artistic and theatrical world, and document the changing face of Berlin before and after the Second World War. His street scenes of Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s contrast sharply with his shots of the ruined city in 1947. Bustling streets and cafés give way to crumbled buildings, and actors at curtain call bow to legions of displaced people. In 1928, Umbo co-founded DEPHOT (Deutsche Photo-Agentur), a freelance photo agency, -at that time a novel concept. During his affiliation with the agency, he pioneered photo reportage, the technique of taking a chronological series of photographs to tell a story. Unfortunately, the Nazi seizure of power brought about the end of DEPHOT, as well as the most fruitful phase of Umbo's artistic career. Before and after World War II, Umbo worked as a photojournalist and, during the war itself, he was pressed into military service as a staff photographer. In 1943, an Allied bomb raid destroyed Umbo's Berlin home, studio and life's work, -an estimated 50,000 negatives were destroyed. The loss crushed Umbo's will as an artist, and the final break with his beloved Berlin robbed him of his former inspiration.He moved to Hannover after the war, where, during renovations to his home in 1946-47, he lost sight in his left eye. Umbo's last large-scale project consisted of a series of black-and-white photographs of major American cities taken on a 1952 trip sponsored by the U.S. government as part of its reeducation program for German journalists. He was so impressed by America that he wrote to his ex-wife, "I feel more at home in New York than in Hannover or even in Germany." Umbo continued to work as a photojournalist for various publications after World War II and worked as a photography instructor in Hannover from 1957until 1971. Despite his limited formal training, Umbo's work ranks as one of the major influences on the development of modern photography.

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