Max Halberstadt is an unknown name in the history of photography. So far, at most, the portraits of Sigmund Freud, his father-in-law, have been assigned to him – and then his work was shown for the first time as part of the exhibition “Displaced, driven out, but not forgotten” in the Altona Museum. The Museum of Hamburg History is now dedicating a biographical show to him. An interview with the curator Wilfried Weinke.
SZ: How did this project come about?
Wilfried Weinke: The project actually began with a fax that I received in 1999 – from South Africa. At that time I was looking for photographers of Jewish origin for an exhibition. And then Max Halberstadt’s daughter, who lives in Johannesburg, contacted me and sent me a photograph of her father directly. A portrait of Sigmund Freud. This is how my research began. I am a collector and hunter – and I found books, newspapers, photographs in which photographs of Halberstadt were printed. After this exhibition on the four photographers in 2004, this is the first presentation devoted solely to his life and work. We show him from his birth in Hamburg in 1882 to his – early – death at the age of 58 in Johannesburg.
How did Max Halberstadt find the then still young medium of photography?
He came from a Jewish family, his father was a kosher butcher. Halberstadt would actually have liked to study electrical engineering, but then he would have had to work on the Sabbath, the family wouldn’t allow that. As a photographer, I was free to organize my work. After training with Rudolf Dührkoop, he traveled through Europe, was in Frankfurt, Munich and Paris before opening his own studio in 1907 and taking the master craftsman examination in 1909, when he was just 27 years old. He quickly became responsible for examining the future masters at the Chamber of Crafts.
Does that mean he worked in Hamburg from then on?
Yes, he was especially valued as a portraitist and child photographer. He was able to capture a form of naturalness and informality in his children’s pictures that is extraordinary. Max Halberstadt created collages, landscape photographs, but also advertising photographs for companies such as Siemens, Reemtsma, Dralle and Darboven. He was also a co-founder of the “Gesellschaft Deutscher Lichtbildner”, the first professional organization for photographers. The trade magazine paid tribute to him as early as 1920 The photo friend with its own booklet.
And how did the countless portraits of Sigmund Freud come about? Didn’t he live in Vienna?
Halberstadt was the son-in-law, he had married his daughter Sophie in 1913. Sophie died early in 1920, however. Sigmund Freud had a close relationship with Max Halberstadt, he addressed him in letters as “my dear son” and also supported the family financially during the First World War. When he emigrated in 1936, Max Halberstadt wrote to him with the address “Dear Papa”. This is one of the reasons why it was only natural that Freud declared him his portraitist; all of Freud’s official photographs bear the name Halberstadt as the author. But the family could not exercise the copyrights in South Africa after their death in 1940, his widow worked in a laboratory, the daughter had to drop out of school for economic reasons and became a seamstress. Nevertheless, it is astonishing that his name remains a blank space in the history of photography to this day, as Halberstadt was so active and recognized until the transfer of power to the National Socialists.
But how could such a prominent photographer be forgotten?
After the war, a number of former propaganda photographers from the Nazi era found influential positions in the Federal Republic. In Hamburg, for example, it was Fritz Kempe, who after 1945 headed the State Image Office in Hamburg and wrote a history of photography in the Hanseatic city. In doing so, he withheld the names of numerous Jewish photographers. Kempe chose formulations like “He went into exile” or “withdrew from Aryanization”. I find that scandalous. Halberstadt was not even mentioned at the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the “Society of German Photographers”. The break, the turning point of 1933 in Germany, is completely underexposed, at least in relation to Hamburg.
They also show a lot of biographical material, worked closely with family.
Max Halberstadt only fled in 1936, his wife and daughter were able to follow a little later. We are now also showing parts of his emigration file, in which he had to declare what he would like to take with him: equipment, photos, films. One can understand the tribulation he was under. The daughter was eleven years old at the time – we received material from her and her two sons, who live in the USA and England. It was important to us to contextualize his life and his work. We also show newspaper clippings and advertising motifs, glass negatives, even an Autochrome, a colored self-portrait of Halberstadt. It’s not just about vintage masterpieces, it’s the whole life of this photographer. Unfortunately, we hardly have any self-testimony, there are only a few letters from exile to his wife, who was only able to follow him after six months.
Will there be a catalog?
I couldn’t finish it before the exhibition started. But that’s lucky: I’ve been offered new things again and again since the vernissage. Many Hamburgers come with photographs – Jewish families from all over the world have reported with found objects. The catalog will now be published next year in a form that has been expanded to include a lot of new material. The exhibition is not yet the final word in dealing with Max Halberstadt.
The exhibition “The photographer Max Halberstadt, … an artistically gifted personality” can be seen in the Museum of Hamburg History until January 3, 2022.