Issue 90, Winter 1983
Josef Breitenbach, now 87, was born in Munich, and upon graduation from that city’s university took up the family business as a wine merchant. His hobby was photography, and his business travels brought him many photographic subjects and the beginnings of an extensive collection of photographs, about which he wrote and lectured. In 1933, he left Hitler’s Germany for Paris, and began to pursue his hobby professionally. Living on limited means which made it a struggle to support the requirements of even a simple darkroom, Breitenbach photographed many of the artists and writers who made their homes in Paris between the wars. In 1941, after a year’s internment in a French refugee work camp, friends in England arranged Breitenbach’s release and subsequent travel to the U.S. Breitenbach set up a commercial studio in New York, and continued to photograph those notables to whom chance and acquaintance led him.
As a technician, Breitenbach developed several specialized photographic methods, including a means to record on film the aromatic particles given off by plants and food. His portrait photography Is notable for his reliance upon long exposures with a hand-held medium format camera, natural lighting, and low-contrast paper, which combine to produce his soft, deep-toned prints.
During the war, he was an Instructor with Josef Albers at the experimental college in Black Mountain, N.C., and he has taught and lectured since the fifties in New York at Cooper Union and The New School. In the year of 1952-53 he was Chief of Photography for the U.N.’s Korean Reconstruction Agency, and is noted For his photographs of Asian life. His work Is included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Library of Congress, and the Municipal Museum, Munich.
Breitenbach’s early sittings in France were usually done as favors and his portfolio often served as his means of introduction to eminent subjects. In 1935, when Breitenbach travelled to Aristide Maillol’s studio at Marly Le Roy, the sculptor initially refused to sit for a portrait. but after a careful viewing of the photographs he relented—“That’s good work.” Maillol suggested that Breitenbach refrain from close-ups: “Don’t make ray head so big.” Brcitenbach obeyed at first, but finished with a series of close-ups. When Maillol went through the proofs, the sculptor chose the “big heads.”
Breitcnbach found Max Ernst to be flippant and cynical, but quite friendly. He photographed the painter in his Paris studio using a hand-held Rolliflex and natural light, trying to catch these aspects of the artist as he walked about the studio, contemplated its view of the railroad tracks below, sat down to talk with the photographer for a moment, then shifted position once more. When the shadow of the window frame fell upon the restless Ernst, Breitenbach had his portrait.
Lyonel Feininger and Breitenbach patronized the lame trainer’s shop in New York in 1943. and after the framer introduced the two men. Feininger asked to be photographed in his studio at home. Breitenbach captured the painter at work, and received as payment a small watercolor.
Josef Albers came lo Breitenbach’s studio on Central Park South during the Second World War lo ask him to teach at the experimental college in Black Mountain, N.C. where Albers taught painting, printmaking and design. Breitenbach agreed lo teach photography and recalls that Albers’s natural authority made him a great asset to the school. This portrait was made during an informal session in Albers’s apartment at the college.