Triennial of Photography Hamburg presents Herbert List. The Magic Eye

View Gallery 10 Photos
Reading Time: 3 minutes
Herbert List: Beneath the Poseidon Temple, Sounion, ca. 1937, Münchner Stadtmuseum, Photography Collection, Archive List
© Herbert List Estate / Magnum Photos / Agentur Focus

One of 12 exhibitions now open at Triennial of Photography Hamburg, this retrospective explores the varied career of Magnum photographer, the late Herbert List

Located in Hamburg’s city centre, the facade of Bucerius Kunst Forum dates from the early 1900s, blending seamlessly with the other historic buildings of Hamburg-Altstadt – Hamburg Old Town. Combined with a four story interior, newly redesigned for the arts in 2019, the building’s architecture offers a pleasant contrast. 

And it’s a contrast which is fitting for the space. Not a traditional museum or a gallery, but an exhibition hall, Bucerius Kunst Forum is reimagined by its curators for each of its four yearly exhibitions. For Katrin Baumstark, curator of Herbert List. The Magic Eye, her vision for this exhibition was always clear. 

Herbert List: Spirit of Lycabettus I, Athens, 1937, Münchner Stadtmuseum, Photography Collection, Archive List © Herbert List Estate / Magnum Photos / Agentur Focus
Herbert List: Goldfish bowl, Santorin, 1937, Münchner Stadtmuseum, Photography Collection, Archive List © Herbert List Estate / Magnum Photos / Agentur Focus
Herbert List: The cuckold, Trastevere, Rome, 1953, Münchner Stadtmuseum, Photography Collection, Archive List © Herbert List Estate / Magnum Photos / Agentur Focus

 “People come into the exhibition and say ‘oh, the images are really small’”, she says, gesturing to the 240 black and white prints which line the walls. “But I tell them, ‘They are almost 100 years old and Herbert List printed them all himself’. It’s so important to have the vintage prints – there’s a deepness to them.”

Born in Hamburg in 1903, List – openly gay and with Jewish grandparents – fled Germany in 1936. From this time, the photographer enjoyed a varied career, exploring surrealism and pittura metafisica, capturing classical Greek and Roman antiquity and producing photo essays from around the world.

“I can’t take a picture of someone I don’t know, because it’s so important to see the soul in my pictures.”

Bucerius Kunst Forum, Ausstellung. Foto: Ulrich Perrey

Chosen from List’s vast and diverse archive, the images in The Magic Eye are indeed small and their presentation simple – the space’s walls are painted in muted greens and blues, chosen to make the photographs “glow” – but their impact is anything but.

The first international retrospective of List’s work in over two decades, The Magic Eye first presents early examples of the photographers’ work. These images hint at many of the themes for which he would later be noted: mystery, the male form and a masterful approach to light and shadow. His 1937 anthropomorphic still life, Roundezvous, Kap Sounioin, combines all three. 

Herbert List: Rendezvous, Cape Sounion, 1937, Herbert List Estate © Herbert List Estate/Magnum Photos

“I’m an amateur because I have passion. If I become professional, it will mean I have lost my passion.”

“The image is his own interpretation of homosexuality,” Baumstark explains. “This is the kind of story List could never show. It was forbidden, so it’s so important to show and talk about this work again now.”

The same is true of many of List’s diary-like images of young men. Taken throughout the 1930s, but not published until the 1980s, the images are mounted at Bucerius Kunst Forum in a temple-like display. This design is a nod to List’s deep connection to the friends and lovers he photographed.

“He always, always said ‘I can’t take a picture of someone I don’t know, because it’s so important to see the soul in my pictures’,” Baumstark says. “It was a queer gaze, but a gaze of friendship, of feelings and of memories that we all have.”

Bucerius Kunst Forum, Ausstellung. Foto: Ulrich Perrey
Herbert List: Wrestling youths, Baltic Sea, 1933, Münchner Stadtmuseum, Photography Collection, Archive List © Herbert List Estate / Magnum Photos / Agentur Focus
Herbert List: Athens, 1937, Herbert List Estate © Herbert List Estate / Magnum Photos / Agentur Focus

While these images of queer joy were never seen during List’s lifetime, later in his career, he produced images which were published around the world. In 1951 he was asked by Robert Capa to become a contributor to Magnum Photos and, eventually, accepted. Although, he rarely took on commissions.

“He hated to make images if someone asked him ‘can you make images of this?’”, Baumstark says. “He wasn’t a star. He always said, ‘I’m an amateur because I have passion. If I become professional, it will mean I have lost my passion.’”

Herbert List: Löwenbräu Nymphenburgerstr. 4, Munich, 1946, Münchner Stadtmuseum, Photography Collection, Archive List © Herbert List Estate / Magnum Photos / Agentur Focus

Herbert List. The Magic Eye is on show at The Bucerius Kunst Forum, Hamburg until 11 September 2022, as part of Triennial of Photography Hamburg. Tickets are available here.