In Search of Beauty
Fritz Henle’s life story is very inspirational to me. A natural talent, his devotion, perseverance and passion took Fritz from young artist developing his film in the tiny darkroom he built in his parent’s home in Germany to the famous and often-cited as “the last classical freelance photographer”
His desire to spend his life taking pictures was not met with much support but as desires go, it is incredible what you can achieve with enough determination. In1928, although the odds were against him, he brought his portfolio, filled with his photographs, to the Art Institute ‘Bayerische Staatlehranstalt für Lichtbildwesen’ in hopes of being accepted. The Munich school received many more submissions than they could accept but so impressed with his self-taught work that he was accepted into their second-year class.
During the 1930s, Fritz Henle traveled and photographed extensively. He went to Florence, Italy, India, China and Japan. In 1936, he left Germany hoping to write a book on the United States of America but soon after he found himself working for Time Magazine as a freelance photographer. Most photographers of the day were of a specific genre, either Landscape or Portrait etc., but Fritz soon became known as the photographer that could do it all. He had great concepts and he was able to see the beauty in everyday situations.
In 1938, Fritz Henle went to Paris on assignment to take pictures for Time Magazine. With his keen eye, he would look at people and see the little vignettes happening; the housewives chatting on a bench, the woman with her loaf of bread, the Café on the Bastille and the woman resting on a chair who seemed to mimic the pose of the statue of the Roman God she sat beneath; one of his most famous photographs.
The Woman and the God – Paris, 1938 Young Woman with a Loaf of Bread - Paris, 1938
Although he spent only 2 weeks in Paris, he was enamored with the people and felt that everywhere he looked, new scenes would appear before his eyes, almost as if they joined together just for him.
Staying in a small hotel room, he used the tiny bathroom as his darkroom, working with only a dim green light. One night, the lights went out and he had to count the seconds as he worked in pitch black, but was much relieved the next day to see that his negatives were perfect. He loved Paris and the photos the city allowed him to take, in fact, he was quite proud of them and thought they had surpassed anything he had taken beforehand.
Returning to New York, he was crushed when the editor of Time Magazine returned his work and told him they were not what they were looking for. For several years, the prints and negatives were locked away and he never looked at them again until August of 1944, when he got a call from the picture editor of the New York Times, Mme Lazareff, herself a Parisian, who were looking for photos of Paris as De Gaulle was on the verge of liberating Paris in the next few days. He stayed up the whole night to make a set of 100 8 x 10 enlargements. The next day he spread the photos on her desk and she literally broke into tears, touched by their beauty and the truth of her homeland that he was able to capture. The following Sunday, a full 4 page spread of his work appeared in the magazine.
Since then, Fritz worked as a freelancer and created covers for Life, Harper’s Bazaar, Mademoiselle and Town & Country.
He was always on a constant search for beauty. He once said “one thing an artist can do in this world is to remind people there is so much beauty that you only have to see it.” Be it fashion models, factory workers or fishermen, his images were always visually pleasing. He could find beauty in destruction and trash as well as anywhere else.
In 1929, the German camera company, Rollei, came out with the twin lens Rolleiflex camera that would be a life-long companion to Fritz. Apparently, he always had one around his neck and sometimes even 2 or 3 at the same time!
He believed, that aesthetically, the square format was the most beautiful for composition and the size of the negatives allowed him to create very detailed images. Using almost exclusively this camera, it practically became an extension of his body. Many that knew him called him Rollei, almost as if he were the camera himself.
He believed that you should not over-shoot, instead you should try to see what you want and be in the moment with it. His eye for detail often allowed him to get the scene with a single shot. Instead of taking lots of pictures, he would spend hours and sometimes even days with his subjects to study their habits and mannerisms. Studying the photos he took of Frida Kahlo, you can see how they are more than just mere documents of a person and how he was able to capture her essence.
In 1954, he moved to St. Croix where he raised his family and traveled for assignments around the world, be it Puerto Rico, Hollywood, Hawaii, Haiti or Mexico. Even in his later years, always as tireless and always as passionate about his art, he would still take assignments.
During his lifetime, Henle published 19 books. After his death in 1993, the Harry Ransom Center, celebrated the 100 years of his birth, by an exhibition in August 2009.
Henle: In Search of Beauty: His photographs are his legacy and proof that he found it.
“You will spend the rest of your life learning to see light. It will not take you long to learn all about the camera, but you will never come to the end of discovering about the effects of light itself. The only rule is to watch the world about you, even when you have not got a camera in your hand” – Fritz Henle.
A special thank you to Tina Henle, Fritz Henle’s daughter and established photographer in her own right, in St-Croix, US Virgin Islands, for her generous permission to allow me to replicate her dad’s incredible images here. Please visit her website
©Copyright of all images belong to the Fritz Henle Estate
In Search of Beauty – The Photography of Fritz Henle by Maggie Terlecki is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.