History of Photography

History of Photography

A World History of Photography

The Story Behind the Pictures 1827-1991

Photographers' Dictionary






1   Nicephore Niepce. View from the Study Window, 1827

2   Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre. Boulevard du Temple, 1838

3   Eugene Durieu/Eugene Delacroix. Nude from Behind, ca. 1853

4   Duchenne de Boulogne. Contractions musculaires, 1856

5   Auguste Rosalie Bisson. The Ascent of Mont Blanc, 1862

6   Nadar. Sarah Bernhardt, ca. 1864

7   Francois Aubert. Emperor Maximilian's Shirt, 1867

8   Andre Adolphe Eugene Disderi. Dead Communards, 1871

9   Maurice Guibert. Toulouse-Lautrec in His Studio, ca. 1894

10 Max Priester/Willy Wilcke. Bismarck on his Deathbed, 1898

11 Heinrich Zille. The Wood Gatherers, 1898

12 Alfred Stieglitz. The Steerage, 1907

13 Lewis Hine. Girl Worker in a Carolina Cotton Mill, 1908

14 August Sander. Young Farmers, 1914

15 Paul Strand. Blind Woman, 1916

16 Man Ray. Noire et blanche, 1926

17 Andre Kertesz. Meudon, 1928

18 Robert Capa. Spanish Loyalist, 1936

19 Dorothea Lange. Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936

20 Horst P. Horst. Mainbocher Corset, 1939

21 Henri Cartier-Bresson. Germany, 1945

22 Richard Petersen. View from the Dresden City Hall Tower, 1945

23 Robert Doisneau. The Kiss in Front of City Hall, 1950

24 Dennis Stock. James Dean on Times Square, 1955

25 Bert Stern. Marilyn's Last Sitting, 1962

26 Gerard Malanga. Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground, 1966

27 Helmut Newton. They're Coming!, 1981

28 Sandy Skoglund. Revenge of the Goldfish, 1981

29 Robert Mapplethorpe. Lisa Lyon, 1982

30 Joel-Peter Witkin. Un Santo Oscuro, 1987

31 Sebastiao Salgado. Kuwait, 1991


see also:

Priester Max

Wilcke Willy

Chapter 10



Max Priester/Willy Wilcke


Bismarck on his Deathbed

The Humanization

of Legend

Shortly after Otto von Bismarck's death, a death photograph that the public had never in fact seen led to a sensational trial in Hamburg, Germany. The defendants were two photographers who had secretly and illicitly captured the deceased founder of the German Reich on film. Not until years after the end of the Second World War was the photograph finally published.


A great man has died. Think what one may of Bismarck - and historians are still divided today over whether he was a visionary or reactionary, a "white revolutionist" (Gall) or a "daemon" (Willms) - there is one thing certain: he was one of the great figures in nineteenth-century politics, and for a time he was the most powerful man in Europe. This claim remains true even under the Hegelian understanding of history, in which even the most influential individuals are at best the 'business managers' of a predetermined 'purpose', that is, mere assistants in the fulfillment of the inevitable course of history. The majority of Germans, however, would have looked at the matter differently around 1890. For them, Bismarck was the founder of a German Reich with well-defined borders, the creator of a nation under Prussian leadership. In those days, people still felt unreserved admiration for the Junker stemming from the lands east of the Elbe, and throughout the country, Bismarck towers and Bismarck memorials made of bronze or stone reinforced the idea. On a popularity scale, Bismarck surpassed both Wilhelm I and the reigning monarch Wilhelm II -a fact which the latter realized all too well. In response, the young kaiser therefore repeatedly sought some kind of reconciliation with the aged chancellor whom he had disgracefully dismissed from office in 1890. But to no avail. Otto von Bismarck nursed a resentment that might well be termed hatred and that was to have repercussions even after his death.

Wilhelm was in no case to be allowed to view Bismarck's mortal remains. By the time the kaiser, who had been intentionally misled by those around him about Bismarck's true condition, finally arrived in Friedrichsruh near Hamburg, the coffin had already been sealed: Bismarck had thus effectively delivered an insult from beyond the grave.

Max Priester/Willy Wilcke
Bismarck on his Deathbed


Pictures of the Chancellor produced at assembly line speed



In fact, there were very few who had been allowed to say farewell to Bismarck - family members, house servants, a handful of neighbors from Friedrichsruh. Reinhold Begas was refused permission to make a death-mask, the painter Franz von Lenbach, a death portrait. Similarly, in the beginning, no one seems to have thought about photographing the deceased - understandably from today's point of view, although it must be remarked that the photographing of the dead remained a completely common practice until the end of the nineteenth century. One needs only to think of Ludwig II, whose picture lying in an open coffin provoked almost no interest among the public. After Bismarck's death, however, there was to be no picture that contradicted the official iconography of the chancellor - in particular the image that had been professionally formulated by Lenbach, that Munich-based prince of painters, who had immortalized the Iron Chancellor in a number of oil and chalk works (as if on an assembly line, according to the ironic opinion of the painter's con-temporaries). In any case, Lenbach's chancellor was a man of power, determination, and vision: a statesman in uniform, or sometimes in black civilian dress; a great figure in the literal physical sense. And now this travesty: a photograph of the deceased chancellor - the legendary Bismarck - sunk into an unmade bed, the absolute opposite so to speak of the familiar impressive figure exerting a powerful influence on the observer in Lenbach's portraits. To make matters worse, the photograph revealed a veritably shabby ambiance that one would hardly have imagined possible of the former chancellor, with the chamber pot adding an almost vulgar note to the scene. "Pure realism," as the Bismarck scholar Lothar Machtan appropriately pointed out, and thus a possible corrective to the stylized image that had been proffered by Bismarck himself- to the presentation of himself according to the motto "nothing is truer than the appearance" (Willms). For the kaiser, on the other hand, the photograph would have seemed like a belated revenge.

Otto von Bismarck


The photograph had been taken by the professional Hamburg photographers Max Priester and Willy Wilcke the night that Bismarck died - admittedly without the family's permission. The term 'paparazzo' had not yet been coined (Feflini introduced it in his film La Dolce Vita), but Priester and Wilcke were consummate paparazzi in the modern sense, motivated neither by personal curiosity nor even by a sense of 'art'. Like the paparazzi of today, what they wanted was money, and the ingredients for success were the same then as now, namely, the interest of the public in the private lives of the prominent. As a vehicle for conveying pictorial in-formation, however, the illustrated press of the day was at best in a relatively archaic state. For technical reasons, photographs often made their way into the press only by way of woodcuts. But in Bismarck's case, the process never got that far. A civil suit, to be discussed below, together with the prior confiscation of all pictures, including "negatives, plates, prints, and other reproductions," by the police - meant that the pictorial material was effectively removed from the public sphere. The picture was in fact not published until approximately two generations later in the Fronkfurter Illustrierte (No. 50/1952), a German magazine appearing from 1948 to 1962. On another occasion, Die Welt (No. 270,19 November 1974) printed the photograph in connection with a review of a book, Oevelgonner Nachtwachen, by the Hamburg author Lovis H. Lorenz, in which he relates his version of the photograph's history. Four years later, the picture appeared once more, this time in the ZEIT-magazin (4 August 1978), accompanied by a text from Fritz Kempe. It may be tempting to interpret the publication of the once-taboo picture in a widely-circulated magazine ten years after the student rebellions of the late Sixties as a further station in the process of the Bismarck's demythification process. But in fact, the picture probably contributed even more to the humanizing of Bismarck. The photograph reveals that the circumstances of Prince Otto von Bismarck's death were in fact rather trivial: in death he became one of us.

The air was full of rumors that Bismarck was dying. The old man, increasingly depressed, had been ailing for quite some time. When gangrene set in, it was clear that his days were numbered. In other words, a media event, as we would term it today, was about to occur -and this in turn required the 'right' pictures; that is, the most recent pictures had to be rounded up for publication - and what could be more recent than a picture of the deceased founder of the Reich. Two Hamburg photographers had determined to obtain the necessary image: Max Priester and Willy Wilcke, who had bribed a reliable informant in the person of Bismarck's forester, Louis Sporcke. Now they had only to wait for the moment of death. An hour before midnight on 30 July 1898 Otto von Bismarck died - according to historians, after drinking a glass of lemonade. Then, "with a cry of 'For-ward!', he sank back into the pillows and died" (Willms). Sporcke, who had kept the night watch, informed Priester and Wilcke, lodging nearby and fully on the alert: the forester would leave the garden gate and ground-floor window open for them. Toward four in the morning the pair made their way in the house, exposed several plates with the help of the magnesium flashes that were usual at the time. The whole procedure supposedly lasted less than ten minutes, and on the following morning, they returned to Hamburg and attempted to make money as quickly as possible from their - as we would say today - scoop.

Bismarck in the eye of the imagination. Picture postcards of this kind went into circulation shortly  the death of the Chancellor.

"In Remembrance of the Death of the Great Chancellor":
picture postcard, pre 1900


The incriminating materials confiscated


They advertised for interested parties with money. "For the sole existing picture of Bismarck on his deathbed, photographs taken a few hours after his death, original images, a buyer or suitable publisher is sought," ran the announcement in the Tagliche Rundschau of 2 August 1898. A Dr. Baltz, owner of a German publishing house, replied that he was pre-pared to pay as much as thirty thousand marks plus twenty percent of the profit for the images. All that was necessary now was for the photo-graphers to obtain the family's permission to publish. In response, Priester and Wilcke quickly produced a retouched version of the picture, showing a clearly younger-looking Bismarck, without headband or patterned handkerchief. The light-colored chamber pot also fell victim to the practiced stroke of the retoucher. It is quite possible that the Bismarcks might have granted permission to publish, but in the meantime, a jealous competitor, Arthur Mennell, had already stumbled upon the plan, and denounced Priester and Wilcke to the family. The Bismarcks responded swiftly. By 4 August they had already managed to have the incriminating materials confiscated. A civil and criminal court case ensued, today remarkable in that the crime of trespassing was not the sole charge: the question of the right to one's own picture was also at issue. The case was decided in favor of Bismarck; the photographers had not acted for the sake of the German people, but merely in their own interest. The sentences handed down on 18 March 1899 were correspondingly harsh: five months for Sporcke, who also lost his position as forester; eight months for Willy Wilcke along with the loss of his title as court photographer; five months for Max Priester, who died at age 45 in an institution for the mentally ill. The 'evidence' disappeared into the Bismarcks' safe, "never to be turned over to the public," according to the express wish of the family. A clever photography assistant named Otto Reich, however, had already made a print, and from him Lovis H. Lorenz obtained possession of the picture, so declaimed, after the war. Lorenz in turn handed the photograph over to the Hamburg State Educational Institute, which kept the picture in their own collection. What had clearly caused a scandal in 1898 was hardly capable creating a public stir a decade after the Second World War. People had other concerns. Paradoxically, the picture of the dead chancellor helped to keep the otherwise distant and alien Bismarck alive, if not to bring him closer. The photograph proved: Bismarck, too, had died a completely normal, perhaps even trivial, death. A myth had become human.

"A picture that was supposed to be destroyed": Fritz Kempe's analysis of the photograph in ZEIT-magazin, 4.3.1973

Frankfurter Illustnerte, no. 50, 1952: the magazine was the first to publish the confiscated Bismarck photograph.


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