Erich Lessing

Erich Lessing

  • Introduction

  • CV

  • Exhibitions

  • Publications

  • Links

Magnum photographer Erich Lessing – from documentarian to poetic storyteller

Erich Lessing made his name as a photo journalist with the Associated Press from 1947. Just three years later, in 1950, he was asked whether he would like to become a member of the renowned Magnum photo agency by David “Chim” Seymour, who founded the organisation together with Robert Capa, George Rodger and Henri Cartier-Bresson. This was a high accolade for a photo journalist at the time, just as it is today. Erich Lessing’s fame soon reached such heights that even politicians such as Konrad Adenauer were happy for him to shoot them.  The result was a series of pictures that have become deeply ingrained in our collective image memory. Lessing also became a central part of European remembrance through photographs such as “Berlin stays free,” taken in 1956, which captured the Berlin citizens’ quest for freedom inside the encircled city.
Lessing became famous for his photo journalism of the Hungarian uprising against the Soviet occupation in 1956, unforgettable images for which he was given the American Director’s Award. As a witness, he not only captured the mood in Eastern Europe as the Cold War came to an end, but also covered the major summits of the post war period, in which the foundations for the European Union were laid. His images have been published in important international magazines, including Paris Match, Life, Picture Post, EPOCA, and Quick.
The aim of Lessing’s work at this time was “to document,” and he considered himself a witness rather than a storyteller. His life took an unexpected route to photography, and his personal history might also explain his deep-rooted scepticism. Born in 1923 to a prominent Jewish family in Vienna, in 1939, at the age of just 16, he was forced to flee on a boat to Palestine, via Trieste. His family had to stay behind, and later died in the National Socialist concentration camps. In Palestine Lessing made his way as a radio technician, taxi-driver, and amateur photographer. During the Second World War he worked as a driver for the British Army and, then, became a photographer for them.
In the sixties he began to believe that photography might have the capacity to change things, to change the world, and began to experiment with different themes and formats: Colour photography, shot with a large-format camera, became his career, his culture, his art, and the music of his subjects, finding expression in more than 40 photo books. Like a painter, his attention was drawn to historical sites and structures such as the Roman Forum or the Hagia Sophia, and he used light, colour, and texture to convey the history of these remarkable places.

1923Born in Vienna, Austria
1939Moved to Palestine
Apprenticeship as Radiotechnician at Technion, Haifa, Israel
1947Return to Austria
Photoreporter Associated Press
Since 1951Member of the photographic corporation MAGNUM, Paris/New York
1973Appointed to professor by the austrian president Franz Jonas
Establishes the professorship for photography at the academy for arts, India
Lives in Vienna, Austria


Awards (Selection)

1997Big Austrian Stateprize, Austria
1992Silver Medal of the City Vienna, Austria
1992Imre Nagy Medal
1976Viennese Cultureprize, Austria
1970Dr. Karl Renner Prize, Austria
1966Prix Nadar for the book Die Odyssee, France
1956American Art Editors’ Award, USA


Exhibits (Selection)

2011Erich Lessing: Vintages & Modern Prints, Gallery Makartgasse, Vienna, Austria
2011Power of pictures, Parliament Vienna, Austria
2011Erich Lessing :The Making of Sound of Music, Kunstpavillon White Noise, Salzburg, Austria
2011Erich Lessing: Am Puls der Zeit, Citygallery Klagenfurt , Klagenfurt, Austria
2010Erich Lessing: CINEMA, Gallery Anika Handelt, Vienna, Austria
2009Herbert von Karajan, Leica Gallery, New York, USA
2009Europe: In-Between Document and Fiction, The National Centre of Dance, Bucharest, Romania
2008Erich Lessing: Unterwegs, Künstlerhaus, Vienna, Austria
2008Herbert von Karajan: Leica Galerie, Salzburg, Austria
2008Vintages, Galerie Fotohof, Salzburg, Austria
2007Arresting Time, Base sous marine, Bordeaux, France
2007Europe 50 years ago, Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs, Vienna, Austria
2007Reportage-Photographien 1948 - 1973, Gallery Momentum, Vienna, Austria
2006The Hungarian Revolution in 1956, Budapest Historical Museum, Budapest, Hungary
2005Free! Liberation and Sovereignty Austria 1945-1955, Hoover Institution, Stanford University, USA
2005Von der Befreiung zur Freiheit - Schwarzenberg Kazerne, Salzburg/Wals, Austria
2003People Known and Unknown - Photofusion Gallery, London, UK
2003Arresting Time - Dimbola Lodge Museum, Isle of Wight, UK
2003Photographien der 50er Jahre - Museum Modern Kunst, Passau, Germany
2002Erich Lessing Photography, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria
2000Erich Lessing: 50 anni di fotografia, Bologna, Italy
1999Erich Lessing - School of Art Gallery and Museum, University of Wales, Aberystwyth, UK


Books/Catalogs (Selection)

Joseph Haydn und seine Zeit in Bildern, Verlag der Metamorphosen, Österreich, 2009
Herbert von Karajan, Böhlau Verlag, Österreich, Verlag der Metamorphosen, Österreich, 2008
Revolution in Hungary, The 1956 Budapest Uprising, Thames & Hudson, USA, 2006
Von der Befreiung zur Freiheit, ein Photoalbum 1945-1960, Verlag der Metamorphosen, Österreich, 2005
Vom Festhalten der Zeit: Reportage-Fotografie 1948-1973, Christian Brandstätter, Österreich, 2002/2003
Florence and the Renaissance, Stewart, Tabori, & Chang, USA, 1997
Erich Lessing: Photographie. Die Erste 50 Jahre, Eigenverlag der Museen der Stadt Wien, Österreich, 1994/95
Geheimnisvolles Ägypten, Verlag Bechtermüntz, 1990
Die Italienische Renaissance, Bertelsmann, Deutschland, 1983
Die Odyssee, Herder Verlag, Deutschland, 1965/66
Die Szene, Staatsdruckerei, Österreich, 1956

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