Taking photographs of a star can be a tricky business, but it can also be a completely natural process. It depends who is shooting whom. The great German reportage photographer Robert Lebeck took portraits of many famous people from the fields of politics and culture. As far as we know, no-one has complained about these unique image. Quite the opposite, in fact. Alfred Hitchcock, for example, was more than happy to respond to Lebeck’s request that he “play a little”, by peering out from behind a cabin door in Hamburg as if he were a British spy. Romy Schneider, whose portrait Lebeck took many times, was photogenic in a way that her images themselves simply sparkled. And Herbert Karajan was so lost in his element that he appeared not to notice the click of the shutter.
The contact sheets that were prepared for the films to be viewed lay testament to the kind of externalities, and sometimes even uncertainties, that accompanied a portrait session. Not every shot came off, of course – that would be too much of a good thing. We look back at Robert Lebeck hard at work and we learn something about the art of taking portraits. Nothing could be forced, for example - it had to be elicited. The camera may take the shot, but it is the photographer who must engage the subject with a flirtatious gesture, a daring request, or a gratifying compliment. This takes more than a simple nod of the head. The connoisseurs and lovers of photographic paper will no doubt be pleased that we are presenting these original contact sheets on pure baryte paper that offers a broad and deep black and white spectrum.
Curious about the World
“I like when my photos are printed large, and only those who have something special to offer accomplish that.” Looking at the work of Robert Lebeck, it is easy to see how this interview statement about his own work, seemingly made only in passing, is in fact in no way an exaggeration. More to the point, it is here that the core of Lebeck’s oeuvre – those exception moments in photojournalism – distinguishes itself from the rest of German postwar photography. He has the critical standards to impart every single image with something unique. So it is no wonder that Lebeck traveled the world to photograph for Stern magazine for thirty years and became editor-in-chief of Geo magazine in the late 1970s.
For one, it is his sense for the timing of a perfect picture that differentiates Lebeck’s works from mere reportage. And Lebeck’s photographs always express the sense of having their own life, which invests them with an unerring presence. Lebeck did not merely document the distant and often exotic countries for Stern: he delved into them, into the scenarios that seem to arrange themselves serendipitously before his camera.
The everyday image of the Chinese farmers, for example, who transport their wares through the city of Suzchou along the 1,250-mile waterway, Lebeck enhances to an immediately emotional image; the fascination embodied in the picture is on first glance indescribable. It is not only the picturesque, seven-hundred-year-old bridges clouded in fog that lend the scene an unworldly beauty. Time and again the photographer arranges these singular moment in the field of tension between movement and statis, between nuanced color gradients and the grain of the film, and thus achieves a continuously individual impression in his work.
It is not only his intuition for the very distinct qualities of his motifs, however, that qualifies Lebeck as a master of his art. Lebeck does not only emerge retrospectively with his works as a chronicler of Germany’s mood. Particularly in his function as photo correspondent for Stern, Lebeck integrated his gaze, in addition to the object of his gaze, in his work. It is this specific viewpoint on the world and on his own history that enlivens Lebeck’s work. In the series Neugierig auf Welt (Curious about the World), collections of slides look as though they have been displayed on a light box – a concept developed by LUMAS in collaboration with the photographer, in essence allowing us to experience this unique quality.
The images thematically arranged according to Lebeck’s sometimes truly idiosyncratic ideas of the tensions between east and west – be it the two former halves of Germany or the USA and the former USSR – we are able to better understand what today so unmistakably enlivens the photographer’s works today: they breathe history. But both Lebeck’s artist portraits, which he often conceived in a specific constellation of artwork and portrait, as well as his tireless investigations of foreign cultures, in the arrangements of which we can clearly see the staging of the gaze, remind us that his perspective cannot simply be considered a political one.
Lebeck ended his career as a photo correspondent in the late 1990s and took on a new kind of photography, as evidenced in the series Preußisch Blau (Prussian Blue). With a Leica Digilux camera and the many possibilities of digital photography, Lebeck has made very idiosyncratic portraits of his hometown Berlin at twilight hours. Even at this level of abstraction, the photographer’s most inescapable and important characteristic shines through: a sense of timing for the perfect picture.
|1929||Born in Berlin, Germany|
|From 1952||Worked as a photojournalist at Stern among others|
|1960||Gained recognition for his photo of a young African man who stole King Baudoin’s sword during Congo’s independence celebrations|
|1977-1978||Editor in Chief of GEO magazine along with Klaus Harpprecht|
|2007||Received the Henri Nannen Prize for his life's work, Hamburg, Germany|
|2009||Comprehensive exhibition of his photographs at the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin|
|2014||Died in Berlin, Germany|
|2007||Henri-Nannen-Preis for his lifework|
|2010||Robert Lebeck - Fotografien, Focke- Museum, Bremen, Germany|
|2009||Robert Lebeck - Musik im Blut, Bode Galerie & Edition, Nuremberg, Germany|
|2008||Robert Lebeck. Fotografien 1955-2005, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, Germany|
|Robert Lebeck - Neugierig auf Welt, Bode Galerie & Edition, Nuremberg, Germany|
|2004||Unverschämtes Glück, Willy-Brandt-Haus, Berlin, Germany|
|2001||Kiosk. Eine Geschichte der Fotoreportage, Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany|
|1991||Robert Lebeck - Fotoreportagen, Perpignan, France|
|1983||Augenzeuge Robert Lebeck - 30 Jahre Zeitgeschichte, Kiel, Germany|
|1982||Sammlung R.L. - Fotografie des 19. Jahrhunderts, Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany|
|1961||Tokio-Moskau-Leopoldville, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg, Germany|
Gisela Kayser and Cordula Lebeck (Ed.): Robert Lebeck. Fotografien 1955–2005. Steidl Verlag, Göttingen 2008
Robert Lebeck: Neugierig auf Welt. Erinnerungen eines Fotoreporters. With Harald Willenbrock, Steidl Verlag, Göttingen 2004
Robert Lebeck: Unverschämtes Glück, Steidl Verlag, Göttingen 2004
Robert Lebeck: Vis à Vis, Steidl Verlag, Göttingen 2000
Robert Lebeck: Fotoreportagen, Steinorth von Cantz Verlag, Stuttgart 1993
Robert Lebeck: Begegnungen mit Großen der Zeit, Schaffhausen u.a., Ed. Stemmle 1987
Robert Lebeck: Romy Schneider, Schaffhausen u.a., Ed. Stemmle 1986
Robert Lebeck and Heinrich Jaenicke: Augenzeuge Robert Lebeck, 30 Jahre Zeitgeschichte, Bucher 1984
Robert Lebeck: Afrika im Jahre Null. Eine Kristall-Reportage, Hamburg, Hammerich & Lesser 1961