The Düsseldorf photographer (1934 – 2019) was counted among the most successful photographers of his day. Already at a young age, he was the recipient of a number of awards, and from the sixties onwards his work appeared everywhere in magazines, books and exhibitions. His direct imagery, his early use of colour and, later on, his Light Art projects were to ensure Baumann’s international acclaim. Yet, the Leica photographer is almost forgotten today; only connoisseurs of German photographic history recognise his name.
A major retrospective aims to dispel this ignorance: author and curator Hans-Michael Koetzle – renowned, not least, for his many monographs and the weighty coffee table book Eyes Wide Open!100 Years of Leica Photography – is now dedicating a major retrospective to Baumann’s work. We spoke with him about the experiences and discoveries he made.
You first become aware of Horst H. Baumann’s work while doing research for your twen exhibition. Correct?
Yes, Baumann was totally forgotten as a photographer. Then, I actually met him in November, 1994. He was living in humble circumstances in Düsseldorf; but he was in good spirits and remembered, twen, Willy Fleckhaus, and the beginning of his career, very well. Then there was a break, because other projects of mine got in the way. I renewed the contact again around 2015, and I went to see him every couple of months. The more I visited Baumann, and the more I saw his oeuvre, the more it became clear to me that his contribution to photography in the fifties and sixties deserved to be appreciated at the museum level. We began to discuss a concept, while he was still alive.
Was it immediately clear, after his death three years ago, that his estate would be going to ZEPHYR-Raum für Fotografie at the Reiss-Engelhorn Museum in Mannheim?
What does a family do with the estate of a photographer? Independent of Baumann, this is currently a very big topic. I was in touch with the Mannheim museum, concerning another project idea; they immediately recognised the quality of Baumann’s oeuvre and, in agreement with his daughter, Carolin Baumann, decided to secure the work and organise a retrospective in a timely manner. I have accompanied the handover, right from the beginning. I can still see myself standing in a Düsseldorf cellar, counting and labelling the boxes.
Which groups of work fascinate you most? Which have the greatest photo-historic value?
Without a doubt, his early black and white photography, which is close in spirit to Italian Neorealism. Next, his travel impressions from Spain, Italy, and the Soviet Union. Finally, the colour work – in particular, pictures from the world of Formula 1. I’m constantly surprised by the radicality of his photographic approach. Baumann was an “author photographer”, before the term was coined. He was a photography striker, who followed his own path right from the beginning, and combined a high degree of empathy and interest in social themes, with a decided pleasure for experimentation.
How was the photographer’s relationship to colour?
Horst H. Baumann’s role as a pioneer of artistic colour photography cannot be emphasised enough. He began experimenting with colour already back in the mid-fifties, immediately after the introduction of Agfacolor CN17. He applied blurs, daring angles, cropping, and bold perspectives. Remember, this was around two decades before the New Color movement – before Eggleston, Meyerowitz and Shore.
How did he get into Light Art, later on?
Baumann was an ardent admirer of Isaac Asimov, extremely tech-savvy and always searching. It was clear that, in the long run, photography would not be enough for him. Starting in 1970, his laser projects in public spaces – such as the one at documenta 6 in Kassel in 1977 – became his big thing.
How would you characterise Horst H. Baumann from your perspective?
His nature was self-confident, tending towards loud more than soft, and always in front. As far as his art is concerned, he took marked pleasure in experimenting; he was curious, and deliberately ignored rules. He wasn’t someone who wished for a little house with a garden, but rather someone who would prefer to pick up the phone and discuss laser projects with NASA. He really was an uncompromising loner – to the very end.
How did the title of the project come about?
I consider that Horst H. Baumann was, and is, a visionary in two senses. First of all, in his enthusiasm for technology. He really loved science fiction. Secondly, because of his courage to surpass formal aesthetic limitations. What’s more, in discussions with his contemporaries, the expression “Baumann the visionary” popped up, time and again.
Horst H. Baumann was born June 19, 1934 in Aachen. In 1954, he began studying metallurgy, before dropping out four years later to work as a full-time photographer. Numerous awards and publications; extensive travel; intensive experimentation with the possibilities of colour photography; participation in various exhibitions; and international successes. Laserscape Kassel – designed for the 6th Documenta Forum, and still showcased regularly to this day – marked a shift to Light and Laser Art. After a long illness, Baumann passed away in Düsseldorf on May 24, 2019.
The exhibition Apropos Visionär. Der Fotograf Horst H. Baumann (Speaking of Visionary: the Photographer Horst H. Baumann) will be on display from mid-January, 2023, in the Galerie ZEPHYR at the new Museum Peter & Traudl Engelhornhaus, Reiss-Engelhorn Museums, Mannheim. Around 600 pieces of his work will be presented in a 1000-square-metre space.
The accompanying book, with around 350 pages and 350 images, will be published by Steidl Verlag.
LFI 1/2023 is presenting a large portfolio of Baumann’s work.