Both a distinguished photohistorian and photographer, Helmut Gernsheim was born in Munich, Germany, in 1913. He studied art history at the University of Munich, took up photography in 1934, and after two years' study at the State School of Photography in Munich took his final degree. His photographs were shown at the International Exhibition in Paris in 1937, the same year in which he immigrated to England. He settled in London and introduced his work to the public with an exhibition in Mayfair.
During World War II Gernsheim was the photographer for the Warburg Institute, London University, and he undertook a complete photographic survey of the most important buildings in the London area for the National Buildings Record. Exhibitions of his architectural and sculptural photographs were arranged at the Courtauld Institute of Art and at the Churchill Club. His photographs were included in propaganda exhibitions arranged by the British Council and the Ministry of Information, and they formed the largest single contribution in the National Buildings Record exhibition held at the National Gallery in 1944.
During the war Gernsheim married Alison Eames, who would play an important collaborative role in his forthcoming work in the history of photography until her death in 1969. At the war's end he met the American photohistorian Beaumont Newhall who fired Gernsheim's growing fascination with the history of the medium and urged him to begin collecting photographs.
During the next two decades Gernsheim built a private photohistorical collection that had no peer. Indeed, if his passion lay in photography and its history, then his brilliance lay in collecting. The same energy, organization, and discipline that underlay his scholarship also impelled the growth of his collection. Gernsheim's most significant acquisition was made through his re-discovery the world's first permanent photograph from nature, which was created by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826.
Gernsheim also produced a critical body of work encompassing over two dozen monographic publications, over 200 articles, and countless major exhibitions. Throughout this fruitful process of acquisition, research, and writing, Gernsheim helped to establish the foundation for the modern study of the history of photography.
With the sale of his collection to the Ransom Center in 1963, Helmut Gernsheim was able to restructure his time and efforts. In no sense, however, did he retire from the profession or his passionate advocacy of photography. From his home in Switzerland he continued to make active contributions to the literature, teaching, and critical influence of the many dimensions of photography. He died on July 20, 1995.
Selected Bibliography of Works by Helmut Gernsheim
New Photo Vision. London: Fountain Press, 1942.
Julia Margaret Cameron: Her Life and Photographic Work. London: The Fountain Press, 1948, Millerton, N.Y.: Aperture, 1975.
The Man Behind the Camera. Foreword by Rathbone Holme. London: The Fountain Press, 1948.
Focus on Architecture and Sculpture. London: Fountain Press, 1949.
Lewis Carroll, Photographer. London: Max Parrish, 1949, New York: Dover Publications, 1949. New York: Dover Publications, 1969.
Masterpieces of Victorian Photography. London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1951.
With Alison Gernsheim and Quentin Bell. Those Impossible English. London: G. Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1952.
With Alison Gernsheim. Roger Fenton, Photographer of the Crimean War: His Photographs and his Letters From The Crimea. London: Secker & Warburg, 1954.
With Alison Gernsheim. The History of Photography from the Earliest Use of the Camera Obscura in the Eleventh Century up to 1914. London, New York: Oxford University Press, 1955.
With Alison Gernsheim. L. J. M. Daguerre: The History of the Diorama and the Daguerreotype. London: Secker & Warburg, 1956. Rev. eds.: New York: Dover Publications, 1968 & 1969.
With Alison Gernsheim. Queen Victoria: A Biography in Word and Picture. London: Longmans, 1959.
Beautiful London. London: Phaidon Press, 1960.
With Alison Gernsheim. Historic Events 1839-1939. London: Longmans, 1960.
Creative Photography: Aesthetic Trends, 1839-1960. London: Faber and Faber, 1962, New York: Bonanza Books, 1962, New York: Dover Publications, 1991.
With Alison Gernsheim. Edward VII and Queen Alexandra: A Biography in Word and Picture. London: F. Muller, 1962.
With Alison Gernsheim. Creative Photography 1826 to the Present: An Exhibition from The Gernsheim Collection. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1963.
With Alison Gernsheim. A Concise History of Photography. London: Thames & Hudson, 1965, New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1965. Oslo : J. W. Cappelens, 1966. London: Thames and Hudson, 1971. Vienna: Fritz Molden, 1971, Lucerne, Switzerland: C. J. Bucher, 1975.
With Alison Gernsheim, eds. Alvin Langdon Coburn, Photographer: An Autobiography. New York: F. A. Praeger, 1966.
With Alison Gernsheim. The History of Photography from the Camera Obscura to the Beginning of the Modern Era. 2d rev. & enlgd. ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 1969. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969.
The Origins of Photography. Milan: Electa, 1981. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1982.
Geschichte der Photographie: die ersten hundert Jahre. Frankfurt am Main: Propylaen Verlag, 1983.
Incunabula of British Photographic Literature: A Bibliography of British Photographic Literature, 1839-75. London, Berkeley: Scolar Press in association with Derbyshire College of Higher Education, 1984.
A Concise History of Photography. New York: Dover Publications, 1986.
The Rise of Photography 1850-1880, The Age of Collodion. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1988.
Zeitgenössische Fotografie aus der Gernsheim-Sammlung. Contemporary Photography from the Gernsheim Collection. Hildesheim: Roemer-Museum, 1994.