Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

email signup Blog Video Facebook Twitter Instagram

Introduction to Helmut and Alison Gernsheim

Helmut and Alison Gernsheim

Helmut and Alison Gernsheim hanging an exhibition at Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan, 1963. Unidentified Photographer.

Listen Now

Share this with a friend

In this clip, Roy Flukinger describes how Helmut Gernsheim began collecting photographs after World War II, thanks to encouragement from American photo historian Beaumont Newhall.

ROY FLUKINGER: Well, to begin with, of Helmut and Alison [Gernsheim], Helmut was, of course, the driving force in this. He was the one who had the deepest passion, certainly. He had an interest in history from the beginning. He had a deep interest also in the arts very early on.

For a complicated number of reasons—primarily with the fact that this was Germany in the 1930s—he found he had to modify his academic plans somewhat. So, instead of becoming an art historian, he went to the Munich, or rather the Bavarian School of Photography and took their two-year program and became a photographer.

With that, he followed the career of photography and through an interesting story, ended up in London before the war and got out of Germany. From there, [he] considerably still wanted to do something with art, but at the same time, made his living essentially as a freelance photographer, especially a commercial photographer up until the war.

In 1939, when Britain went to war, he was considered an enemy—alien—and they shipped him off to a camp. Originally, he was going to be in Canada, but through another series of odd events, he ended up in Australia, where he and a number of other German nationals were interned.

When he went back to England in 1940 and proceeded to stay in London, he continued to work as a photographer for the government and in the course of that work, I think, really became fascinated with photography. More so than [with] his schoolwork. And after the war—or right at the end of the war, I should say—met the premier American photo historian, Beaumont Newhall. And Newhall came to visit them in London while he was there on an American mission for the United States Air Force, and through a series of discussions and everything, found out that Gernsheim shared his interest in photography and photo history.

Gernsheim, when Newhall was getting ready to leave, he and Alison purchased a series of stereoviews at an antique store and gave them to Newhall as a going-away present. And Newhall turned around and gave them right back to Gernsheim and said to him, "Start your collection with these. You're in a perfect position to do it. The war is winding down, everybody will be getting a new—all these older things will start to rise to the surface in England. Somebody needs to tell that story."

From then on, Helmut put on his coat, backed up and, I guess the first weekend of the new year in 1945, went out to the antique stores in London and started looking. And it became a serious passion for him at that point. One that Alison shared, supported, and encouraged him in.


Connect with the
Harry Ransom Center
Flickr YouTube RSS Tumblr Facebook Twitter