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Remembering Erich Lessing Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

8 September 2018

His father, a dentist, died of cancer when he was 10. When he was 16, he left his mother, a concert pianist (who remained behind with her own mother), for Haifa in Palestine to escape the Nazi annexation of Austria. Both his mother and grandmother perished in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz.

He survived in Palestine studying radio engineering and working as a taxi driver and carp breeder on a kibbutz.

But he had always been enamored of photography and he managed to sell photographs of kindergarten classes and families at the beach near Tel Aviv, as well as serve as a photographer and pilot with the British 6th Airborne Division.

'I take mankind seriously in all its aspirations and desires and in whatever arises therefrom in religious, spiritual, artistic and political aspects.'

Then, in 1947, a year before Palestine became Israel, he returned to Austria and was hired by the Associated Press. By 1951 he was invited to join Magnum, where he was a member until his death at the end of last month at the age of 95.

Why did he return to Austria?

"I wanted to show what life was like in the aftermath of the war," he said. "I wanted to tell the truth about the pain, death and destruction Europe was dealing with, as it tried to find a way out of the disaster."

And the story he told made him "a pre-eminent chronicler of the 20th century's second half," as the New York Times put it in his obituary.

Among his most well-known images is a photo of Swiss President Max Petitpierre greeting President Dwight D. Eisenhower in Geneva in 1955. Eisenhower is tipping his hat as a ray of sunlight illuminates him. Petitpierre's head, in contrast, falls in the shadow of Eisenhower's hat.

"I had my Leica and that was all," he remembered the shot taken among a crowd of photojournalists, all with new gear. "I looked at them all and thought, 'There is usually some hitch -- when their film is being moved along, that will be when there's an interesting picture to be taken.'"

His obituary at Magnum describes that part of his career:

In the course of his career, Erich Lessing covered many significant political and social events. His photographs illustrate the atmosphere of post-war Europe, such as Allied occupation in Vienna, reconstruction in war-damaged Germany, life under communist rule in Eastern Europe, several political summit conferences, Charles de Gaulle's visit to Algeria in 1958 and the dramatic events of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956.

"I observe the world through my eyes and not through the viewfinder of a camera," he once said. "I don't interpret, nor do I adjust anything in the dark room. I am a realistic photographer."

But in the 1960s, he turned to large-format color photography to reproduce thousands of art works in museums and visit historical and archeological sites. These images, which total over 40,000 transparencies, were published in over 60 art books.

"I take mankind seriously in all its aspirations and desires and in whatever arises therefrom in religious, spiritual, artistic and political aspects," he explained. "That was and still is, the starting point for my photographic themes."

Lessing's first wife, journalist Traudl Lessing, died in 2016. He is survived by three children, four grandchildren, a great-grandson and his wife, the psychotherapist Renée Kronfuss-Lessing.

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