The exhibition “From Konrad A. to Jackie O.” at the Willy-Brandt Haus in Berlin will show for the first time a cross section of the work of Magnum photographer Max Scheler. On display throughout June and July are 140 images that document the distinct view of this artist who preferred to stay in the background. From this intimate eye-level position, he witnessed his time and documented its events with impeccable framing and allure.
USA, 1963, Washington, John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy receive the Moroccan king Hassan II © Max Scheler Estate, Hamburg Germany
I remember Max Scheler with one of his beloved Davidoff cigarillos smoldering away nearby. He was an impressive character, with an elegant dryness that one would be tempted to account being Hamburgian, yet he was born a boy from Cologne. In his later years Max had dedicated his time entirely to taking care of the Herbert List estate – the iconic work of the photographer who shaped and mentored him. On one of my visits to the archives we went through folders and boxes of photographs and came so across prints of Max’ work for the first time, almost by accident. I had not been aware of his photography then, though i knew he had worked at Merian and founded the magazine GEO at Gruner & Jahr, introducing colour reportage to the wider audience.
I’ve talked with co-curator Olaf Richter, head of the estates of both Herbert List and Max Scheler about Max, his background and the relationship to Herbert List and the current exhibition
RENÉ HABERMACHER: How did this exhibition come together- and why right now?
PEER-OLAF RICHTER: The idea of this show was born in February 2003 – the month Max Scheler died. It took us about 6 years to finish this project. Why did it take so long? Max Scheler was humble if not neglecting his own work. He stopped working as a photographer in 1975 and since then had turned the tables. He rather worked to publish other photographers work, than his own.
I took quite a bit of effort to rediscover what was going on in his life as a photographer. The negatives from the late 50s until the mid 70s were in a rough chronological order, but before that, the first 8 years, were all over the place. For us the first period was especially interesting, because it told us something of where he was coming from. He learnt photography from another photographer: Herbert List.
Herbert List printed the images that he considered important. The Estate had a rich base of vintage prints that covered all the projects he worked on in his life time. These prints were frequently titled on the back. The main books on List that had been on the market had all been made with these prints as a basis.
For Max Scheler things are very different. There is not that much vintage material, and it is hard to say if these old images reflect his personal choice or some editors preference. So we went back to the negative and contacts and researched there. Unfortunately the negative have only a rough labelling, and therefore it took a lot longer to make a selection, research locations and titles.
Max would always put Herbert’s work ahead of his own – which was something that I never understood. Why this hesitation?
I guess he felt that his work of that period, was the work of a pupil, while the work of his teacher, was really what was worth remembering. It is interesting how close the two worked together. After an initial year or two as an assistant on the road and in the darkroom, Scheler started getting his own assignments, gained some respect, moved from Munich to Paris, met Robert Capa and even became a junior member of Magnum.
How did the relationship of the two evolve after the first meeting during war in Munich: personally and professionally? I am also asking that as I have a special interest in the idea of the “stimulating” mentor.
I guess stimulation needs at least to prerequisites. At first the receiver of the stimulus needs to be in a situation of wanting to open up, receive a certain change in her/his perception and possibly even her/his life. And the stimulus must also be desireable and fit the pattern of interest of the receiver. If the stimulus is too foreign or threatening it might be rejected. I think these things fell in place when Max Scheler met Herbert List.
He was very young then- it must have been the shaping experience…
Max and his mother left Cologne in 1941, when Max was 13 or 14 years of age. Around the same time List left Athens, because Germany invaded Greece. He had tried to immigrate to the USA but failed and had to return to Germany. Max was raised without a father, since he died the year Max was born. The sudden presence of a male person of authority in the life of Max and his mother was quite welcome. Not to be misunderstood all three of them were very liberal, unconventional and forward thinking persons. None of them wanted to construct a classical family. It was more the realisation of his mother that this very sophisticated photographer in his forties did spark some certain interest and outlook in the young max’ life, that she possibly could not, because the was too close. She of course realized that he was gay and therefore no husband material. But she might have also understood that the conventional reaction of a mother to not allow her son to have contact to a 25 years-older gay man, would have been rather short-sighted.
So through the turmoil of the war they kept close contact.
The stimulation we talked about earlier, that caused Max Scheler to learn a craft, languages and a certain ‘savoir vivre’ from Herbert List, developed through that time.
And I think that it was manyfold. I am not sure if photography was really the most potent influence here. And I am not sure what was going on between the two of them emotionally. Did they fall in love? That is speculation, but I guess it safe to say that a certain amount of love and trust is necessary to allow oneself to be stimulated.