Josef Breitenbach Biography

German photographer Josef Breitenbach was known for his experimental manipulated images and stark photographs. Raised with an intelligent respect for the history of art and culture, he worked with an attentive understanding and appreciation for a multitude of styles and artistic expressions. Breitenbach focused on form and abstraction as well as the sensual and psychological side of his subjects. In his work Breitenbach experimented with a number of techniques including bleaching, color printing, montage, solarization, and double exposure. He was most interested in using photography and color for their transformative and expressive potential. He refused to be bound by the traditional notions of what a photograph should be.

 Josef Breitenbach was born in Munich, Germany in 1896 and died in New York City 1984.  Breitenbach came from a middle-class wine merchant family of Jewish descent and came of age during the chaotic years of the First World War. He attended Ludwig-Maximillian University in Munich where he studied philosophy and art history from 1914 to 1917 and was a left wing political activist early in his career. Breitenbach was a self-taught photographer and made his first photographs in 1927 while traveling for the wine business. In 1932, after several unsuccessful years at the head of the family business, Breitenbach opened a photography studio where he photographed prominent actors, cabaret performers, writers, and political figures.

When Adolf Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, Breitenbach packed up his belongings and fled to Paris which is where he became familiar with the Surrealist movement. Although he did not identify himself as a Surrealist, his work was included in crucial Surrealist photography exhibitions alongside photographs by Man Ray and Henri Cartier-Bresson. After Paris Breitenbach immigrated to New York City in 1942. Observed by photographer, Walker Evans, Breitenbach’s work was published in Fortune. His first experience teaching was at Black Mountain College in 1944 when he was invited by Josef Albers. He then went on to teach at Cooper Union and the New School for Social Research.

Today, Josef Breitenbach’s photographs are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among others. Since his death, there have been twenty-six solo exhibitions of Breitenbach’s work and eight books have been published on his work, including two by Larissa Dryansky. The Josef Breitenbach archive is located at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, Tucson.