MAX SCHELER: from Konrad A. to Jackie O.

June 8th, 2011

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.

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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.

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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.

In that context – I am wondering what kind of surrounding Max was born into?
Max family background is rather interesting and must have been very intellectually stimulating. The father was next to Heidegger the most prominent German philosopher of his time. And I dare say with regards to his several marriages and scandalous affairs his outlook on life must have also been rather liberal. Also his mother was a very autonomous person. Raising a boy by yourself during the war was a destiny she shared with many women at that time, but to be the publisher of her husbands writings and lectures after his death, surely required some intellectual capacity and stamina.

So little Max already came with some added ballast weight, preparing him in a way for this relationship…
Well… I would not call it a burden, but it is interesting that he would choose an opposite lifestyle from his father. Being a straight man with several marriages, that opened his mind from a desk or auditorium in German midsize towns like Jena or Cologne, he would rather take after List, and go out and explore the world visually.

But then again his relentless work for the estate of his mentor in later year of his life is quite similar to the position his mother took with the writings of her husband.

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USA, 1961, Los Angeles, All around the country private fall out shelters are available, in case the A-bomb will be dropped.
Part of an extensive reportage on the defense of the USA in cold war times. © Max Scheler Estate, Hamburg Germany

In regards to that highly academic family background, one perhaps would consider Max’s path to see the world as a photographer as rather flamboyant….
To be honest I think Max was everything else but flamboyant… that adjective better describes Capote or Liberace. Max was almost conservative, classical italian in his choice of clothes, his furniture, slightly sportive with his cars — he owned several Porsche. And not least the motorcycle he was riding until his 70th birthday.

To what you said before regarding mentoring : I would say that tradition is being carried on in your “house” in one way or another  – Herbert – Max – Michael – and now you.
Yes…we are diverting.

So they had a concept of partnership or family in a very unconventional way. Max clearly passed this tradition on.  He invited us, Michael and me, to share a very open life with him. He enabled Michael and to a certain extent also me to study, and not least to travel, see the world, and get to know interesting people.

So let’s talk about carrying on the torch. Herbert List enabled Max to leave postwar germany and go and explore the world. Max lived in Paris and then Rome in his twenties – Rome was clearly the place to be in the mid-fifties. And he met a tons of interesting and important people.  So all this he kind of owes to List. The man who gave him a camera. And they were a family at times, and then at other time they did not see each other for a few months, since Max was in Africa or Asia on assignment, or Herbert made a book in the caribbean.

Herberts maintained many relationships to artists and celebrities of the time, which is evident in his work. What was the social surrounding of Max like?

Max had quite a few artist friends himself, some of them rather being pop culture – singer, actors. But he was not the one that the magazine sent to do in depth portraits of an artist with a difficult or complex attitude.

Politicians, Industrialists, Monarchy, — such things would be his beat. He had very good manners, was fluent in 5 languages and sophisticated and charming. That opened many doors.

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USA, 1964, Atlanta, Martin Luther King and his family on a sunday walk. © Max Scheler Estate, Hamburg Germany

To me it felt Herbert’s view was very driven by “sehnsucht”, a certain longing, while Max’s work stood as rather pragmatic, living through “zwischentoene” [nuances], maybe in that way recalling the metaphysic approach of his “mentor”?
It is very difficult to talk about their work from a biographical, psychological background. There is lots of room for speculation there.

I think the justified comparison between the two leads to the difference on how Herbert saw photography as a young man looking for an outlet of his creative energy and how Max might have seen it.

Herbert saw himself an amateur – not meaning dilletant with little knowledge of technique and such, but rather, that he refused to work on commercial assignments. After the war the situations changed for him, but at least that were his roots.

For Max photography was always a profession and he was a “gun for hire”. In terms of composition and atmosphere a lot of the early images of Max still relate to the style of List. He thinks in single shots, not in whole photo essays. After the initial 5 years in the business that changed. Like List in the mid 50s,  he switched from the Rolleiflex to the Leica, from single shots to story telling through a series of images.

List actually took his first 35mm pictures with Max’s camera. Max had a Leica first, List followed.

It is interesting to see how Herbert went into a different approach later on with work that goes more in the direction of reportage. As the special issues on Naples for DU magazine for example…
Herbert saw himself clearly as an artist. Even in his years he worked as a photographer for money, he always tried to maintain complete control over what he was doing. It was his vision and his idea and the camera was his tool. He therefore related to all artist on and eye to eye level.

I think the war and the horror surrounding it, really initiated a shift in Lists work and also gave a base to Max’ interest with the Camera. List was very much interested in photographing objects, architecture, still-lifes and landscapes in the 1930 and 40s. But he changed and started focussing on the human being. This shift to “human interest” was not a singular incident for the work of List, but happened all over. A rougher style of photography – out on the streets, in peoples life, focussing on their emotions – became popular. For List this was something that he added to his vocabulary, but for Max Scheler, this was always the main focus. He was a “died in the wool” human interest photographer.

What is the last thing that stimulated you?
I saw the movie IMPORT/EXPORT last night on Arte. That really moved but also disturbed me. It reminded me of photos of Antoine d’Agata. His book STIGMA is one of the best.

The exhibition “From Konrad A. to Jackie O.” runs to 31.07.2011 at the Willy-Brandt Haus in Berlin
Tuesday to Sunday 12.00-18.00, Willy-Brandt-Haus, Wilhelmstraße 140 / Stresemannstraße 28, 10963 Berlin-Kreuzberg


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