Alfred Ehrhardt (1901–1984) was a universally gifted artist. He was a trained organist and choirmaster, then a teacher of music and art at a progressive educational school, and finally an art educator and painter before becoming a photographer and cultural filmmaker.
After a stay at the Bauhaus in Dessau in the winter semester of 1928–29, where Josef Albers, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Oskar Schlemmer had a strong impact on him, he applied the concept of the Bauhaus preliminary course to his art classes with children and adolescents from first grade through high school. Based on this experimental experience, he was appointed to the Landeskunstschule Hamburg in 1930, where he established the first preliminary course in material studies outside the Bauhaus. After being dismissed from the university by the National Socialists in 1933 because of his modernist views on art, he turned to photography and film.
Alfred Ehrhardt is regarded as an outstanding representative of New Objectivity photography. With the publication of his more than twenty photo books, he is one of the most successful photographers among the former Bauhaus artists. His »absolutely artistic films« of challenging modernity, inspired by the avant-garde of the 1920s, place him in the ranks of past masters of cultural and documentary film. Alfred Ehrhardt is regarded as the »most important German post-war cultural film creator« and received numerous national and international awards for his more than fifty films, including four Bundesfilmpreis (Federal Republic of Germany Film Prize) awards.
Alfred Franz Adolf Ehrhardt was born on → March 5, 1901, in Triptis, Germany. His mother’s passion for the piano awakened her son’s interest in music. He attended the Volksschule Triptis, the Realschule Weida, and the Realgymnasium in Gera. Afterwards, he completed his studies in the organ in → 1921 at the Seminar Weissenfels.
From → 1922 to 1924 Ehrhardt taught voice at a school in Bergedorf, near Hamburg. He performed in organ concerts around northern Germany and began composing his own modernist music. He then began studying the visual arts on his own in Gera and Hamburg. In → 1924 he took up a position as a teacher for music, drawing, and gymnastics at the Landerziehungsheim Gandersheim, a progressive educational institution founded by the Reformed Jewish pedagogues Dr. Max Bondy and his wife, Mrs. Gertrud Bondy. At the same time, he continued to perform as an organist in concerts. Expressionist and New Objectivity influences can be seen in his paintings, drawings, and prints from that period. He spent → 1926–27 painting the crypt at the Lamspringe Klosterkirche with fourteen figurative, decorative wall and ceiling murals, which were damaged and painted over in white by the Nazis in 1938. Six of the ceiling murals have now been restored to their original state.
For the → 1928–29 winter semester Ehrhardt was sent to study and teach at the Bauhaus in Dessau. There he took the materials foundation class taught by Josef Albers and studied painting and graphics under Wassily Kandinsky, who appreciated Ehrhardt’s work and cultivated a friendship with him. He gave several lectures and worked in Oscar Schlemmer’s theatrical design department. It was during this time that he took up photography. When he left Dessau to return to his duties in Gandersheim, he began teaching his students Bauhaus foundational concepts about art. The Bauhaus influence manifested in Ehrhardt’s paintings and drawings. In → 1929 the Landerziehungsheim moved to Marienau-Dahlenburg, near Lüneburg.
In October → 1930 Max Sauerlandt asked him to teach at the Landeskunstschule Hamburg, where he was setting up a preliminary course focused on studying the various characteristics of materials. In February → 1931 the first exhibitions of Ehrhardt’s paintings, drawings, and prints (and the only one during his lifetime) took place at the Kunstverein Hamburg. His organ concerts at the Ferdinandstrasse Reformed Church attracted a great deal of interest. He married one of his students, Marie Burchard, whose mother was a member of the Warburg family. His book, Gestaltungslehre. Die Praxis eines zeitgemässen Kunst- und Werkunterrichts (Design theory: the practice of contemporary art instruction) was published in → 1932, and it became one of the most important works of the twentieth century in the history of reform pedagogy and art education. That same year his first son, Klaus Ludwig, was born.
In April → 1933 the Nazis fired Ehrhardt due to his modern approach to teaching. He was accepted to the Reichskammer der bildenden Künste. At the end of the year Ehrhardt and his wife divorced, and she immigrated to Australia in 1938 with their son. From December 1933 to the end of November 1936 he was the organist and cantor at St. Gertrud’s Church in Cuxhaven-Döse. It was during this period that he took his first photography excursions to the tidelands between the islands of Scharhörn and Neuwerk. He used a medium-format camera with a 6-x-9-cm celluloid negative.
The Curonian Spit
In the summer of → 1934 he took another photography excursion to the Curonian Spit. Ehrhardt was called to the Askov Højskole (Askov Folk High School) in south Jutland, Denmark, for the winter semester of 1934–35, and he took a sabbatical for this period. He sold his photographs to newspapers and magazines, such as Atlantis (→ 1935 onward), and later to the Westermanns Monatsheften and Volk und Welt. The Hamburger Kunstgewerbeverein organized his first photography exhibition, featuring more than one hundred of his tideland pictures, at the Haus am Zoo in May → 1936. The show traveled to several German cities, and the State of Hamburg acquired some of the photos. He also took part in the Deutschland exhibition in Berlin. That summer, Ehrhardt met his future wife, Lieselotte Dannmeyer, on the island of Neuwerk. In March → 1937 the Wind und Sand exhibition opened at the Hamburg Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, featuring the photographs from the Curonian Spit. It also traveled through Germany.
Beginnings in Film
His first volume of pictures, Das Watt (The tidelands), was published, and he began working on his first film in the tidelands outside of Cuxhaven. Besides his work behind the film camera, Ehrhardt continued to take photographs. In → 1938 he married Lieselotte Dannmeyer, and their honeymoon became a two-month film and photography excursion to Iceland. That year he took his first pictures of the shells of mussels and snails. Until → 1939 his photographs were shown in London, Paris, Stockholm, and Copenhagen. By the end of the war, he had published thirteen books of photographs, including Island and Kristalle (Iceland, Crystals; both 1939) and Muscheln und Schnecken (Mussels and snails, 1941), as well as multiple articles with his photographs. Parallel to his exhibitions, he presented full-length slide shows and lectures. His first film, Urkräfte am Werk (Original forces at work; lost), about the tidelands, was acquired by the American film company Paramount and presented on March 26 at the Waterloo Theater in Hamburg.
1939 to 1945
In → 1940 Ehrhardt journeyed through Flanders, where he took photographs for a book that was published three years later, Ewiges Flandern (Eternal Flanders), and made the cultural documentaries Leinen aus Kortryk (Linen from Kortryk) and Flanderns germanisches Gesicht (Flanders’ Germanic face), released in → 1941. He also finished a film about an expedition to Iceland, Nordische Urwelt (Nordic primeval world), distributed by Tobis Filmkunst. In → 1942 he was commissioned by the German Cultural Film Office to start filming the film Deutsche Kultur in Böhmen und Mähren (German culture in Bohemia and Moravia), which was never completed. His home in Hamburg was destroyed during aerial bombardments, but his photographs escaped destruction. Georg Hartmann, the owner of the Bauerscher Giesserei in Frankfurt am Main, allowed Ehrhardt to use his country house in Burgjoss, Spessart, where the family moved just a few weeks after the birth of a son, Jens; they remained there until their home in Hamburg was rebuilt in 1947. He documented Hartmann’s extensive collection of sculptures with his camera (Alte Kunst, lebendig [Old art, living] and Gotische Gesichter [Gothic faces]). Thanks to a doctor’s certificate, he was able to avoid the draft twice, in 1942 and 1944. Commissioned by the local Bund tätiger Altstadtfreunde (Alliance of active friends of the old city) in → 1943, Ehrhardt photographed the old historical section of Frankfurt just before it was destroyed in aerial bombardments for a book titled Alt-Frankfurt (Old Frankfurt), which was published in 1950.
Eleventh Venice Biennale
In → 1947 he released Zwischen Schlei und Eidermündung. Eine alte Welthandelsstrasse des Nordens (Between Schlei and Eidermündung: An old global trade route). After returning home to Hamburg in → 1948 he founded his own film production company, Alfred Ehrhardt Film. With a license from the British occupation authorities, he produced his first postwar film, Ad Dei Honorem. Hans Brüggemanns Bordesholmer Passionsaltar von 1521 im Dom zu Schleswig (Ad Dei Honorem:Hans Brüggemann’sPassion altar from 1521 in Schleswig Cathedral), which was shown at the ninth Venice International Film Festival in → 1949 and, despite the many reservations abroad about German films, was a great success. The two-part film Ernst Barlach at the eleventh Venice Biennial in → 1950, and the first part, Der Kämpfer (The combatant) received first prize. He also received his first Bundesfilmpreis (Federal Republic of Germany Film Prize) for part one.
His fifteen-minute-long film Spiel der Spiralen. Von der Architektur der Meeresschnecken (Game of spirals: on the architecture of sea snails) was awarded the Bundesfilmpreis and named the »most valuable cultural film« in → 1952. That same year the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce commissioned industrial photographs for the publication of Hamburg als Industrieplatz (Hamburg as industrial site). In Portugal Ehrhardt shot the full-length documentaries Portugal, unbekanntes Land am Meer (Portugal, unknown country on the sea), and the short Das steinerne Antlitz. Portugals. Architektur einer grossen Vergangenheit (The stony face: Portugal’s great historical architecture). Both received a »highly recommended« seal from the German Filmbewertungsstelle (film rating office). In → 1954 Ehrhardt produced the full-length documentary Schicksal und Vermächtnis. Soldatengräber vom Nordkap bis Nordafrika (Fate and legacy: Soldiers’ graves from the North Cape to North Africa), commissioned by the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge (the German war graves commission); this film also won a Bundesfilmpreis. In → 1955 Ehrhardt was awarded another prize from the Federal Republic of Germany, the Bundesfilmprämie, for his feature-length art film Begnadete Hände. Tilman Riemenschneider. Seine Zeit. Sein Leben. Seine Werke (Exceptionally gifted hands: Tilman Reimenschneider: His time, his life, his work). Commissioned by the Hamburg-based company Reemtsma Hamburg, Ehrhardt documented tobacco production in Greece, Turkey, the United States, and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in a film called Die Welt des Tabaks. Kunst und Technik der Cigarettenherstellung (The world of tobacco: The art and technology of making cigarettes). Parallel to his film productions, Ehrhardt continued to take photographs; in some cases this resulted in published books.
In → 1956 his innovative short film Tanz der Muscheln (Dance of the mussels), with electronic sounds by Wilhelm Keller and Bernhard Aign, was awarded the Diploma of Merit at the tenth Edinburgh International Film Festival; three years later, at the University of Rome’s fourth Rassegna del Film Scientifico, it won the Targa d’oro. From → 1958 to 1961 he finished five color films about Portugal, all devoted to traditional Portuguese industries: cork manufacturing, fishing, and making port wine. The founder of the documenta, Arnold Bode, acted as advisor for his films about the documenta II, Kunst unserer Zeit I (Skulptur) (Art of our time [sculpture]) in → 1959 and Kunst unserer Zeit II (Malerei) (Art of our time II [painting]) in → 1960. That was also the first year in which he worked with Oskar Sala, who recorded his electronic composition for the sculpture section using a trautonium (a monophonic electronic musical instrument) he developed himself, known as the Mixtur-Trautonium. Other trips to Iceland, as well as his first journey to Greenland, also took place during this period of time. In → 1962 Ehrhardt made five films about Iceland, including Gletscher und ihre Ströme. Impressionen aus der Urlandschaft Islands (Glaciers and their streams: Impressions from Iceland’s primeval landscape), with his son Jens assisting; two films about Greenland were also shot. In → 1964 he produced the experimental film Korallen – Skulpturen der Meere (Corals: sculptures of the seas), again with an electronic soundtrack by Oskar Sala.
Two productions for ZDF television, one about the bronze door and the other about the Bernward Column in Hildesheim, followed. 1967 saw the release of his book Die Bronzesäule des Bernward von Hildesheim (The bronze column of Bernward of Hildesheim). In → 1965 Alfred Ehrhardt produced another two films about Portugal, Im Wald der roten Bäume. Korkernte in Portugal (In the forest of the red trees: Harvesting cork in Portugal) and Das Boot von Torreira (The boat of Torreira), which won—among other prizes—the → 1966 Prix de qualité from the Centre National de la Cinématographie, France’s highest film award. Ehrhardt’s book Das Watt (The tidelands) was reissued under the title Das Wattenmeer. Formen und Strukturen (The Wadden Sea: forms and structures) in → 1967, while Muscheln und Schnecken (Mussels and snails) was rereleased under the title Geprägte Form (Shaping form) in → 1968. For both publications he made new prints measuring thirty by twenty-four centimeters. Ehrhardt was again commissioned by ZDF in 1968 to make the film Norddeutsche Barockorgeln (Baroque organs of northern German), and again, in → 1969, for Der Komponist und seine Landschaft. Edvard Grieg und Norwegen (The composer and his landscape: Edvard Grieg and Norway), and yet again in → 1970 for Süddeutsche Barockorgeln (Baroque organs of southern Germany). He made his last cultural film in 1973, Masken und Figuren. Schwarzafrikas kostbares Gut (Masks and figures: Black Africa’s precious possessions). In → 1979 he was unanimously elected an honorary member of the Bundesverband deutscher Film- und AV-Produzenten (Federal association of German film and audiovisual producers).
In → 1980 an encounter with the collector couple Ann and Jürgen Wilde marked the beginning of the rediscovery of his early photographic work. In → 1981 Ehrhardt had a solo show featuring the shell photographs at the Galerie Wilde in Cologne, which also released a portfolio of twelve signed photographs titled Muscheln und Schnecken (Mussels and snails). This was followed by the exhibition Bilder vom Norddeutschen Wattenmeer (Pictures of the Wadden Sea in Northern Germany) in → 1982, which presented his tidelands photographs from the 1930s. In → 1983 Ehrhardt’s photographs were represented in the extensive Bauhausfotografie (Bauhaus photography) show at the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (Institute for foreign relations) in Stuttgart. Since then, his photography has gradually been rediscovered.
Alfred Ehrhardt died on → May 29, 1984 in his home at Köppenstraße 38 in Hamburg.