PAUL CUMMINGS: It's August 12, 1971 - Paul Cummings talking to Hans Namuth in his studio in New York City. You were born in Germany - right?
HANS NAMUTH: Right.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Could you tell me something about life there and growing up
and education and how you got started? You were born in - what? - 1915?
HANS NAMUTH: Yes. I grew up during the war years and inflation. I have memories
of the French Occupation and shooting in the streets. The French occupied Essen.
We had a French
deserter living with us who taught me my first French. I went to the equivalent
of a gymnasium, Humboldt Oberrealschule in Essen, hating school, loathing school.
I would say it was a prison. Eventually I started to work in a bookshop in Essen
at the age of seventeen and became very affiliated with Leftist groups in 1932
when everything was brewing and for a moment we didn't know whether they were
going to go all the way Left or all the way Right. I think the Communist and
the Socialist Parties at the time lost a big chance of gaining power in Germany
by not uniting in 1931-1932.
PAUL CUMMINGS: That's interesting. That seems to be quite a common feeling,
because I've talked to other people who grew up in Germany around that period
and they said pretty much the same thing.
HANS NAMUTH: Yes.
PAUL CUMMINGS: People who seem to have the same type of sensibility.
HANS NAMUTH: Things were a little bit different for me because my father joined
the Nazi Party in 1931 after a bad Liberal life, I mean life as a Liberal. He
suddenly became disillusioned about the economic decline he found himself in
and joined the S.A., Storm Troopers, Brown Shirts, and became some kind of district
leader in it. Which brought us only further apart.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Before we get really this far, what did you do in school? Did
you have brothers and sisters?
HANS NAMUTH: I have a sister who is younger than I. She lives in Canada. What
did I do in school?
PAUL CUMMINGS: Did you have any particular pursuits, or things that you liked
HANS NAMUTH: No. I should mention the fact that the thing that marked me most
for life was the German Youth Movement which I found myself drawn into. This
was a very Liberal and, as it turned out later on, anti-Nazi movement which
could almost be compared to today's Hippiemovement and the communes and the
return to earth and back to nature kind of thing. We went out every weekend
and every vacation. We discovered the countries. We traveled all over the place
hiking a great deal. Once a week we'd meet at various spiritual meetings for
singing and so forth. This kind of thing. I joined this movement when I was
twelve and stayed with it for three or four years.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Was there an interest in your home in literature or music or
art, things like that?
HANS NAMUTH: Yes. My mother was very much responsible for pushing me into musical
activities, art, and so forth. I must point out that Essen had already then
a very important museum, the Folkwang Museum and the Folkwang school. The museum
had an extraordinarily good collection of German Expressionists and French Impressionists,
all of which were banned later on. I became thoroughly familiar with art before
I reached the age of seventeen, with contemporary art, I should say - Klee,
Cezanne, Max Liebermann. I got all my artistic background actually away from
school that way. I joined evening classes at the Folkwang Museum. I took trips
on weekends to visit the Baroque churches of Westphalia. I became politically
more and more active, especially when on January 33, 1933, Hitler was elected
to power. I'll never forget the night this happened. I listened to the news
on my radio, a crystal type radio with earphones which I had built myself. Von
Papen had appointed Hitler to become chancellor. This was the most horrible
event of my youth because I realized then that eventually this would mean war.
And I had been a pacifist for the previous two years of my life. Shortly afterwards,
in July of that year, I was arrested for political activities and spent some
days in this terrible prison in Brettinghausen near Essen. I got out thanks
to my father's intervention. And after I was out I set everything in motion
to get out of Germany.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Were you still working in the bookstore?
HANS NAMUTH: Yes, I was working in the bookstore.
PAUL CUMMINGS: That lasted for . . . ?
HANS NAMUTH: That lasted almost until I was ready to leave. Which I did in
September. I left Essen and Germany and father and mother and everything on
September 20, 1933. I was eighteen years old.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Did your parents know about your leaving?
HANS NAMUTH: I made it appear to be a temporary exile. I said that I would
be back very soon. Which, of course, I had no intention of doing. But this made
the departure easier for them. I never went back.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Working in a bookstore you must have had all kinds of availability
for information and everything?
HANS NAMUTH: Oh, of course; all vibrations, cultural, political, human, started
there and were centered there. This really brought me into close contact with
PAUL CUMMINGS: Where did you go? Did you know where you were going when you
HANS NAMUTH: Yes. I went straight to Paris. That was the only place to go.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Was there a reason to go there other than to . . . ?
HANS NAMUTH: Well, the reason was that I knew somebody who was going there
also. We more or less went together, and for the first few weeks and for the
first two weeks or so shared a room together in Paris. He was somebody who had
already been there before, so it was easier for me to get acquainted with Paris
and, most of all, find a way of making a living. That was the most difficult
PAUL CUMMINGS: What could you do in Paris at that age in the thirties?
HANS NAMUTH: The first thing I did was to sell newspapers in the streets, the
Paris Soir. Actually, that went very well, except that I was scared of
the police because I was not allowed to work. I had a four weeks' visitor's
visa when I arrived and intended to stay with that. And did for years. The French
police were very tough, very tough.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Well, weren't you checked? Did you have to register?
HANS NAMUTH: I had to report to the police and I was eventually recognized
as a refugee. But it was very difficult to be under a constant threat of expulsion.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Did you get to know other people in Paris who were coming there
from Germany or Austria?
HANS NAMUTH: Oh, yes. In fact, I was helped with some committees with assistance
and advice and help with my papers, restaurant coupons, lunches and things like
that. Eventually I met all the Liberals of that time, including a writer who
became a very good friend, Rudolph Leonhardt, who recently died in Berlin. Slowly,
gropingly, I started on my way up from newspaper boy to plongeur (which is a
dishwasher), to researcher, secretary, and a few months in the Pyrenees on a
Quaker farm, an experimental farm.
PAUL CUMMINGS: How in the world did you get involved with that? That's kind
HANS NAMUTH: It had to do with an unhappy love affair. I was in love with a
girl who left Paris for what is now Israel, then Palestine. For me then Paris
had lost all its meaning and attraction. I went to join the people on the farm.
Eventually I couldn't stand it any longer, and I up and left to join this girl
in Palestine. I never reached her in Palestine. But I went all the way through
Italy and landed in Greece in 1935 where I learned that the girl had gotten
married to somebody else. Thereupon I joined a friend who in the meantime had
become a photographer and had asked me to join him in an enterprise in Mallorca.
I left Greece for Spain in July or August 1935. We had a photographic studio
in Puerto de Pollensa on Mallorca. We photographed people and did what was for
that time some very excellent portraiture work.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Was this your first involvement with photography?
HANS NAMUTH: This was my first involvement.
PAUL CUMMINGS: That was the beginning of it?
HANS NAMUTH: Yes.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Well, had you had interest in anything specific before that?
Or were you just trying out these things?
HANS NAMUTH: My dream had been to become a director in the theater, which I
think if Hitler had not come to power I would have taken that direction. Photography
is very close to that in a way because you direct people when you photograph
them. And this was sort of my sublimation.
PAUL CUMMINGS: I'm always curious about so many who have directorial interests
who have ended up involved in photography and various aspects of the arts.
HANS NAMUTH: Yes. I'm often asked whether I had ever wanted to become a painter.
The answer is no, I never wanted to become a painter. I did want to become a
PAUL CUMMINGS: Had you gone to a lot of theater?
HANS NAMUTH: Oh, yes! God, yes! Germany had an excellent theater and probably
still does because it's Subsidized by both state and city governments.
PAUL CUMMINGS: That's very interesting. How long did you stay then in Mallorca?
HANS NAMUTH: Until the season ended, which was in late October. We went back
to Paris and continued to work as a team in Ivry-sur-Seine which, you know,
is in the outskirts of Paris.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Who was this other person?
HANS NAMUTH: George Reichner. He was my age. We were very, very good friends.
He died in 1940 in Marseilles, a suicide. He couldn't take it any longer.
PAUL CUMMINGS: But that really developed your interest in getting back to Paris
and working. What did you do there? The same kind of photography?
HANS NAMUTH: Reportage, mostly, portraiture. Those were the days I think when
Life magazine was founded, just barely founded, and the great French magazine
Vu (V-u), which was I think the forerunner of Life, only better;
the great Monsieur Vorgere who later on came to New York and died here. In late
June 1936 we went back to Mallorca, back to Puerto de Pollensa, back to the
same house and installed ourselves. We had an assignment for Vu to photograph
the events of the Olympics in Barcelona, which was like a counter Olympics to
the Munich Olympics, the German Olympics - no, they were held in Nuremberg,
I believe - I've forgotten where they were held. It was sort of the free countries
of the world assembled in Barcelona, and they tried to attract Socialist countries
like Czechoslovakia, Poland, even the Scandinavian countries. The French sent
a team. Then on July 18, 1936, Franco, as you know, crossed the Straits of Gibraltar
and landed in Spain and started the Civil War. Only it did not take the course
he had planned. Half of Spain was immediately fighting back the Franco forces.
And so was Barcelona; after a short period of fighting Barcelona became Republican.
As did all the south of Spain - Valencia, Madrid, Malaga. All the northern part,
with the exception of the Asturias, remained in the hands of Franco. And so
all of a sudden we found ourselves in the midst of a civil war as photographers.
Which was a fantastic event and, in a way, a great journalistic chance to show
our alertness. I remember I woke up in the pensione where we were staying to
sounds of what I thought were fireworks. I thought the festive event had started.
Instead it was machine gun fire. I looked out the window and there was a cannon
in front of my window and shooting away. So we took our . . . I can show you
some of the pictures that I've saved from that time.
PAUL CUMMINGS: How long were you in Spain then?
HANS NAMUTH: Of course we lost everything we had left behind in Puerto de Pollensa,
because Mallorca was overrun by the Franco forces. We stayed almost a year in
PAUL CUMMINGS: Were you sending things back?
HANS NAMUTH: We sent things to Paris. We had an agent there who distributed
them. We had things published all over the world. Let me see, I left in March
1937 and went back to Paris. Things became very sticky in Spain because slowly
the Communist Party took over. Russia was the only power that actively helped
Spain. All the other countries united in the non-aggression, non-intervention
agreements that Leonard Blum had so foolishly advocated then. It became very
difficult for us not to join the Communist Party. We felt no inclination to
do so, especially in light of the Moscow trials which were at their height in
those days, 1936. You may remember Radek and everybody else was put on trial.
Koestler's famous book Darkness at Noon, surely you remember, gives you
an idea of what we knew and learned about. Although we felt very much in sympathy
with all of the Leftist causes, we just couldn't think of giving active support.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Did you feel a great deal of pressure from the government or
the people to . . . ?
HANS NAMUTH: Yes. Very much so. Very much so.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Do you think more so because you were photographers than they
would normally do, or not?
HANS NAMUTH: Well, one . . .
PAUL CUMMINGS: Because you were doing things that went out all into the world?
HANS NAMUTH: Yes, of course, we were kept under very strict surveillance. Our
sympathies lay with the Spanish Republican cause, and we had a very good reputation.
We were not harassed by the government. But actually we were harassed by the
Russians. I was arrested at one point, and Louis Fischer, the American, saved
PAUL CUMMINGS: Oh, really!
HANS NAMUTH: In fact, I think he writes about this episode in Men and Politics
at one point in his memoirs. We were standing with him and a group of correspondents
near the front lines in Madrid. The first Russian tanks had arrived, which was
a marvelous event because, you know, at last they were able to fight back. And
we with our cameras became under suspicion to have photographed the tanks; I
was - not George. The Russian commander wanted me to climb into his tank and
be carried off to some distance. I refused to do so. Since he didn't speak any
French or German or Spanish, Louis Fischer, who happened to be around, interpreted
and prevented him from carrying me off, and suggested finally that I turn over
my film. Which I did; I emptied my camera and handed him the film and that was
the end of it. Harassment of this kind became more frequent. In fact, my friend
George spent a few days in the famous jail in Barcelona. When he was freed he
decided to quit. Much to my regret. My whole heart was in this fight, and I
had a horror of going back to the indifference of the Western world. When I
returned to Paris I just couldn't understand how indifferent everybody was to
what was going on.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Really! I always got the feeling that many people were involved.
HANS NAMUTH: People; yes; but not nations. And not even the majority of people.
Intellectuals were involved. But the whole French press without exception was
. . .
PAUL CUMMINGS: Why do you think it was so important to the intellectuals and
not so much to other types of people?
HANS NAMUTH: Because that movement was being played. They were the ones who
foresaw the events to come. You know, like in other periods of history, the
artists and the intellectuals sense more of what the events of the day prepare.
PAUL CUMMINGS: What did you do then on returning to Paris?
HANS NAMUTH: We continued photography. In 1938 the World's Fair took place
in Paris and that opened up, as far as work was concerned, a great number of
opportunities for us and we did very well as a team again. Also we became more
known. We had made a reputation during the Spanish Civil War.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Were you specializing at that point in any kind of work?
HANS NAMUTH: Reportage. Just journalistic work.
PAUL CUMMINGS: That was it. Well, in doing that and being involved with all
kinds of people, did you develop associations in the intellectual world? Or
did that shift because of your activities?
HANS NAMUTH: You mean my relation to art and artists?
PAUL CUMMINGS: Well, I mean writers and people like that.
HANS NAMUTH: Yes. Since I was always associated with the Leftist cause, obviously
I was very much involved with the intellectual movement of the time. I think
we should come to...
[break in taping]
PAUL CUMMINGS: You were talking about the World's Fair in Paris?
HANS NAMUTH: Oh, yes, that and various other things. I remember we photographed
Titulescu, the Romanian statesman who was in Paris at that time. And we interviewed
photographically as well as in writing the President of Catalonia, Cavallero,
who was later on killed by the Germans. We had, I think, a fairly good business.
But there was always Spain, and the Spanish Civil War continued. It ended in
1939, that same year that World War II began. The Civil War ended in March and
World War II broke out in September. So the outbreak of the World War found
us in Paris. I was then, as I was in 1933, a German refugee as far as the French
authorities were concerned. I still had my papers not in order and was always
reporting once a month to the prefecture to get my blue stamp and so forth.
So when war broke out against Germany we were asked to let ourselves be interned
by the French authorities. The notice was published in the newspapers that we
were all to report at such ands such a time to the sports stadium of Paris.
I was one of the last ones to go. I realized that if I tried to stay away that
sooner or later I would get caught. And then one of my most miserable periods
of my stay in France began with this humiliating experience of being interned
by the country that we were willing to serve and to help in the fight against
Hitler. It was really miserable.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Where did they put you?
HANS NAMUTH: Well, first for days on end we were under the stars in the open
in the big sports arena.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Oh, they just kept you there?
HANS NAMUTH: Yes; until finally they transported us to Brioc in the center
of France where we interned again in a circus, in a tent, for a period of time.
And then eventually we were sent to a village called Villeurbanne - I mean my
group was - and this turned out to be one of the better camps, concentration
camps, I should say, around. We had relative freedom to walk about during the
day and play chess; that is actually all we did. Fortunately I had a passion
for chess playing.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Were there many people in your group?
HANS NAMUTH: In this particular village we were about three hundred; we were
about ten groups of thirty each distributed over various barns and cow stables.
PAUL CUMMINGS: So it was really quite primitive.
HANS NAMUTH: It was very primitive. Very much so, yes. And if we had decided
to escape nothing would have been easier because there were hardly any guards
around. Foolishly enough, nobody ever thought of escaping.
PAUL CUMMINGS: That's extraordinary. Well, you had no communication with anybody
or anything, then, did you?
HANS NAMUTH: Well, we received mail. And actually some of my French friends
visited me there. They came from Paris and spent a day. And those are the people
who reestablished my faith in France. There is always the official France and
then the other. Eventually a friend of mine and I decided to volunteer for the
Vin d'Anges, the picking of grapes. France was short of manpower. They had all
gone to the Maginot Line and there weren't enough people around to gather the
grape harvest. We spent three very tough and wonderful weeks working in the
fields with a Loire wine farmer of the most wonderful class. The days in the
fields and the nights and the winepress are unforgettable. Once a week we had
a day off and were able to roam around freely and go and have a marvelous meal
in a restaurant and so forth.
PAUL CUMMINGS: But you didn't have any identification on you that you were
. . . ?
HANS NAMUTH: No, we were treated as prisoners. However, when this was over
we had to go back to Villeurbanne, back to camp. About this time the French
Government had changed the law that permitted us finally to join the French
Army, the ones who wanted to. And I was one of those. We were able to sign up
in the French Foreign Legion, not for five years as had previously been the
case, but for the duration of the war. Which, of course, could have meant thirty
years. In December 1939 I became a French Legionnaire. I received my basic training
in Morocco - incidentally, I love Morocco, it's a beautiful, beautiful country.
Eventually we were off to Tunisia to fight the Italians who had just declared
war ten days before the war ended. Before we even got a chance to even get near
Tunisia the war had ended. In May 1940 the Armistice was declared leaving us
as German refugees in a very strange situation. Half of France was occupied.
Morocco under General Nogues almost went over to the Allies but then switched
to Petain, to Vichy. I October 1940 It managed finally to be demobilized thanks
to the fact that I was only engaged for the duration of the war. I went back
to Marseilles as a civilian, stateless, with no papers except a French military
passport which helped me in many situations. And eventually thanks to friends
and an American committee under Varian Fry - you may have heard of him?
PAUL CUMMINGS: Oh, yes.
HANS NAMUTH: . . . and a very dear friend back in New York, Sam Barlow, who
had intervened on my behalf with the State Department, I got an American visa,
a so-called danger visa.
PAUL CUMMINGS: What kind of papers would you get - French documents?
HANS NAMUTH: No. I had an American visa in lieu of a passport with which I
was able to travel.
PAUL CUMMINGS: So you got papers in order to get to this country then from
HANS NAMUTH: Yes.
PAUL CUMMINGS: How did you get here?
HANS NAMUTH: Well, again of course that was a very serious problem. I could
not see myself going through Spain where I had been fighting Franco, and then
go back into this Gestapo- infested country and risking arrest. On the other
hand, I also risked arrest right there in Marseilles because the French had
signed an armistice which included a paragraph in which the French agreed to
surrender any German national who was named by the German authorities to them
in order to be arrested. And several people were picked up and turned over to
the Germans. By the way, Varian Fry's book has the title Surrender on Demand,
which is a quote actually from this paragraph of the armistice agreement. The
Gestapo was very active right in Aix-en-Provence, which is very near Marseilles.
It was very, very sticky. So in February 1941 the chance came to leave Marseilles
by boat, which was ultimately going to Martinique to serve Fort-de-France in
Martinique. And from Martinique I made my way to the Virgin Islands where I
was interviewed by the governor.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Oh, really?
HANS NAMUTH: I was such a strange animal. I was German and yet I had no passport;
I was traveling on an American visa in lieu of passport; I was a very strange
animal. And I was the only one to arrive. So he received me in audience. From
St. Thomas I finally fetched a boat to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where again I
was stuck for at least ten days before there was another boat finally to New
York. On April 20, 1941, I arrived in New York with a six months' visitor's
visa which actually was the form of visa I had received and very romantically
was called a "danger" visa because I was considered to be in danger,
as many others were; emergency visa I think they called it.
PAUL CUMMINGS: That's interesting. I always had the feeling that more people
moved as kind of organized groups when they were leaving France. But then you
read that so many did it almost individually; like you really weren't a group;
you kind of found your own way.
HANS NAMUTH: Oh, God, yes! The Fry Committee it was called - the official name
was the American Emergency Rescue Committee - helped many, many people out and
many of them illegally through Spain and North Africa; but always singly; nobody
could travel in groups.
PAUL CUMMINGS: So you really didn't know what was happening? It was really
a day to day . . .
HANS NAMUTH: Existence. Oh, yes. Oh, yes. And then of course, three months
later many who didn't make it out got trapped. Some later on joined the French
Underground. Some were arrested. The friend with whom I had been picking grapes,
Andreas Becker, was arrested in Saintes Maries de la Mer, which is a famous
artists' colony (Chagall, Arp, Max Ernst, and many, many artists had been there
or had lived there), he was arrested and taken back to Germany. Somehow he survived
this whole ordeal. Last year when I was in Germany for the first time since
I had left it with the American Army I saw him and he was well and healthy.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Well, you couldn't do any photography during this period, could
HANS NAMUTH: Of course not.
PAUL CUMMINGS: So you were just surviving.
HANS NAMUTH: That's right. I had lost all my equipment. It was gone; confiscated
or stolen. The Gestapo came to our place in Paris and took whatever was still
there. We rescued some of my negatives and I still have some negatives of the
Spanish Civil War. I'll show you some of the prints. They are quite fantastic.
PAUL CUMMINGS: You had mentioned someone that you knew in New York. So when
you arrived here you did have a point of contact?
HANS NAMUTH: Yes. Sam Barlow.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Right. Who is he?
HANS NAMUTH: I have a book here that he wrote. He's a writer, musician. He
lived in Gramercy Park. I had met him many years before that in France. He was
the first one to greet me here in New York, and he helped me to establish myself.
As it turned out, I was not allowed to work here at first.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Oh, sure, because you had a visitor's visa.
HANS NAMUTH: Because I had a visitor's visa. And it was absolutely silly. I
had to ask for permission; I had to get a labor permit which took months to
get. In the meantime I started to work first as - what should I call it? - a
tutor in a little college town in Michigan - Albion.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Oh, yes. How in the world did you get out there?
HANS NAMUTH: This was suggested to me by a committee in New York, the American
Committee for Christian Refugees. It was one of the committees that sprang up.
They actually did a great deal to help. You know, how could we find our way
through this mass of red tape and get a labor permit and so forth and so on.
And I welcomed this. First of all, I wanted to know more about this country.
To go to the Middle West seemed at that time quite exciting to me. This was
still in the deepest isolationist period in America. America did not want to
enter the war, you remember. I found it outrageous.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Well, you had seen quite a different thing happen.
HANS NAMUTH: I had great missionary zeal. I wanted to say to everybody that
the only thing to do was to declare war on Germany. You know, it was shocking.
It took Pearl Harbor to do that. And I got right into the center of, you know,
ChicagoTribunecountry,ColonelMcCormick, and America First. I had a very
interesting time there. In fact, even with my poor English at the time I was
asked to deliver a address to the Lions Club of Albion.
PAUL CUMMINGS: That's really getting to the heartland.
HANS NAMUTH: The next day the Albion paper reported on the headlines, "German
Jew says America Should Enter War."
PAUL CUMMINGS: Oh, great. Fantastic.
HANS NAMUTH: My task was to tutor this Professor Rathje (R-a-t-h-j-e) who was
teaching French and German at Albion College, to tutor him in both languages,
especially German. I was a member of the family, so to speak.
PAUL CUMMINGS: How much time did you spend there?
HANS NAMUTH: About three months. And then I was really anxious to come back
to New York.
PAUL CUMMINGS: That was enough.
HANS NAMUTH: Yes. In the meantime I took some time off to do some hitchhiking.
I visited a friend who was living then, as now, in Decatur, Illinois. I hitchhiked
from Albion, Michigan, to Decatur and back. I had a very, very interesting time
doing that. However, to go back to New York I had to start taking a bus. And
back in New York I managed to . . . By then I had a labor permit. But not at
first; my first job I took as a photographer without having any papers; nobody
asked any questions here. It was easy to get a social security number and card;
that was all one needed. And I started working as an assistant . . .
PAUL CUMMINGS: Where was that?
HANS NAMUTH: In some big studio called Stone-Wright on Fourth Avenue, now Park
Avenue South near Union Square. I remember my weekly salary was fifteen dollars.
PAUL CUMMINGS: That's incredible. Even then.
HANS NAMUTH: It was ridiculous.
PAUL CUMMINGS: For what kind of work?
HANS NAMUTH: At first it was just darkroom work and then slowly - oh, I'm wrong,
it was thirty dollars, and thanks to doing a lot of overtime sometimes it was
double that. But still it was very little. Eventually I left and took a job
with a very well-known photographer, Johnny Pruesser. Do you know him? He's
an artist who turned photographer.
PAUL CUMMINGS: I know the name.
HANS NAMUTH: That was where I learned really most of American ways of photography
PAUL CUMMINGS: Well, you hadn't really studied much photography, had you? You
just kind of started, didn't you?
HANS NAMUTH: Well, actually I had done a great deal of studying with a man
in Paris, Joseph Breitenbach, who is now in New York. When I came to New York
I studied again with him here for awhile to catch up after the war years. He
is a marvelous teacher. He teaches at The New School and also he teaches privately.
So I had done my studying. And of course one learns by doing it.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Yes. In the early years were there any photographers you were
particularly interested in?
HANS NAMUTH: Yes. Hoynigen-Huene; Horst; and then, as now, the greatest, Cartier-Bresson;
Robert Capa was a good friend of mine for awhile - we met in Paris and again
in Spain; Stieglitz; Paul Strand; and the great master, Weston, whom I always
loved. Those were the guiding lights of their time, and still are, especially
PAUL CUMMINGS: It's September 8, and this is Side 2. Well, could we start by
talking a little bit about . . .
HANS NAMUTH: Joseph Breitenbach. Yes. He is one of the oldtimers in photography,
somebody who has all the techniques at his fingertips and yet not overemphasizing
it. He can teach camera techniques, photo techniques better than anybody I know
by making it very easy: objects, chemistry. And yet he has a very personal approach
to the visual, and his photography is simply beautiful. I remember all his life
he has taken nudes and has discovered the human body as a landscape. He must
be in his seventies, and he is still doing exactly that kind of personalized
photography. He travels a lot. Every summer he goes to the Far East which he
PAUL CUMMINGS: How did you find him as a teacher? You studied with him both
in France and in New York.
HANS NAMUTH: Well, because simply I felt I needed to be taught. I looked around
and asked people and they recommended him to me first in Paris and then later
on - as I've already said - I felt I had to brush up, having neglected photography
during the war years. And I did my brushing up with him.
PAUL CUMMINGS: How was he about matters like style? Did he develop particular
styles in the people who studied with him? Or did he let them go their own way?
HANS NAMUTH: He let them go their own way, which I think is more important
than having to adopt somebody else's style.
PAUL CUMMINGS: So he really gave you a broad range of things –
HANS NAMUTH: Technical things. This is what I went to him for, technique rather
PAUL CUMMINGS: Right. That's fascinating. You know, his name has come up so
often as a teacher. So many people seem to have studied with him.
HANS NAMUTH: Maybe you should look him up. I have lost track of him recently.
But he must be in New York. He's a marvelous man. He is very well known in Germany.
He has had several national shows there.
PAUL CUMMINGS: How long did you study with him here then? - very long?
HANS NAMUTH: No. Over a period of months I took three evening classes. That's
PAUL CUMMINGS: You had shifted from one photography concern to another one.
But then you got involved with the Army quite soon after that, didn't you?
HANS NAMUTH: Yes.
PAUL CUMMINGS: What was that all about? What happened with that?
HANS NAMUTH: I think I told you that my arriving in the United States was merely
due to the fact that France had lost the first battle of the war. And I was
then forced to flee France. Otherwise I would have stayed there; I wanted to
stay. And coming to the United States made me aware of the necessity for the
United States to enter the war. Don't forget that I came here before Pearl Harbor.
And especially in the Middle West where I spent several months - I think I've
talked about that - I felt the indifference and the isolationism terribly strongly.
My desire to do something about everything was so great that I volunteered to
join the OSS at the time. I had a number of interviews. I suppose I was about
to be called when I met my present wife who was very upset at the prospect of
my leaving so soon and I delayed things somewhat at the time when we fell in
PAUL CUMMINGS: What is her name?
HANS NAMUTH: Carmen Herrera. She was born in France, to this day is a citizen
of Guatemala, and was brought up in Europe. Therefore I waited until I was drafted,
which came about in December 1943. I had my basic training in Spartanburg, South
Carolina, shortly after which I joined the Military Intelligence Service and
went to military training school at Camp Ritchie, Maryland.
PAUL CUMMINGS: What appealed to you in all of these activities?
HANS NAMUTH: What appealed to me?
PAUL CUMMINGS: It was obviously a very interesting kind of activity than just
being another soldier.
HANS NAMUTH: I wanted to come to grips with the thing that had caused me to
leave Germany in the first place, the politics. I wanted to combat the forces
that had driven me out of Germany and Europe - Nazism, Hitler. I was very much
of an idealist in those days. The only way for me to do that was to fight and
to enter the war. I would never have shown the same ardor if I had been sent
to the Far East, incidentally. I wasn't interested. That was not my war. My
war was in Europe.
PAUL CUMMINGS: So it was your personal situation that made it more important
to you than otherwise. That's fascinating. So where did you go and what happened
to you then?
HANS NAMUTH: I was in England for about six months before D-Day, mostly in
Tenby, in the south of Wales. When the invasion came I was with the Second Infantry
Division. We landed at Omaha Beach a few days before D-Day in June 1944. I was
with that fighting division throughout the various campaigns that led to the
Armistice in Europe in May 1945, which came exactly five years after Hitler's
Army marched into Paris.
PAUL CUMMINGS: What specific kinds of things did you do? Did you have very
HANS NAMUTH: My department, my special field was called M.I.I., Military Intelligence
Interpreters. I was with a team that interrogated civilians to find out about
enemy battle situations that needed to be researched. We were actually with
the front lines trying to make it easier for the troops to get into enemy territory:
in other words, tactical information. The civilians, of course, in France were
very cooperative, as you can imagine. It was a very wonderful way of gathering
PAUL CUMMINGS: Did your unit get into Germany again?
HANS NAMUTH: Oh, yes. After the French campaigns were over we entered Germany
at Aachen. And finished up the campaign in Czechoslovakia where we arrived in
May 1945. I should have taken note of all these things. On the spur of the moment
it's very difficult for me to remember correctly, and then I get all mixed up
with dates and things.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Were you in intelligence interpretation all the way through?
HANS NAMUTH: All the way through, yes. My function when we entered Germany changed
somewhat from interrogating civilians to interrogating prisoners of war.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Was that a great shift in the way you operated then?
HANS NAMUTH: Yes. The whole climate of my work became much more severe. After
all, whereas before we had to deal with friendly civilians, now we were facing
enemy soldiers and very few of them still under the shock of battle were willing
to talk. However, we had a few fantastic encounters. I discovered one man, a
German, near Malmedy, who gave us an extraordinary amount of information which
led, I think to a great deal of . . . From time to time we had a wonderful cooperation.
But most of the interrogations were done on very hostile ground
PAUL CUMMINGS: Why would somebody be so cooperative, do you think?
HANS NAMUTH: Because they were anti-Fascist, anti-Nazi. They were very eager
to defeat the Nazis, Hitler. Then we found a few members of the German Resistance.
In France it was easy. But in Germany it was much more difficult.
PAUL CUMMINGS: You rarely hear about that.
HANS NAMUTH: Really? Well, there are some documents on that.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Yes, but not the way the French . . .
HANS NAMUTH: After all, remember the attempt to kill Hitler just before the
end of the war.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Right.
HANS NAMUTH: Various attempts had been made. So there was a German Resistance.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Did you stay there very long after the war? Or were you brought
HANS NAMUTH: The Armistice was in May 1945 and the Japanese surrender came,
I believe, in July, was it not? Do you remember when V-J Day was?
PAUL CUMMINGS: I think it was just after the atom bomb; July or August, something
HANS NAMUTH: I spent some time with the War Crimes Division in Freising near
Munich, gathering up war criminals. I traveled throughout the American and the
British zones to arrest a number of wanted Germans and brought them back alive
to Munich and to Freising.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Were you there during the trials?
HANS NAMUTH: No, no. I was just there in the preparatory stage. And I did not
have any of the big shots. I had some of the minor bastards. I left Europe at
the beginning of October and was back in New York, a civilian, by the end of
PAUL CUMMINGS: What was it like, you know, coming back to Germany this way?
It was the first time in - what? fifteen years or more since you'd been there.
HANS NAMUTH: It was strange, of course. I really had cut my navel cord completely
and totally, not just with my home and family but with the country as such.
I was completely out of it. I had a very difficult time to realize that not
all Germans were guilty of war crimes, guilty of having killed five million
Jews; I felt that every German was either de facto guilty or just guilty by
association. Perhaps I was unjust in that assumption that anyone who had protested
could have done so or left the country. But I think to continue living in Germany
and watching, or witnessing rather, what was going on made the whole German
PAUL CUMMINGS: It's interesting, you know, the idea of coming to France which
you were so attached to and then going to Germany where it started and yet having
those very negative feelings all the way through. Do you think it affected the
way you thought about the people during your interrogations?
HANS NAMUTH: Surely. Surely it did. So much so that when I left Germany in
1945 I really never wanted to come back; never. And didn't, in fact, until last
year when I had to go to Cologne. In all my European travels I have always bypassed
Germany. Even in Cologne last year I felt very uneasy so many years after. And
yet I have made many friends among the young people since. Like Mary Bauermeister
and many German artists. But whenever I encounter anyone of my generation or
older I have the same negative feelings as I had then. And I really think they're
Oral history interview with Hans Namuth, 1971 Aug. 12-Sept. 8, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Found here.