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Sold at Auction: Josef Breitenbach

Photographer

Biography

Josef Breitenbach (April 3, 1896 in Munich, Germany – October 7, 1984 in New York City) was a photographer whose manipulated images and stark photographs were part of the Surrealistic movement.

Josef Breitenbach was born into a middle-class wine-merchant Jewish family, and came of age during the chaotic years of the First World War and its troubled aftermath. He attended technical high school from 1912–15 and trained as a salesman for an instrument firm and later as a bookkeeper for an insurance firm. He attended Ludwig-Maximillian University in Munich (philosophy and art history, 1914 to 1917) and became active in the Youth Section and later the Pacifist wing of the Social Democratic Party. In 1918, he took part in the Soviet-inspired Bavarian coup d’état, which was the first spark of the revolutionary fire that swept over Germany in the wake of the armistice. For a few months, Breitenbach also occupied an official position in the new government. Although the revolution was short-lived, the ties he forged with the radical circles of Munich’s intelligentsia later helped him establish his reputation as a photographer.

In 1932, after several unsuccessful years at the head of the family business—during which period he was mainly engaged with perfecting his use of a camera—Breitenbach opened his first photographic studio. His clients were prominent members of Munich’s bohemia, including actors and actresses performing in the Munich theater. Munich was a stronghold of libertarians and refined peoples, whose spirit Breitenbach captured in theatrical portraits of his friend, the journalist Theo Riegler. This world vanished in 1933 with Hitler’s takeover.

New Life in America: Breitenbach seemingly had no trouble adjusting to America. New York, the city in which he would spend the rest of his life, became home to him, as evidenced by his photomontage of 1942, "We New Yorkers." He responded to the electric beat of the city, composing photographs such as "Radio City" (1942) that have a jazz-like quality.

His first teaching appointment was at Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina, where he was invited by Josef Albers to teach as Visiting Instructor in photography in summer 1944. In New York City, he taught at Cooper Union from 1946-1966 and the New School for Social Research from 1949-1975.[3]

The 1950s and 1960s were years of intense activity for Breitenbach. He did photographic reportage in Asia for the United Nations and other varied businesses, documenting relief work. He exhibited his photographs extensively in Europe in the 1930s (especially in Paris) and in the United States from the 1940s to the mid-1960s, including at the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he had work selected by Edward Steichen for the Museum's international touring exhibition The Family of Man. The time not spent on the road was spent absorbed by his teaching at Cooper Union and The New School.
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