Thomas Willaschek in the Museums Journal
It was 1929 when a young man applied for an apprenticeship at the old master of sports photography and co-founder of the Charlottenburg Sports Club, Max Schirner. Four years earlier, a Dresden uncle had given the then twelve-year-old a camera, an Agfa Billy roll-film folding camera (36 RM), as a confirmation present.
A short time later, he took his first photographic steps with it. The result were successful family photos and the desire to learn the craft of photography. However, all beginnings were difficult. For many years, an anecdote persisted among colleagues of Berlin sports photographers. Schirner was considered to be a particularly strict master of his trade. Not quite satisfied with his protégé’s work, he finally instructed him one day to go out to the yard and clean his motorcycle – he would never learn photography.
Schirner was wrong. In the news metropolis of Berlin, the name Heinrich von der Becke would later carry weight for many decades. The photojournalist and artist with the flat cap, often traveling with a small stepladder for a higher shooting position, was one of the best photographers to have worked in the city.
According to his own account, Becke’s first published photograph for the agency “Sportbild Schirner” was taken with more luck than craftsmanship on a rainy penitential day during the Berlin Forest Running Championships in the Grunewald. He worked for the Schirner publishing house for a further year after completing his training, and in 1933 moved to the “Braemer & Güll” press picture center on Friedrichstrasse in Berlin-Mitte.
In 1936, Becke first attracted international attention as a sports photographer at the Olympic Games in Berlin. His photo of the German 4×100 m women’s relay team losing the baton during the final exchange became world famous. Equally in demand with agencies were the pictures of Jesse Owens, the 4-time Olympic champion in the track and field events.
After the Games in Berlin, Becke went to Spain on behalf of his agency for several months starting in September 1936 as a photojournalist for the Civil War. This was followed from 1939 by deployment as an infantryman on various fronts of the Second World War and for a short time as a photo documentarian in a propaganda company.
Before the end of the war, Becke discharged himself from a military hospital in Poland and returned to Berlin in April 1945. At first, he earned his living by taking private and passport photos for the company “Kindermann & Co.”. On October 18, 1945, he registered his business as a press photographer and, together with his wife Theresia, set up their own business premises with an office, archive and laboratory at Lietzenseeufer 3 in Berlin-Charlottenburg. From then on, the smells of the darkroom became an integral part of daily life for the couple.
In the first post-war years, they mainly produced works with a 9 x 12 plate camera. They documented destruction and reconstruction in the four sectors of Berlin – rubble women between mountains of rubble, orphans on the streets, invalids of the war, the first new buildings. His work also included photo reports from the surrounding area, both near and far. While demand from private customers steadily declined, around 1950 the market for photography grew within the expanding publishing and press industry in Berlin and throughout Germany. “Der Tagesspiegel”, “Berliner Morgenpost”, “Neues Deutschland”, “Tribüne” or “BZ” as well as various illustrated magazines became steady buyers of Becke’s photographs.
In the years that followed, the rather modest photojournalist could be found mainly as a sports photographer at all important events in and outside the city – in all weathers. Whether at the countless international, national and Berlin championships in the stadiums and halls or at popular sports competitions – Becke was always on site with several cameras. For sports photography, he used the Exakta Varex, a single-lens reflex camera. Also in his luggage was a Rolleicord (two-lens reflex camera) in 6 x 6 cm format and later a Rolleiflex Synchro-Compur.
Over the decades, many sports stars and celebrities stood in front of the lenses of his cameras – Max Schmeling, Bubi Scholz, the running idols Paavo Nurmi and Emil Zatopek, “Sepp” Herberger, Sonja Henie or “Krücke”, the whistler from the sports palace – but also countless “sportsmen and women from next door”. Until 1976, Becke documented events at 15 Summer and Winter Olympic Games. He remained active for the German National Olympic Committee and the German Olympic Society for many years. Likewise, from 1974, for “Sport in Berlin,” the monthly publication of the Landessportbund.
The “Picasso with the camera,” as friends and representatives of the press called him, always remained focused on people, keeping an eye on athletes and spectators, winners and losers, joy and disappointment alike. He drew his creativity from the fascination of the moment, always ready to let the shutter of his camera click at the decisive moment of a hundredth of a second.
With equal intensity, passion, loving attention and photographic skill, Becke documented the development of his hometown of Berlin in many facets over the entire period of his creative work, formative political and social events, urban developments, culture and art, everyday happenings in the city. His photographs of June 17, 1953, of the construction and course of the Berlin Wall from 1961, and of the visit of then U.S. President John F. Kennedy to West Berlin in 1963 are outstanding.
City views, taken from the Berlin Radio Tower in July 1995, are among the photographer’s last works. He died in Berlin in June 1997 after a short, serious illness. Already in February of the same year, the Berlin Sports Museum acquired his photo archive with all rights to exploit it – about 65,000 b/w prints, 1.2 million negatives, 2,000 color films, extensive film legends and large parts of his photographic and laboratory equipment.
Since May 2002, the photographic holdings have been recorded and indexed with the help of PC-based ABM and MAE projects. Using the museum software FirstRumos as well as another MS Access database, more than 180,000 data records can currently be accessed for intensive use by the media, clubs, associations and students. In its unity, the picture archive represents a unique memory of regional, national and international sports and contemporary history of the last seventy years.
Head of the Photography Collection
Berlin Sports Museum – Berlin City Museum Foundation – Museums Journal, No. 1, January – March 2009
The exhibition “Picasso with the Camera” can be seen until March 29, 2009 at the Sportmuseum Berlin – in the Olympiapark Berlin.
Berlin Sports Museum | Olympiapark Berlin | Hanns-Braun-Strasse | 14053 Berlin
Phone +49 (0) 30-90223-1392 or +49 (0) 30-3058300 | Fax +49 (0) 30-3058340