Cover photo: Heinrich von der Becke Picture Archive in the Berlin Sports Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

The photographer with the flat cap

… and its cameras. A treatise by Manfred Nippe.

The “Rolleiflex 2.8 F” in the Berlin Sports Museum is an icon of photography. In the 1930s, the two-eye camera from Braunschweig revolutionised the world of photography; no professional photographer, photo reporter or sports photographer could do without it. Helmut Newton took his master shots with it – and Heinrich von der Becke from Berlin, the “Picasso with the camera”.

Foto: Porträtfoto - alter Mann mit Brille und Schiebermütze hält mit beiden Händen eine alten Kamera vor der Brust
Poto: © Gerhard Großkopf | Heinrich von der Becke with the Rolleiflex 2,8 F

The object weighs 1050 grams and measures 20.5 x 10.5 x 10 cm. It is suitable for roll film – black and white and colour – in 6 x 6 format for 12 exposures. You see the subject on the ground-glass screen in the shaft, focus and release. The results are achieved with a Synchro-Compur shutter from 1 – 1/500 second with a Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar 1:3.5/75 mm lens.

Heinrich von der Becke used the Rolleiflex in various versions from 1949 onwards, the 2.8 F in the museum until the 1970s. Born in Dresden in 1913, he started out as a 12-year-old with an Agfa Billy bellows camera. He was apprenticed to the old master of sports photography Max Schirner in Berlin in 1928 and was taught the secrets of the photographic craft from scratch. He took his first photo, published in a newspaper, of the forest running championships in Grunewald with a 9×12 plate camera.

After moving from Schirner to the Pressebildzentrale, he received accreditation for the 1936 Olympic Games, taking photos with the large-format Contessa Nettel, which was equipped with an interchangeable cassette for 12 photo plates and used a wire viewfinder to aim at the subject. Motorbike couriers brought the glass plates for development and distributed the paper prints, enlarged to 13 x 18, in the image pool accessible to all press representatives. In the case of individual orders, they were taken straight to the airport or railway station in the direction of the local newspapers and agencies at home and abroad.

Heinrich von der Becke took good pictures and thus began his career as a sports photographer. When the German women’s relay team lost the baton and Jesse Owens jumped, he pressed the shutter button at the right moment. The photos were printed all over the world. He became friends with Jesse Owens. In 1964, during Owens’ visit to Berlin, he recreated the famous photo between Owens and Luz Long from 1936, lying side by side in conversation, and took it with Long’s son Kay.

After the Games, he provided picture reports from the Spanish Civil War, became a soldier in 1939 and, after being wounded, was assigned to a propaganda company until 1945. His photos from Spain and from the fronts of World War II are in the Federal Archives.

In 1945, in the rubble of Berlin, he went into business for himself and, together with his wife Theresia, set up a photo agency that supplied all the daily newspapers published in the four sectors of the city. His company flourished and soon employed staff for laboratory, archive and distribution. He was not only a sports photographer, but also a city reporter whose photos paid tribute to the reconstruction efforts of the population in both West and East. He was known in the city as the “photographer with the cap”, often travelling with a ladder. His clients were the major magazines, Time-Live, daily newspapers and agencies. His Berlin photos, from the blockade to 17 June to the building of the Wall, from the Cold War, the state visits of the Queen to Kennedy, from film festivals and rock concerts, then from the fall of the Wall, are unique political contemporary documents.

His sports photos have made him famous. He has taken part in 13 Olympic Games, photographed for agencies, sports magazines, illustrated books and Olympic books. He met many sports stars in the process. He photographed with a Rolleiflex or with a 35 mm camera with interchangeable lenses, the Exacta Varex. His pictures were awarded prizes, voted sports picture of the year and distributed by getty-images. He loved sharp pictures, the motif, angle of view, light and shadow had to be right. He rejected photographic attempts in the direction of blur and photographic art. I was there when he had a lively and controversial discussion with his colleagues Albrecht Gaeble and Erich Baumann senior about “very good and not so good pictures” in the jury of the photo competition “Jugend gymnt” of the German Gymnastics Festival 1968 in Berlin and met their experiments with scepticism. He took his most spectacular photo in 1976 at a 4-day cycling race in the Deutschlandhalle: it showed the Olympic champion Peter Vonhof, who had not yet noticed the breakage of his front wheel and then took Behrendt and Colombo down with him. The photo was included in Stern’s “Library of Photography” together with a literary essay; he had reached the Olympus of sports photography.

Heinrich von der Becke devoted his attention not only to top-class sports but also to the young and the very young. He could be found at gymnastics festivals, school tournaments and youth championships, but also at trim festivals and family sports festivals. He was a reliable partner for the newspapers I edited and for poster campaigns and school sports calendars that were in the works. His extensive archive on children’s and youth sports was an absolute novelty in the world of sports photographers. Despite his retirement, he took up his camera once again after the reunification of Berlin in 1990, for example at the first children’s and youth sports festival jointly organised by East and West in the Olympic Stadium. He helped choreograph some of the shots, and the gymnastics girls and their fans were blissfully happy.

On his 75th birthday in the European Year of Culture 1988, an exhibition in the ‘House of Sport’ on Jesse-Owens-Allee paid tribute to him. The Sports Youth awarded him the Zeus Medal, its highest distinction. On the 10th anniversary of his death in 2007, Ludwig, one of his three sons, published one hundred of his photos from 22 sports together with interviews on the internet (see literature). In the atrium of the ‘House of German Sport’, the Sports Museum exhibited a cross-section of his photos to mark the occasion.

Heinrich von der Becke died on 25 June 1997 at the age of 85. A modest man, a good sportsman – and a great man of his profession. A few months before his death, he handed over his sporting estate to the Berlin Sports Museum. 1.2 million negatives, 65,000 photo prints and 2,000 colour films and slides belong to the “Heinrich von der Becke Picture Archive”. The life’s work of a sports photographer and a true treasure for the Sports Museum in the Olympic Park.

Manfred Nippe (Berlin Sports Federation)


Nippe, M., Der Picasso mit der Kamera, in “Olympisches Feuer”, issue 2/2009, page 54 – 57, Frankfurt/Main.
Willaschek, T., Heinrich von der Becke, zu seinem 10. Todestag, in “Sport in Berlin”, June 2007.

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