An exhibition at the Olympiapark Berlin. By Manfred Nippe.
With a small exhibition in the atrium of the former “House of German Sport” on the grounds of the Berlin Olympic Park, the Berlin Sports Museum commemorates the work of the sports photographer Heinrich von der Becke, who died in 1997. The “photographer with the cap” was a well-known figure in Berlin and at international sporting events. From 1936 to 1976, he reported on 15 Olympic Summer and Winter Games, photographed exclusively for the major illustrated magazines and national daily newspapers, and also for the illustrated books of the German Sports Federation and the Olympic standard works of the German Olympic Society. There is hardly a big name in world sport that is not represented in his picture cards.
Heinrich von der Becke was given his first camera – an Agfa-Billy – when he was twelve and decided to become a sports photographer. He learned the photographer’s trade ‘on the side’ – at his father’s request he signed an apprenticeship contract to become a commercial clerk – from 1928 in the company of the old master of press photography Max Schirner, who, along with Gerhard Riebicke, was one of the pioneers of sports photography in the capital of the Reich. He worked at Pressefoto Schirner until 1933 and then moved to the Berlin Press Picture Centre. He took his first sports photos at the 1936 Olympic Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Berlin with a plate camera and then with a 35 mm camera, which many colleagues still ridiculed. His photo of the loss of the baton of the German 4×100-metre women’s relay team was printed on every continent. The Berlin Games brought him together with 4-time Olympic champion Jesse Owens, with whom he remained on friendly terms during later visits to Berlin and until Owens’ death in 1980. During World War II he was a soldier and at times also a war correspondent. After the war, he set up his own business as a photojournalist in Berlin with his wife Theresia. A small company that flourished. He has since photographed all the sporting greats, capturing victories and defeats, euphoria and sadness in sport. He was equally fond of all Olympic and non-Olympic sports, with special attention to children’s and youth sports, even though there was hardly any money to be made in this as a photographer.
Heinrich von der Becke was fascinated by sport. He was a reporter, artist and director. He did not like photographic experiments, he loved sharp pictures, paid attention to background and flair, above all he pressed the shutter release at the right thousandth of a second. Several times he shot the ‘Sports Picture of the Year’ and award-winning series pictures. One photo from the Deutschlandhalle was included in the International Library of Photography: It showed a cyclist who did not yet realise that his front wheel was broken.
As a sports photographer, he was at home in the world’s sports stadiums, but he also became a legend as a Berlin city reporter: No political or cultural event in the four-sector city escaped him, from the Berlin Blockade and the building of the Wall to the film festivals and rock festivals. His photos from the divided city – of 17 June and Kennedy’s visit also in Time-Life – made him famous worldwide. One of his three sons – Ludwig – has published one hundred of his ‘Wall photos’ taken after 13 August 1961 on a website set up in his honour (*). In 1988, the European Year of Culture Berlin, the Berlin Sports Youth awarded him its highest honour – the Zeus plaque – on his 75th birthday. Heinrich von der Becke kept fit by swimming every day. He was one of the early swimmers in the Olympic swimming stadium. He was once a lifesaver, pulling the architect of the Olympic Stadium Werner March out of the water after a fainting spell, which the old man rewarded with an exclusive interview.
Even in his old age, Heinrich von der Becke continued to be on the move in his city at events he carefully selected – as always with cap and ladder. He took photographs on the occasion of German unification and captured the first joint sporting encounters in united Berlin. In 1993, he bought a computer, sorted his archive and retired.
Heinrich von der Becke died in Berlin on 25 June 1997 at the age of 84. He was a thoughtful and modest man, a lovable sports comrade, a highly gifted photographer and artist.
His extensive life’s work – 1.2 million negatives, including 5,000 photographic plates, 65,000 b/w prints and approx. 2,000 colour films – is preserved and made accessible in the Berlin Sports Museum.
Manfred Nippe (Berlin State Sports Association)
Telefon: 030 – 305 83 00
Im Internet: https://www.berlin.de/sen/inneres/sport/sportstaetten/olympiapark/sportmuseum/
Note from the text:
* This website was overhauled in 2022 to mark the 25th anniversary of his death. It is the website you are currently on.