Cover photo: Outcry of the 100,000. At the last changeover, the leading 4x100-metre women's relay team loses the baton at the Olympic Games on 9 August 1936 and is eliminated. | Heinrich von der Becke Picture Archive in the Berlin Sports Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

The Picasso with the Camera - Memories of the Sports Photographer Heinrich von der Becke

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)

Weitere Informationen:

Sportmuseum Berlin
Olympiapark Berlin
14053 Berlin-Charlottenburg
Telefon: 030 – 305 83 00
Im Internet: Senate Department for the Interior and Sport: Sportmuseum Berlin

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.

Photographed from the side, a gymnast in a white leotard floats in the foreground of the picture diagonally looking down to the left between two gymnasts who walk behind him on the edge of the mat to the left and look at the floating gymnast.
Luftikus – Sports Photo of the Year 1968 and 1st prize of the German Sports Press Association, taken at the German Gymnastics Festival Berlin on 01 June 1968 in the Deutschlandhalle. | Heinrich von der Becke Picture Archive in the Berlin Sports Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)
Collision on the sloping wooden track of the cycle racing track. Close-up of two racers in the centre of the picture driving to the right. The front wheel of another rider is visible at the right edge of the picture. The two riders at about the same height have touched each other. The tyre cover of the front rider has come off the rim, half of the front wheel is badly dented and bent. The rider himself is still sitting securely in the saddle and is looking forward at the road in concentration, as if nothing had happened. The front wheel of the rider to his right has become caught in the chipped tyre, but is still intact. His wheel is about to tip to the right. The rider still has his left hand on the handlebars and tries to balance the imbalance with his stretched right arm. His face shows fear.
Spoke salad – Peter Vonhof (Olympic champion of Melbourne 1976) has not yet noticed the breakage of his front wheel at the 4-Day-Sport-Hits 1976 in the Deutschlandhalle, Behrendt and Colombo fall. | Heinrich von der Becke Picture Archive in the Berlin Sports Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)
On the turf of a stadium, two men in club uniforms are lying on their stomachs next to each other. One leans on his elbows and looks at the other. The neighbour rests his head on his elbow and looks at the grass. Both seem to be talking amiably to each other.
Friendship and fairness – Heinrich von der Becke recreates the legendary photo of the friendship between Jesse Owens and Luz Long at the 1936 Olympic Games in the Olympic Stadium. In 1964, at the same location, he photographs Jesse Owens with Kai Long, the son of the Olympic long jump runner-up who was killed in action in Sicily in 1943. | Heinrich von der Becke Picture Archive in the Berlin Sports Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

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