UMBO — The name is a synonym for the “big bang” in modern photography that took place the mid 1920s. This has certainly been the case since 1995, when art historian Herbert Molderings organized a retrospective of the work of Umbo (Otto Maximilian Umbehr, 1902–1980). Born in Düsseldorf to a structural engineer and a teacher, was the second of ten children. The man who chose to call himself Umbo is today recognized as the inventor of the image of “the new woman,” as the driving force behind a new conception of the urban view, and as a pioneer of photoreportage. His name stands for the transition from the back-to-nature youth movement of the Wilhelmine era to the early Bauhaus. In many ways, Umbo also stands for Berlin itself—a media capital strongly marked by an influx of Eastern European immigrants, by overpopulated tenement blocks, and by a burgeoning film, publishing, music, theater and cabaret scene that, among other things, offered glimpses into the crowded courtyards and live-in kitchens of the city’s teeming working class. Encouraged at the Bauhaus by his teacher Johannes Itten as well as by his friend the artist Paul Citroen, Umbo transformed himself practically overnight from a doubting young artist into a famous photographer. Yet he always remained a bohemian at heart, an eternal Wandervogel—a free spirit and a bird of passage.
This is the very same Umbo who remained in Nazi Germany despite his professed dislike for the regime, whose Berlin studio and archive were completely destroyed by bombing in 1943, and whose postwar attempts to revive his earlier status as an avant-garde photographer in Hannover during postwar Germany’s “economic miracle” proved fruitless. This is the photographer whose expressive early work matured into Neue Sachlichkeit—the New Objectivity—and was finally rediscovered in the 1970s. In 1979, shortly before his death, he witnessed his first solo museum exhibition, which brought the pioneering gallery Spectrum Photogalerie together with the Sammlung Sprengel at the Kunstmuseum Hannover.
The exhibition Umbo, Photographer presents an outstanding selection of roughly two hundred works and numerous documents, drawing on works preserved in Umbo’s estate. Safeguarded for decades by his daughter Phyllis Umbehr and Rudolf Kicken (Galerie Kicken), the estate was jointly acquired in 2016 by the Bauhaus Dessau, the Berlinische Galerie, and the Sprengel Museum Hannover with the generous help of numerous partners. The estate’s extensive holdings—over six hundred photographs and extensive source material—form the basis of the exhibition. These are supplemented by earlier acquisitions from the Berlinische Galerie and the Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau along with material that the Sprengel Museum Hannover obtained from the London-based archives of Simon Guttmann—founder of the legendary German photo agency Dephot—who established the Report photo agency in England after World War II. The exhibition is accompanied by a hardcover catalogue (336 pages, 322 black-and-white illustrations) in both English and German editions.