Harry Ransom Center Acquires Lifework of Famous Photographer Fritz Henle

“My father’s three mantras were ‘beauty,’ ‘truth,’ and ‘freedom,’” the daughter of the late photographer Fritz Henle, Tina Henle, tells me over the phone. She’s sitting at home in St. Augustine, Florida, a day’s flight away from St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands where she grew up watching her father at work when he wasn’t traveling around the world. “Those three words motivated my father’s life,” she says, remembering the plaque he used to keep on his desk that simply read: “freedom.”

For nearly 60 years, Henle photographed for U.S. magazines like Time-Life, Harper’s Bazaar, and Glamour. Deemed the “last of the great Classical photographers” by photo-historian Helmut Gernsheim,  Henle could almost always be found with a Rolleiflex camera hanging around his neck, capturing moments in time, from snapshots of pre-war Japan in the 1930s to Frida Kahlo in Mexico.

Since 1979, the Ransom Center has been adding to a collection of more than 1,000 color and black-and-white photographs taken by Henle and in 2009, the center celebrated the centenary of Henle’s birth with the UT Press publication of Fritz Henle: In Search of Beauty. Now, an archive of Henle’s expansive career will be housed at the Harry Ransom Center. The collection includes around 180,000 black-and-white negatives, 10,000 color transparencies, 150 contact sheet books, 11 books of magazine clippings and tear sheets, and thousands of prints.

“My dad was so grateful and so inspired to be in the Ransom Center,” Tina says. “He felt his work could not have entered a better institution for its honoring, its preservation, and its accessibility.”

Henle was born in Dortmund, Germany, in 1909, just a few years before the start of World War I. His father was a surgeon on the front lines who  dabbled in photography in his spare time. Though Henle’s family expected him to become a doctor like the generations before him, his childhood days spent in a dark room inevitably led him to secretly enroll at the Bavarian State College for Photography in Munich.

A gifted photographer, Henle graduated in just one year and immediately took a position as a commercial photographer for a German shipping line, traveling to places like India, China, Japan, and Korea. But in 1936, as Adolf Hitler gained power, he decided to leave his own country. Though Henle wasn’t raised Jewish, his grandfather was—and generationally, that was close enough to make staying in Germany unsafe. “This doesn’t often get spoken about,” Tina says, “but my dad got out by convincing the Nazis that he should go to America to photograph the U.S. for them—that was his ticket out, by the skin of his teeth.”

By 1937, at age 29, Henle, who Tina describes as having been quiet, humble, and generous, had become a successful freelance photojournalist in America. He made a name for himself by wearing many different hats: as a top fashion photographer, the go-to portrait man for the era’s notables, and as a documentarian, snapping his travels to Japan, India, Mexico, and the Caribbean. In just four years, his photographs were printed in more than 50 stories in Life, and graced the cover five times, including one titled “Texas High-School Girls” from March 1938, featuring two young women in cowgirl hats, spinning lassos in the air.

But it’s an image rarely published anywhere (other than the Ransom Center’s book on Henle’s work) that Tina finds herself thinking about most often. It’s a photo of a young man in Mexico in 1945, captured mid-flight as he dives off a makeshift, wooden diving board into a pool. Titled “The Diver,” the black-and-white shot shows the silhouette of the man soaring above the camera with just the sky behind him. “My dad caught a most spontaneous, beautiful moment,” Tina says, noting he had only the single exposure of the diver on the roll of film. “It spoke to that ‘freedom,’ that ‘beauty,’ and his ability to just open up to the present moment.”

Tina believes her father’s experiences living through two world wars and leaving his home deeply influenced his art, though she says he wasn’t one to talk about his past much. Disenchanted with what Germany became in the 1930s, Henle refused to speak German for two decades and did not return home until 1959, when his mother was diagnosed with cancer.

“Something changed for him at that point—a door opened for him,” Tina says. From that year forward, he returned to Germany every summer until he died in 1993. Tina, a photographer herself, says he inspired her and each of her three siblings to pursue careers in the arts, too. He taught them to be curious of other cultures and see the world from different perspectives.

“His constant motivation and vision was all about expressing the beauty in the world versus the dark backdrop that was so often the reality of his life,” Tina says. “His art was where he found his solace and his freedom.”

Photographs courtesy of the Fritz Henle Papers and Photography Collection, Harry Ransom Center © The Fritz Henle Estate


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