The year 2019 will mark the 250th an­niver­sary of the birth of Alexan­der von Hum­boldt (1769–1859). The Mu­se­um Lud­wig is tak­ing this an­niver­sary as an oc­ca­sion to trace Hum­boldt’s con­nec­tion to pho­tog­ra­phy. “Peo­ple want to see,” wrote the na­t­u­ral­ist and world trav­el­er Alexan­der von Hum­boldt. Pic­tures, whether drawn, print­ed, or paint­ed, played a sig­ni­f­i­cant role in his life and re­search.

For in­s­tance, he spoke of “ar­tis­ti­cal­ly phy­siog­nom­ic” de­pic­tions of na­ture and spent enor­mous sums on il­lus­tra­tions for his five-vol­ume work Kos­mos: En­twurf ein­er ph­y­sischen Weltbeschrei­bung. He was one of the first to en­coun­ter pho­tog­ra­phy, at the age of sev­en­ty as a mem­ber of the three-per­son com­mis­sion that was charged with eval­u­at­ing the ear­ly daguerreo­type pro­cess in 1839. It went on to be­come the first pho­to­graph­ic pro­cess prac­ticed world-wide. Hum­boldt was on a di­plo­mat­ic mis­sion in Paris and wrote eu­phoric let­ters about th­ese first pho­to­graphs: “It is cer­tain­ly one of the most de­light­ful and ad­mirable dis­cov­eries of our time,” and: “The pic­tures have a very inim­itable na­t­u­ral char­ac­ter that on­ly na­ture it­self could im­press up­on them.” He no longer trav­eled him­self, but in the fol­low­ing twen­ty years un­til his death in 1859, Hum­boldt sur­round­ed him­self with pho­to­graphs and sup­port­ed pho­tog­ra­phy on ex­pe­di­tions.

As a re­sult, he re­ceived al­bums of pho­to­graphs as gifts. Two spec­tac­u­lar gift al­bums with ear­ly pho­to­graphs are part of the pho­tog­ra­phy col­lec­tion of the Mu­se­um Lud­wig. Th­ese in­clude an al­bum from 1844 that the in­ven­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy on pa­per, W. H. F. Tal­bot, ded­i­cat­ed to Hum­boldt—one of the first pho­to books ev­er. Hum­boldt and Tal­bot first met in 1827 in Ber­lin. They shared a com­mon in­ter­est in the na­t­u­ral sci­ences. The gift al­bum from 1844 was compiled in the same year as the first parts of his fa­mous pho­to book Pen­cil of Na­ture. It con­tains twen­ty-two pho­to­graphs, in­clud­ing a plant pho­to­gram, like those that Hum­boldt might have made him­self if pho­tog­ra­phy had been in­vent­ed ear­li­er.

The se­cond large-for­mat al­bum con­tains for­ty-sev­en pho­tos from South Amer­i­ca from 1857 and 1858. The Hun­garian-born pho­to­g­ra­pher Paul de Rosti per­so­n­al­ly pre­sent­ed Hum­boldt with this al­bum in 1858 in grat­i­tude for the lat­ter’s sup­port of his trav­els. Some of the pho­to­graphs are the ear­li­est known pic­tures from Mex­i­co, Venezuela, and Cu­ba. Th­ese al­bums en­tered the col­lec­tion of the Mu­se­um Lud­wig due to Erich Stenger (1878–1957), an ear­ly re­search­er on Hum­boldt’s role in the his­to­ry of pho­tog­ra­phy. Their his­to­ry and their jour­ney to the col­lec­tion of the Mu­se­um Lud­wig will now be re­con­struct­ed, of­fer­ing a look back at the ear­ly days of pho­tog­ra­phy.

Alexan­der von Hum­boldt: Pho­tog­ra­phy and Le­ga­cy is the fifth pre­sen­ta­tion in the pho­tog­ra­phy room, which since 2017 has fea­tured chang­ing se­lec­tions of the ap­prox­i­mate­ly 70,000 works from the Mu­se­um Lud­wig pho­tog­ra­phy col­lec­tion. The pho­tog­ra­phy room is lo­cat­ed in the per­ma­nent col­lec­tion on the se­cond floor.