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The first photographs were acquired as far back as 1868 for the Museum of Decorative Art's library (the precursor to the Art Library) as 'educational models of architecture and the crafts'. Today the Collection holds approximately 160,000 photographs and is divided into two main areas: the photographic archive and the collection of artistic photographs. Besides this, the Collection boasts a rich fund of photogrammetric images, historical postcards and the various bequests of photographic material.
With approximately 50,000 pictures, the photographic archive forms the oldest part of the Collection. The photographs originally served as visual aids in the Museum of Decorative Art's teaching rooms and were used in the subjects of Basic and Ornamental Drawing as well as Architectural Drawing. The range of images featured stretches from architectural and town views, documentary and commercial photography to travel images. The artists' studies, known as 'etudes d'apres nature' depict landscapes, plants and animals as well as nudes and portraits. Alongside photographs from Germany, images depicting countries on a typical grand tour, such as France, Italy, Greece as well as countries in the Middle and Far East form the bulk of the archive. The original owners of such pictures were generally commercial studios and photographers such as Edouard Baldus, Domenico Bresolin, Robert MacPherson, Samuel Bourne, Eugène Atget, F. Albert Schwartz, Werner Mantz and Arthur Köster.
The collection of artistic photographs was also originally intended for documentary use, with the photographs gathered to illustrate the 'Process of the Printed Image' within the collection of advertising art. The first group of prints came from two men who made Pictorialism known in Germany: Ernst Juhl (1850-1915) and Fritz Matthies-Masuren (1873-1938). The 300 or so photographs were conceived of between 1880 and 1915 as pictures for connoisseurs by ambitious photographers such as Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, Heinrich Kühn and Hugo Henneberg. For photography to attain recognition as an art form, these photographers experimented with elaborate printing techniques with an eye to imitating differences in texture akin to those in painting and drawing. Their subjects belie the influence of Impressionism, Jugendstil and Symbolist art, with landscape, portrait and genre forming the main styles.
In the 1920s a new movement left its mark on photography. A new visual consciousness arose under the banner of 'Neues Sehen' (or 'New Vision') and 'New Objectivity'. Between 1929 and 1932 around a hundred works were acquired for the artistic photography collection that were taken from the Art Library's own exhibitions. Most of these works originated from the legendary 'Film und Foto' group show that first opened in Stuttgart in 1929, organised by the Deutscher Werkbund (an association of professional German artists and designers). The photographs, of impeccable quality, are now considered the incunabula of 'New Vision'. Among its most important proponents were Max Burchartz, Hans Finsler, Florence Henri, Helmar Lerski, László Moholy-Nagy, Oscar Nerlinger, Albert Renger-Patzsch and Sasha Stone.
After that, the Collection only began to grow steadily again in the 1990s. Over the last two decades several bequests and major donations have made their way into the Collection, including those from art photographer Otto Ehrhardt, from Martin Badekow (who ran one of the most famous portrait studios in Berlin in the 1920s), from Willy Römer's photographic press archive, as well as photographs by Bernhard Larsson (who worked as a reporter in the East and West Berlin in the 1960s) and Ludwig Windstosser, the leading industrial photographer of the post-war period.
The some 300 photogrammetric albums contain approximately 28,000 photographs of buildings and urban views of architectural importance. Originally from the Staatliche Bildstelle Berlin (Berlin state picture archives), the albums were incorporated into the Collection after the Second World War. These images hold a special significance for architects, town historians and urban conservators, but also provide a wealth of material to anyone with an interest in photography. The collection of around 42,000 postcards cover a period ranging from the end of the 19th century all the way to the last years of the 20th century. The motifs displayed on them range from landscape shots to travel images and town views as well as portrait shots.