Historical view of the Leitz factory in Wetzlar. (Images: Hans Saebens)
Historical view of the Leitz factory in Wetzlar. (Images: Hans Saebens)

City of Wetzlar

Cityscape

The photographs of Hans Saebens from the book “Wetzlar – Bild einer Stadt” published in 1949 were long thought to have been lost. David Pitzer and Lars Netopil have rediscovered the Leica photos.

The book “Wetzlar – Bild einer Stadt” was published to commemorate the two hundredth birthday of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe himself was only a marginal figure in this book – the central focus was on the Leica photographs of Hans Saebens. They were snapshots taken four years after the end of the Second World War, showing Wetzlar and its people, the townscape and what remained of it. The first edition of the book was published in 1949. In October of the same year, the Buderus Ironworks presented the photo book “respectfully yours” to the friends of the company.

Hans Saebens’ photographs of the Wetzlar series

In June 2012, Lars Netopil and David Pitzer from Wetzlar managed to put the impressive photographs of the Wetzlar series together for exhibition. The two connoisseurs had been interested in the German artist and photographer Hans Saebens for some time, and had already collected 24 original prints (so-called vintage prints) published by Saebens in the book “Wetzlar – Bild einer Stadt” of 1949. “In Worpswede, where Hans Saebens spent most of his life and did most of his work, we then came across a mixed lot of about 600 original negatives stored in a cigar box, including the ones of the Wetzlar series,” remembers David Pitzer. After buying the negatives, they had the idea of exhibiting the whole series from the book “Wetzlar – Bild einer Stadt” – 24 vintage prints and 19 new gelatin silver prints made from the original 35 mm negatives – for the first time.

Hommage to the “Town of the Leica”

Hans Saebens (*1895 in Bremen; †1969 in Worpswede) lived in the artists’ village Worpswede near Bremen. He particularly liked drawing and painting rural scenes of Northern Germany. In 1930, the painter discovered photography as a new medium of expression. With his Leica camera he photographed contrast-rich landscapes, increasingly searching for and finding his subjects in urban environments. This is how the Wetzlar series came to be taken. The accompanying text for the first publication was written by Hans Saebens’ wife Eugenie von Garvens. She devoted a whole chapter to the “Town of the Leica”, extolling the “foreman Oskar Barnack”, the inventor of the “small, handy and precise camera” that showed the “viewer of paintings, the researcher, the doctor, the industrialist as well as picture lovers in general new ways, because in the hand of all these people it turned into a magic wand for making all the longings and desires associated with the creation of a picture come true.”

The Leica photographer stages his subjects

Hans Saebens used this “magic wand” in his own way. “The photographs show that he was a rather untypical Leica photographer,” says Lars Netopil. Although Saebens appreciated the benefits of his compact Leica, the closeness to his subject and the quick reactions the camera allowed, he was not primarily interested, unlike Henri Cartier-Bresson, in capturing the “decisive moment”. Saebens used a tripod, sometimes working like a stage director to draw attention to the subject; while other photographs bear witness to his almost documentary interest in overall views and details of urban architecture.

Life in Wetzlar between the old town and modern furnaces

In contrast-rich photographs, Saebens documents the Romanesque “Heathen’s Portal” at Wetzlar Cathedral and its pillars of soft sandstone with marks where weapons were sharpened. Around the bombed ruins of the cathedral chancel lies sandstone rubble that has already been appropriated for rebuilding. And then there’s the Iron Market, of course, the market scene at the Butter Market and the view of the medieval bridge over the river Lahn, which was hardly damaged in the war. Another of Saebens’ photos points to the roofs of the old part of Wetzlar with the furnaces of the Buderus factory in the background. There, the founders cast the iron, but Saebens’ powerful portraits leave no doubt that “the iron casts the strong face of the founders” as well. Again and again, Saebens opens the perspective that leads him out of the town into the countryside. “The healthy thing about Wetzlar’s industrial population,” noted Saebens in one of the photo captions, “is the combination of doing a job in town and working on their own land.”

A special eye for composition, use of light, and contrast

The impressive photos of the Wetzlar series displayed in the exhibition at the beginning of June 2012 are exciting for two reasons. On the one hand they show the work of a photographer who had a special eye for composition, use of light, and contrast. On the other, the photos of Hans Saebens depict life in Wetzlar at the time and the status quo of the city in the years immediately following the war. Last but not least, they document once again, from the viewpoint of the artist and photographer, the great contribution of the Leica camera and the Ernst Leitz company to the international development of photography.

 

Additional Information:

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The old bridge of the the river Lahn in Wetzlar.
The old bridge of the the river Lahn in Wetzlar.
Closing time at the Leitz factory.
Closing time at the Leitz factory.
The old town of Wetzlar.
The old town of Wetzlar.