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Bertha Wehnert-Beckmann Photographs Friedrich Gerstäcker

Bertha Wehnert-Beckmann (1815-1901), Porträt des Schriftstellers Friedrich Gerstäcker, 1850s, Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig, Inv. Nr. F/2672/2003

Sometime in the 1850s, Bertha Wehnert-Beckmann, by all accounts the world’s first important professional photographer and definitely the first female one, had an unusual visitor in her Leipzig studio. Likely, Wehnert-Beckmann had heard of the man who now stood before her, slightly unkempt, his hair windswept, and clearly ill at ease. She might have even read his two bestselling novels about the American West, Die Regulatoren in Arkansas (1846) and Die Flußpiraten des Mississippi (1847). If so, she would have liked the almost photographic precision with which he had documented life on the American frontier.

Regardless, when Friedrich Gerstäcker showed up on her doorstep, she knew she had her work cut out for her. The finished daguerreotype, now in the collections of the Stadtmuseum Leipzig, reveals why she was such a sought-after portraitist. By asking Gerstäcker turn to the left, looking at some undefined object off the camera, she not only made his thinning curly hair appear fuller than it seems in most other images, she also lessened the effect of his haunting, almost crazed stare, hard to bear for the viewer who has to meet it upfront. The pose lends respectability and weight to Gerstäcker’s appearance. It helped matters that he was dressed relatively neatly, wearing a kind of hunting coat and a tie, tucked elegantly into a light-colored vest.

As portraits go, this was a fairly standard image. What is not so standard are the two people involved, the eccentric sitter as well as his similarly unconventional photographer. Born in Cottbus, Germany, in 1815, Bertha Beckmann learned her trade in Prague. In 1845, she married the Leipzig photographer Eduard Wehnert, who died only two years later, leaving Wehnert-Beckmann to run her husband’s studio by herself. For reasons that remain unclear, she emigrated to New York in 1849, opening studios at 62 White Street and later at 385 Broadway. In 1851—again, nobody knows why—she closed her shop and returned to her previous haunts at Burgstrasse 8 in Leipzig, where she continued to work until she was in her later sixties. A staggering number of images (over 4,000) can be attributed to her, among them the first known erotic photograph, a double portrait of two partially clad young women, one reclining on a chaise longue, the other cowering in front her—separate yet, the viewer is supposed to believe, united in their dreams.  Read More 

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