Umbo, Self-Portrait, 1952
Otto Umbehr (1902-1980) was born in Düsseldorf as the second of six children of Karl Friedrich Umbehr, an industrial architect. His mother, Frieda, died in 1910. He was admitted to the Bauhaus in 1921 where he studied with László Moholy-Nagy, one of the most important Bauhaus photographers. He was also greatly influenced by the aesthetic education of Johannes Itten.
Otto Umbehr, Assessment of work from Albers’s Preliminary Bauhaus Course, 1928
In 1923, after his graduation, Umbo moved to Berlin where he undertook various jobs, including camera assistant to Walter Ruttmann on the famous documentary film Berlin, Die Sinfonie einer Grosstadt (Berlin, Symphony of a Great City, completed 1927).
Otto Umbehr, Night in a Small Town, 1930
In 1926, Umbo began a career as a professional photographer, opening a portrait studio with the assistance of Paul Citroën, a former Bauhaus colleague. He photographed his friends including the young actress Ruth Landshoff, and soon became known for his striking portraits produced using extreme closeups and dramatic lighting. These images quickly launched the new art of German avant-garde photography. The main theme of his work was the metropolis, which he portrayed through the eyes of the flâneur.
Otto Umbehr, Porträt Ruth Landshoff, 1927. Ruth Landshoff-Yorck came from a Jewish family in Berlin and was the niece of publisher Samuel Fischer. She appeared in Murnau's NOSFERATU. In 1930 her first novel Die Vielen und der Eine (The Many and the One) was published. By the time she completed her second novel, it was impossible for her to have it published in Germany. Ruth Landshoff-Yorck emigrated to the United States in 1937.
In 1928, Umbo joined Simon Guttmann's recently established Dephot (Deutscher Photodienst), the first cooperative photojournalist agency, managing the studio and contributing photographs until the agency was dissolved in 1933. Simon Guttmann was a friend of Walter Benjamin, and , since 1932, also was the first employer of Robert Capa. During this time Umbo's work appeared in magazines such as the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, the Münchner Illustrierte Presse, and Die Dame.
Otto Umbehr, Untitled, c. 1930
Umbo experimented with multiple exposure, unusual camera angles, photomontage, collage, and x-ray film, and in 1929 took part in Film und Foto, the important international exhibition of avant-garde photography and film held in Stuttgart. With his expressive and poetic vision, Umbo, like Heinz Hajek-Halke, set himself apart from New Objectivity, the mainstream of the 1920s in German photographic art as represented by August Sander or Albert Renger-Patzsch.
Otto Umbehr, Mystery of the Street, 1928
After the Dephot agency was closed after the Nazis came into power in 1933, Umbo shared his laboratory with the communist photographer Ernst Thormann, and together they reproduced secret documents of the trial following the Reichstag fire. Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, Umbo worked as a freelance photojournalist, traveling to North Africa and Italy. During World War II he served in the German army (1943-45). In 1943, Umbo's archive in Berlin, with more than 50.000 negatives, was destroyed in a bombing, so that few of his works are preserved today.
Otto Umbehr, The Roving Reporter, photomontage, 1926
After the war, in 1945, Umbo settled in Hanover with his wife Imgard Wanders, a designer, with whom he had a daughter, Phyllis. He lost his left eye during renovation work. He began to photograph images of the depressing post-war era. However, he could no longer rely on the success of his Weimar period. His original post-war prints are very rare and highly sought after.
Otto Umbehr, POW returning home, 1946
From 1957 until the early 1970s, Umbo taught photography in Bad Pyrmont, Hildesheim, and Hanover, where he died in 1980.