Otto Umbehr („Umbo“)
1921–1923 Bauhaus student
He is one of the most important photographers of Bauhaus and modernism, but first found his creative medium after completing his studies at the school of design: Otto Maximilian Umbehr, also known as Umbo. Born 1902 in Duesseldorf, Umbo arrives at the Bauhaus in Weimar in autumn 1921, intending to become a painter. Here, he attends Johannes Itten’s preliminary course. Itten’s influence on Umbo extends beyond the aesthetics of his preliminary course; it also brings him into contact with the Mazdaznan cult, a religious-ideological doctrine of physical development that promised among other things spiritual redemption. Like his spiritual guide, in 1923 Umbo, too, falls out with the director of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, and is expelled from the school because of an ironic letter and other improprieties. He spends the next three years marginalized, living below the subsistence minimum among the bohemian artists of Berlin – a period that reaches its nadir and turning point in 1926 with a collapse in the Romanisches Café. Paul Citroen, a friend from the Bauhaus days, assumes responsibility for Umbo and gives him his first camera.
Together, the two of them experiment with portrait photography and Umbo discovers photography as his artistic medium. He soon begins to develop his own photographic aesthetic. Umbo’s innovative photographs of the faces of Berlin’s bohemian milieu or of urban scenes soon make his reputation as an avant-garde photographer. In 1928 Otto Umbehr becomes one of the main photographers of the Deutscher Fotodienst (Dephot), the foremost photo agency of the Weimar era. Here, he also makes a name for himself as a ‘pioneer of modern photo reportage’ (Molderings, 1996, p. 132). When Gropius leaves the Bauhaus in 1928, Umbo is briefly considered as a teacher for the new photography class; the job goes to Walter Peterhans and Umbehr instead becomes a specialist subject teacher for photography at Johannes Itten’s Moderne Kunstschule in Berlin.
After the National Socialists come to power, Umbo remains in Germany working as a photojournalist, but the photos he takes are artistically – and politically – inconsequential. In WWII he works as a war reporter for the photo journal 'Signal', which is distributed outside Germany and promoted by the chief of the propaganda department of the German Wehrmacht. Later, he becomes a driver. In 1943 Umbo’s entire archive of 50,000-60,000 negatives and photographs is completely destroyed in an air raid on Berlin; most of his life’s work is thereby irretrievably lost.
In the years immediately after the war, Umbo attempts to resume his work in Hanover and photographs returning German soldiers and everyday life in post-war Germany for 'Der Spiegel' and others – without success. In the mid-1950s he ends all his creative work and works as an office messenger, store man, packer and cash custodian at the Kestnergesellschaft of Hanover. In the late-1970s, in the course of the reassessment of photography as an art form with an own aesthetic value, galleries, art historians and collectors also became interested in Umbo’s work. The belated fame that this rediscovery brought resulted in exhibitions and sales of Umbo’s work and thereby also a few more financially secure years. Otto Umbehr died on 13 May 1980 in Hanover.
- Riechelmann, Cord (2012): Vom Bauhaus nach Hannover, in: bauhaus 4. Foto, Dessau, S. 63–72
- Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen (1995): Vom Bauhaus zum Bildjournalismus. Umbo, Düsseldorf.
- Molderings, Herbert (1996): Umbo. Otto Umbehr 1902–1980, Düsseldorf.