Issue #103  4/4/2006
A Tribute to Photo-Historian Heinz K. Henisch On His Passing

By Wm. B. Becker

I was devastated to learn about the death of Heinz K. Henisch, my mentor and friend of 35 years.

Heinz was a warm and truly benevolent man whose life story would make a wonderful movie. Indeed, his first book of memoirs, "First Dance in Karlsbad", is filled with vivid accounts of what life was like for an assimilated Jewish family living in Neudek, Czechoslovakia as Hitler was on the rise. The family's escape to England was a dramatic episode, the result of a strange, amazing twist of fate. In England, Heinz found a welcoming environment at the University of Reading, where he earned his Ph.D. in Physics and met the love of his life. His career ultimately brought him to the United States and a faculty appointment at the Pennsylvania State University.

Together with his wife Bridget, a medieval scholar and culinary expert, Heinz began collecting photographs. They also opened a small but successful independent publishing house, The Carnation Press. Even before we met in person, a box of sample books arrived--including the collected letters home of a Civil War soldier, and their surprise best-seller, the story of a chipmunk in their garden, written by Bridget and illustrated with photographs by Heinz. Soon, they invited me to write the introduction to the Carnation Press facsimile edition of Levi Hill's 1856 "A Treatise on Heliochromy", the first book ever devoted to color photography. This was a heady assignment for a college freshman, but it launched me on one of the most significant research projects of my life.

Heinz was a tall, imposing man with a gentle voice and a courtly bearing befitting a scientist internationally known for his work on topics like semiconductor contacts and crystal growth in gels. His scientific and technical works were published by Oxford and Cambridge. At least one book has been in print for an astounding 35 years, with the latest edition published just last summer.

Despite the gravitas of Heinz's credentials, he had a keen sense of humor, often making jokes about his attempts at art or his efforts to play the piano. He once played a recording of a classical piece that he'd performed in the Henisch living room. I didn't quite recognize it and asked who composed it. "Chopin-hauer," he answered. Another time he came to my rescue when I was confronted with a large fiery-orange blossom floating elegantly in Bridget's homemade gazpacho. It was a beautiful garnish, but I wasn't sure whether to remove it from the soup before dipping in. "If you don't know what to do with that," Heinz said, "watch me and do exactly as I do. Pick it up like this…(I did, carefully grasping the stem)…now, hold it here (I did, holding it over my head)…and do this (at which point he tilted his head back, opened his mouth and dropped in the flower). I followed suit, but only after the fact did he assure me that it was a nasturtium, and harmless to eat.

Heinz's travels as a visiting lecturer and consultant to business often allowed him to meet with photo-historians as well as scientists, and he developed a network of independent scholars who shared his interests in early photography. This led to the establishment of "History of Photography: An International Quarterly", published by Taylor & Francis of London. (Heinz claimed that he considered but ultimately rejected a title in Latin for the journal: Oudadate Pix.) He edited this journal from 1977 to 1990, publishing original research from dozens of important writers.

Beginning in 1974, Heinz began teaching a History of Photography course at Penn State, accepting an appointment from the Department of Art History while retaining his duties as Professor of Physics. He remained on the Art History faculty for nearly 20 years. When he started, few schools offered classes in the history of photography and only three universities in the United States had graduate programs in the subject.

In 1991, following Heinz's departure from "History of Photography: An International Quarterly", he was celebrated with a festschrift, a particularly pleasant academic tradition that results in a volume of collected papers contributed by various scholars, in honor of a colleague. "Shadow and Substance: Essays on the History of Photography in Honor of Heinz K. Henisch", edited by Kathleen Collins, is a fitting tribute to Heinz's wide-ranging interests; it contains 51 essays by leading photographic historians--including, it can now be revealed, contributions written pseudonymously by Bridget and by the honoree himself!

After his retirement from teaching in 1993, Heinz seemed to be busier than ever. He and Bridget collaborated on three books, published by Penn State University Press: "The Photographic Experience, 1839-1914: Images and Attitudes" (1994); "The Painted Photograph, 1839-1914: Origins, Techniques, Aspirations" (1996); and "Positive Pleasures: Early Photography and Humor" (1998).

Even taken alone, "The Photographic Experience", at 462 pages and with 500 illustrations, is a significant achievement. It marked the culmination of three decades of collecting and research and significantly broadened the field of inquiry with its careful consideration of what came to be called "vernacular photography." Loaded with the patented Henisch wit and charm, the book shows how the newly-invented medium of photography quickly invaded every facet of people's lives--as photography was reflected in literature, poetry, music, fashion and the popular press. And the illustrations were equally wide-ranging--in addition to familiar images, "The Photographic Experience" features photographs of a neoclassical artwork sculpted from butter, a woman wearing a high-fashion hat that looks like a camera, and President Theodore Roosevelt's portrait framed in an outhouse seat.

"The Photographic Experience" had been the title of an exhibition of images from the Henisch Collection, guest-curated by Heinz and Bridget, and presented at Penn State's Palmer Museum of Art in 1988. Photographs from the collection again went on public view beginning in 2000, when the University opened the B. & H. Henisch Photo-History Collection Room in the Pattee Library. The small room features changing exhibits, all drawn from the thousands of images the University Libraries acquired from Heinz and Bridget in 1995.

Somehow, in the midst of all this activity, the Carnation Press managed to publish Heinz's first volume of memoirs, First Dance in Karlsbad, in 1993. Focusing on his childhood and adolescence in the Sudetenland just prior to the Nazi invasion of 1938, the book was widely acclaimed and later published in both German and Czech editions. A second, slimmer volume of memoirs, covering his college years in Britain, his academic career, and his great romance with Bridget, followed two years ago.

Even in his 80s, Heinz was not one to rest on his (considerable) laurels. Last year, he finally made the transition to digital photography, and shortly before his passing he put up a new exhibition of his prints in their home gallery. "He was so very excited about this new work," Bridget told me, "he said he was starting to see things he had never really looked at before, like wonderful patterns in the silhouettes of trees."

And that was Heinz: always looking at the world in a deeper way, always excited about his discoveries, always sharing something of himself. What a loss--but what a great privilege to have known him.

Wm. B. Becker is a noted historian of photography whose research has been published in "American Heritage"," History of Photography: An International Quarterly" and other forums, Bill Becker is also a television producer and writer whose work has been honored with four EMMY® awards. He is the author of Brady of Broadway, a one-man play about the photographer Mathew Brady that's been performed at the Smithsonian Institution and other venues. His Internet project ( http://www.photography-museum.com ), the American Museum of Photography, is, as he puts it, "A Museum Without Walls…for an Art Without Boundaries." Its predecessor, Photography's Beginnings: A Visual History, made its debut on the World Wide Web nearly 10 years ago.