An initial, forward-looking impulse for cultural politics and for Cologne as a location for photographic exhibitions was provided by the exhibition of the Kölner Fotografeninnung (the Cologne photographers' guild), which opened shortly after the war in 1947. The visitors were moved by Hermann Claasen's pictures of the destruction, which were considered a warning legacy and a symbol of hope. The first show of the GDL (Society of German Photographers) after the war took place in 1949 at the university and at the same time the important decision was taken to hold a photograph and cinema exhibition in Cologne. Bruno Uhl, director of Agfa in Leverkusen, the largest German company in the photographic industry at the time, had approached Fritz L. Gruber as early as 1948 with the plan for an independent photographic trade show in Cologne, in order to persuade him that this would fulfil his idea of a large photographic exhibition. Fritz L. Gruber had international contacts to photographers, agencies, and institutions, and used the opportunity to realise his idea that photography should gain the attention of a broader public in the very first tradeshow. Together with Hans Roggendorf he designed the emblem and the introductory show of the Photo and Cinema exhibition, which has to be considered the precursor of the photokina, which has taken place regularly since 1951.
Heinz Finke, L. Fritz Gruber and Erich Stenger choosing photographs for the 1950 Cologne Photo and Cinema exhibition, Wertheim 1950, Museum Ludwig/ Afga Collection
Following this, L. Fritz Gruber remained responsible for the photokina shows for more than three decades, organised over 300 exhibitions on the national and international artistic and cultural history of photography, and not only helped to establish photography as a publicly recognised medium, but also made the international world of photography accessible to the German public. This dedication is by now almost legendary. Even before Cologne became one of West Germany's capitals of art and culture, the history of the cultural programme, under which the photographic exhibitions were a unique symbiosis between commercial trade shows and photo exhibitions for the general public, had begun.
After the collapse of the National Socialist dictatorship a completely new cultural identity began to unfold in Cologne, at the centre of which photography asserted itself in its many facets as a medium of art, culture, and documentation. After some time the museums benefited from this, above all the Museum Ludwig for, long before this new foundation was given a building of its own, the L. Fritz Gruber Collection was acquired as the basis for today's photographic collections and was permanently supplemented with donations by L. Fritz Gruber and his wife Renate. If the photokina shows had given Cologne a new public forum for photography, this was taken to a new level in 1967 by the city's initiative to present the legendary Paris exhibition of Cartier-Bresson at the new Josef Haubrich Kunsthalle. The exhibition went on to travel through the entire Federal Republic of Germany and was a popular success. This, too, happened because L. Fritz Gruber was able to provide the vital connection to Cartier-Bresson. Against this background, the decision to make the private L. Fritz Gruber Collection communal property of the city ten years later seems a well-prepared, culturally intelligent step.
Marta Hoepffner, Portrait of Scholar and Photographic Collector Prof Erich Stenger, Wertheim 1946, Museum Ludwig / Agfa Collection
The history of accepting photography as a museal commodity worth preserving really goes back to the end of the 19th century, but has taken no continual course. The initiative by Alfred Lichtwark, the director of the Hamburg Kunsthalle at the time, of considering photography a serious artistic medium was only taken up by a small number of peers, was often not systematically followed up, and its results were scattered and destroyed by WW2. In this context the Kurt Kirchbach Collection from Dresden must be mentioned. It was sold internationally in 1997 under a false name despite the fact that it should have been preserved as a national treasure, being, as it was, the first and most important German private collection of artistic photography of the 1920s. In 1906, during the Lichtwark era, Erich Stenger began building his Berlin based collection on the art and cultural history of photography. The Erich Stenger Collection must therefore be considered the oldest surviving collection of 19th and 20th century photography in the German-speaking world. He systematically collected historical photographs with the help of a tracing file as well as caricatures, brochures, and archive material on the history of the medium, published more than 500 articles, books, and essays until 1950, and took part in numerous exhibitions with his historical material. He was considered the nestor of the history of photography, especially after presenting his comprehensive account Die Photographie in Kultur und Technik (Photography in Art and Technology) in 1938. This collection was saved from burning Berlin with the help of Agfa in 1945 and then transported to the West by American soldiers in Wolfen shortly before this region was handed over to the Russian victors.
Agfa purchased Erich Stenger's collection in 1955 in order to build a photo museum for which plans had been made during the 1930s, and in the following decades added further photographs and photographic equipment. In 1974, using this stock, the Afga Foto-Historama Museum was erected on the factory premises of Bayer/Agfa. It was open to the general public and was named after a nostalgically decorated exhibition stand from 1968. Then the interest of the industry in its own history began to wane. In 1979, on the city's initiative, the gems of this collection were shown in Cologne for the first time in the big exhibition ‘In unnachahmlicher Treue' (Matchlessly Realistic) at the Kunsthalle. Together with the ‘Farbe im Foto' (Colour in the Photograph) exhibition of 1981 in the same location, these presentations paved the way for the transfer of the Afga Foto-Historama Collection to Cologne in order, now full of hope, to realise the long planned photographic museum.
One year before the new Wallraf-Richartz-Museum/Museum Ludwig was opened, a long-term lease was signed and this collection, separately from the Gruber Collection, was installed in the new museum building. The ownership was still inconsistent but, with these collections, a representative segment of the entire history of the photographic medium was housed under one roof from 1986 onwards. A multitude of exhibitions were held in the following years at the Museum Ludwig, the Josef Haubrich Kunsthalle, and other Cologne museums (Roman-Germanic Museum, Museum of Applied Art), all based on these two departments.
Alongside other recent acquisitions for the Museum Ludwig, another significant purchase was made in 1994, when it was possible to secure the Robert Lebeck Collection with the help of the Kulturstiftung der Länder (Federal Arts Council) and the Stadtsparkasse Köln. From the end of the 1960s, photojournalist and collector Robert Lebeck was able to take advantage of the emerging market for historical photography, but also of the increase in publications on the history of photography. His many journeys took him around the world and his passion as a collector brought him to second hand bookshops and antiques shops, where he purchased photographs from the 19th century. The historico-cultural collection of the Afga Foto-Historama had now been joined by an extraordinary collection on the history of the art of photography of the 19th century, for Robert Lebeck had been able to learn from the past and there was also hardly any competition from other collectors, e.g. when he bid at auctions.
After the purchase of the Agfa Foto-Historama Collection as an accepted ‘national treasure' in December 2005, the Museum Ludwig now owns one of the most comprehensive and most important collections of the history of 19th and 20th century photography, made up of four comprehensive sections: The Gruber Collection, the Agfa Collection, the Lebeck Collection and the collection of the Museum Ludwig, which is made up, among others, of new purchases, donations, and also of deposita from the Peter and Irene Ludwig foundation.
In this place it is not possible to give more than a general description of the entire collection of photographs. Together with numerous portraits of international provenance, the earliest daguerreotypes from Berlin, which were taken in 1839, shortly after the invention of the first viable method of photography, form the oldest part of the collection. The early travel photographs, which Maxime Du Camp took when he visited Egypt in the company of Gustave Flaubert, Auguste Salzmann's extensive documentation of his 1854 sojourn in Jerusalem, unique photographs from Greece, and more than 100 photographs from Scotland by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson form the most famous part of the section alongside albums previously owned by Alexander von Humboldt. One of the extremely rare master portfolios by August Sander, more than 300 portraits by Hugo Erfurth, photographs by Walter Hege, Erna Lendvai Dircksen, the photographers of the Gesellschaft Deutscher Lichtbildner (Society of German Photographers), the fotoform group, by Otto Steinert, Liselotte Strelow, Erich Angenendt and Fritz Henle and many more are part of this collection. The Lebeck Collection includes very early English landscape photographs, more than 100 daguerreotypes by internationally renowned photographers, the famous pictures of Egypt by Francis Frith and the Bechard brothers, American landscapes, photographs of the Alps by the Bisson brothers, portraits by Nadar, Lewis Caroll, Julia Margaret Cameron, and also a large quantity of photographs from Japan, China, and Africa by Felice Beato, John Thomson, and Desirè Charnay. The unique albums owned by the Austrian empress (Sisi), merchant Johann Menke's album of photographs from Europe and Asia, and also architectural photographs from Hamburg, Gdansk, Moscow, and Berlin.
The 20th century focus of the Gruber Collection brilliantly complements these segments of the collection. L. Fritz Gruber knew all the great photographers of his time and maintained lasting friendships with, for example, Alvin Langdon Coburn and Edward Steichen, the legendary photographers who had still had a lasting impact on Pictorialism around 1900. For decades, L. Fritz Gruber was friends with August Sander. He visited Ansel Adams in San Francisco, and in Paris he met Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Brassai, Andre Kertèsz, and, of course, Henri Cartier-Bresson. From the very first encounter a special kind of relationship united him and Man Ray, one which L. Fritz Gruber always considered the most important friendship of his life. He met Cecil Beaton as far back as the 1930s, he exhibited Irving Penn as early as 1954, and he maintained long-lasting friendships with Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, and Duane Michals, to mention more names from the international spectrum of photographers. L. Fritz Gruber exhibited all the great photographers of his time in Cologne, and many gave him famous and important photographs as a present. Today, these belong to the Museum Ludwig. It was not the market for photographs, but almost always the personal friendships and the collaboration with the artists which led to the growth of the collection.
It was Gruber's initiative that procured the partial estates of Chargesheimer, Werner Mantz, and Heinz Held for the Museum Ludwig. Thanks to Gruber's dedicated advocacy of the preservation and appreciation of photography - also of contemporary photography - as a cultural asset, these were purchased by the Museum Ludwig. This takes us to the fourth segment of the photographic collections at the Museum Ludwig, those photographs which came to the museum after the Gruber Collection was purchased in 1977. Besides the above mentioned compilations, smaller groups of works by individual photographers were acquired in order to close gaps in the collection but also to carry subject areas, for example the portraits of artists, forward into the present in a fashion relevant to the collection.
In 1978 the collection on the history of photography was complemented by a special compilation of Russian photographs from the 1920s and 30s, on loan from the Peter and Irene Ludwig Foundation. Besides the artists of the Bauhaus and the New Objectivity in Germany, it was predominantly the exponents of the Russian avant-garde who provided new impulses in the 1920s with their search for new means of artistic expression. The collection of Russian photographs contains images by Alexander Rodchenko, Boris Ignatovich, Georgi Petrussov, Ivan Shagin, Arkadii Shaichet, Georgi Zelma, and also photograms by El Lissitzky. Therefore this important compilation encompasses the broad spectrum of photography as a medium, from artistic experimentation through to documentation, and represents the most important phase of Russian avant-garde in photography. In April 2008 this part of the collection was excellently complemented by the acquisition of the Daniela Mrazkova Collection from Prague, made possible with the help of the Kulturstiftung der Länder (Cultural Foundation of the Federal States), the Kunststiftung NRW (Arts Foundation North-Rhine Westphalia), and the Staatskanzlei Düsseldorf (Dusseldorf State Chancellery).
The photographs by Eva Siao, which have been at the museum since 1996 as a permanent loan from the Ludwig Foundation, deserve a final mention. These photographs show scenes from everyday life, portraits, and street scenes from China, and came into being after Mao's 1949 victory and before the photographer was arrested by the so-called Gang of Four in 1967.