At the end of the 19th century, the impulse for collecting photographs and reflecting upon the history of the medium came from the initiators of artistic photography, above all from Alfred Lichtwark, the director of the Hamburg Kunsthalle. In order to establish new artistic positions it became necessary to contemplate the history of photography. In the past one suddenly discovered aesthetic testimonies from the immediate pioneering days of the medium, which provided direct impulses to the artistic ambitions of renewal.
Lichtwark's entreaty from 1898 has become famous: "And if material is not collected from today on, then it will not be available anymore when scholars, waking up one working day to late, long for it". In this climate, Erich Stenger began to purchase his first daguerreotypes in Berlin. His financial means were modest, but as there was hardly any competition he was able to amass a sizeable collection of about 700 daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and testimonies of other methods from the early days of photography. The most important part of the collection is directly linked to the name Alexander von Humboldt: The famous album which W.H. Fox Talbot, the inventor of photography using negatives, dedicated to the scholar in Berlin as early as 1843, and the large format album with photographs from central America, which Hungarian Paul de Rosti bestowed upon Humboldt in 1857, shortly before the latter's death, were both part of Humboldt's estate.
Humboldt was a leading mentor of photography in Prussia after having been one of the immediate group of people surrounding the inventor J.L.M Daguerre in 1839, when he announced his invention in Paris. Considering that the majority of his library was destroyed, these two albums take a special place in the national history of photography in Germany at the time. On the art market Erich Stenger bought the album of Maxime Du Camp's journey to Egypt and a portfolio with more than 120 early salt-paper prints by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson. The hand signed photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron came into his possession through private contacts, and he obtained the earliest surviving daguerreotypes from Berlin following a phone call. An unknown caller said he had heard about Stenger's enthusiastic collecting efforts and would like to hand over some daguerreotypes to him. Since then, the famous daguerreotype of the inauguration of the monument of Frederick the Great, signed, dated, labelled, and shot by Wilhelm Halffter in 1851, has been part of the Agfa collection.
Today, the Agfa Collection is no longer identical with the former collection of Erich Stenger. On the one hand there were losses during the war, on the other hand the Agfa corporation, after the initial acquisition of the collection in 1955, purchased further works at irregular intervals. In this way the personal estate of the Dresden pioneer of photography, Hermann Krone, and the 300 portraits by Hugo Erfurth, which were only acquired in 1969, came to be part of the collection. Today, the Agfa Collection contains almost 11.000 photographs, albums, portfolios, caricatures, and archive material on the entire cultural history of photography. It includes extremely important incunabula from the early period of the medium, but also examples of the early days of photography as a mass product like, for example, carte de visite and postcard photography. Alongside this, the 20th century is represented with the unique portfolio ‘Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts' (People of the 20th Century) by August Sander, with a series of portraits of farmers, and, among others, with the series of portraits which were given to Erich Stenger as a present by the GDL (Society of German Photographers) in 1953.
This collection is unique, for not only does it document the way in which the photographers presented themselves, it is also a chapter of the immediate post WW2 history and of the reconstruction.