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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Adolf Fassbender

Dates:  1884, 3 May - 1980, 2 January
Born:  Germany, Grevenbroich
Died:  US, NJ, Newton
Active:  US

Preparing biographies

Approved biography for Adolf Fassbender
(Courtesy of Christian Peterson)

Fassbender made a substantial contribution to twentieth-century American photography, enjoying seventy years in the field. During the 1930s and 1940s, he was one of the country’s leading pictorialists, making successful salon prints and writing an influential book. For most of his career, he taught photography as a livelihood, influencing thousands of committed amateurs and professional photographers.
Adolf Fassbender was born on May 3, 1884, in Grevenbroich, Germany, a small town near Cologne. A boarder in his family house introduced him to photography and at age thirteen young Adolf was apprenticed to a professional in Cologne. In 1901, he finished his apprenticeship, passed government exams, and received his diploma for photographic portraiture. A few years later, he was drafted and served time in the German infantry.
Fassbender worked in portrait studios in Europe and in this country for nearly the first thirty years of his career. Before entering the military, he initially assisted a photographer in Freiburg, Germany. Subsequently, he worked in Dresden (where he also studied drawing and painting), Vienna (where he began specializing in hand-colored miniature portraits), and Antwerp. In 1911, he immigrated to the United States. He was first employed by the Selby Sisters and in 1921 opened his own New York studio. For the next seven years, he produced commercial, illustrative, and portrait photographs, some of which were exhibited at national conventions of the Photographers’ Association of America. He closed the business in 1928.
At about this time, Fassbender became interested in pictorialism and began making creative pictures with the camera. He exhibited in pictorial salons for twenty years, beginning in 1925, when his work was first accepted by London’s Royal Photographic Society. He presented solo shows in 1934 at the Camera Club of New York and in 1951 at the Smithsonian Institution. He joined camera clubs in New York, received honorary memberships from groups elsewhere, and was a founding member of the Photographic Society of America.
Fassbender’s pictorial work was noteworthy for its classic beauty and extensive handwork. True to his European origins, he retained a keen interest in traditional art and handcrafting. Many of his photographs are picturesque interpretations of rural life, village scenes, and the atmosphere of Manhattan. Whatever the subject matter, he invariably manipulated his images, resulting in high visual drama and a manicured look. He was a master of numerous control process—most notably the paper negative, which allowed him to substantially alter the composition, content, and tonal contrast of his pictures. He deleted telephone poles, added clouds, and made finished photographs from multiple negatives.
Fassbender shared his techniques and theories by writing for the photographic press. He began in the early 1930s with a short series of articles in Camera about various control methods. His article "Why Bother," about the importance of manipulating the negative, was printed over time by three different publications. Most significant was his book Pictorial Artistry: The Dramatization of the Beautiful in Photography, published in 1937. Limited to a signed and numbered edition of 1,000 copies, it contains forty exquisite hand-printed photogravures (see cover image), each accompanied by text about the picture’s subject, composition, and technique. This volume remains today the most lavish pictorial titled published after Camera Work.
After closing his studio in the late 1920s, Fassbender made his living as an instructor. He taught photography at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences from 1930 to 1935 and in the late 1940s at the Central Branch Brooklyn YMCA. He also conducted private and group classes at his Manhattan and New Jersey residences and lectured to camera clubs and professional conventions throughout the country. Over the course of his teaching career, from which he retired in 1970, he had more than 18,000 students. In recognition of his long and loyal service to photography, both the Photographic Society of America and the Royal Photographic Society presented him with most of their advanced degrees and awards.
Fassbender and his devoted wife, Franke, moved from Manhattan to Sparta, New Jersey, in 1960. He died twenty years later on January 2, 1980, in the Newton (New Jersey) Hospital, at ninety-five. 
Christian A. Peterson Pictorial Photography at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Christian A. Peterson: Privately printed, 2012) 
This biography is courtesy and copyright of Christian Peterson and is included here with permission. 
Date last updated: 1 June 2013. 
We welcome institutions and scholars willing to test the sharing of biographies for the benefit of the photo-history community. The biography above is a part of this trial.
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Internet biographies

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Getty Research, Los Angeles, USA has an ULAN (Union List of Artists Names Online) entry for this photographer. This is useful for checking names and they frequently provide a brief biography. Go to website
The International Photographers Hall of Fame has provided a biography. Go to website
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