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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Axel Bahnsen

Dates:  1907, 21 May - 1978, 24 April
Born:  US, NY, Auburn
Died:  US, OH, Springfield

Preparing biographies

Approved biography for Axel Bahnsen
(Courtesy of Christian Peterson)

Bahnsen practiced pictorial photography from about 1930 to far past mid-century. He spent his adult life running a professional portrait studio in central Ohio, and his best creative images were mildly surrealistic.
Axel Bahnsen was born on May 21, 1907, in Auburn, New York. His family moved to Europe four years later but returned to the United States during World War I. After the war, Bahnsen attended school in Switzerland, while his parents lived near Paris. In 1924, he moved to Yellow Springs, Ohio, to attend Antioch College.
He left school two years later, bought a Graflex camera, borrowed money from his father to purchase a studio, and began his photographic career. Business was slow during the Great Depression, but by 1936 he was able to open a portrait studio in nearby Dayton as well. His Yellow Springs studio, however, remained his home base, and he was active there until his death.
Bahnsen was attracted to pictorial photography after seeing a copy of the American Annual of Photography in the late 1920s. Within a few years, he was exhibiting in salons throughout the world, successfully submitting more than 200 prints to sixty-six salons in the 1937-38 season. In 1942 and 1946, he had solo shows at the Smithsonian Institution. He was active in the Photographic Society of America, which awarded him a fellowship (FPSA) in 1951. Bahnsenís most distinctive pictures incorporate surrealistic elements, demonstrating the influence of modernism. These sharply focused images feature unlikely subjects, combined through composite prints and/or collaging. Though sometimes a bit heavy-handed, they reveal his interest in the subconscious. The March 1941 issue of Camera included an article by him on surrealism in photography.
Bahnsen took up informal teaching in the late 1940s, welcoming both amateur and professional photographers into his studio and on field trips for technical and creative guidance. For thirty years, he taught these sessions, which enhanced his influence throughout the Midwest.
After a decade-long hiatus from exhibiting, Bahnsen resumed participating in the mid-1960s. He was still a highly visible pictorialist when he died of a heart attack on April 24, 1978, in Springfield, Ohio. 
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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Axel Bahnsen
Self portrait of Axel Bahnsen 
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