From the collections: Wilhelm Dreesen – The Forgotten Photographer

By Wiebke Hauschildt (Online-Editor)

He travels and photographs the world. He is an appointed court photographer, on-board photographer of the shipping line Hapag and wins awards at the Paris and Chicago World Expositions. He publishes successful photography books from his place of origin, Schleswig-Holstein. His photographs help Norway with its tourism and he is part of the artist colony Ekensund. And: He will be forgotten.

Wilhelm Dreesen died in Flensburg in December 1926, at the age of 86. His photo studio is being evacuated, his house sold. It will take almost 100 years for a part of his photographic work to be recovered. And thus Wilhelm Dreesen himself as a pioneer and artist of early photography.

"Homecoming Crabber, (in mud flats)" from the portfolio "From Schleswig-Holstein", around 1900, photo: Wilhelm Dreesen, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (Museum of Art and Design Hamburg) (CC0 1.0)

In 2019, employees of the Museumberg Flensburg (mountainMuseum Flensburg) will find an old wooden box whilst cleaning up the magazine. Inscribed with the word "Dreesen", the box contains glass plates with 300 photo negatives from the 19th century. The museum begins to investigate and finds out that these negatives have probably not left their containers for over 100 years. Many of them have probably never been published. Together with the Norwegian Reiselivsmuseum, an exhibition of the find comes to life, which can also be visited virtually: „Discovering Dreesen“.

"Reefed-Sail" from the portfolio "From Schleswig-Holstein", around 1900, photo: Wilhelm Dreesen, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (CC0 1.0)

Who is Whilhelm Dreesen?

Wilhelm Anton Georg Dreesen is born on 31 March 1840 in Rendsburg (Schleswig-Holstein). During his childhood, both parents die, thus he grows up in the military orphanage in Eckernförde. There he received training as a military swimming instructor, plays the trumpet in the regimental band and enlisted in the military service in 1864, to fight with the Danish side against Prussia, during the German-Danish war. Dreesen ends his military career in 1865 and opens a photo studio in Flensburg at the age of 25.

The business is running so well that, within a short amount of time, he can open further branches in the region. At this point, his career is developing rapidly: smaller, more handy cameras appear on the market and enable Dreesen to switch from portrait photography to landscape photography and to spread his art photographs. In 1887 he was appointed court photographer, within the same year he became an on-board photographer for the Hamburg America Line (HAPAG) and traveled the world on their ships. 

"Shepherdess at mud flats" from the portfolio "From Schleswig-Holstein", around 1900, photo: Wilhelm Dreesen, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (CC0 1.0)

What Dreesen documents during this time are a time of upheaval. Later – after the horrors of the First World War – called "Belle Époque" ("Beautiful Era"), falls into the period between around 1884 and 1914 a long time of peace within Europe. The economy and culture are experiencing a significant upturn, driven by the second wave of the Industrial Revolution. Progress is being made in a wide variety of areas of life: life expectancy is increasing, infant mortality decreasing. Workers organise themselves into trade unions and political parties, and incomes rise faster than prices.

The real profiteers of the beautiful era however, are not to be found within the working class, that only profits to a lesser extent from the progress, but within the middle class, that spends its time on the promenades of the cities, in galleries and museums or on extended journeys. Wilhelm Dreesen provides stimuli for these new leisure trips

"Carriage on the north german beach" from "A piece of Nature. Snapshots..." (1888), photographer: Wilhelm Dreesen, Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg (State Archives of Baden-Württemberg) (CC BY 3.0 Deutschland)

With his photo folders "Aus Schleswig-Holstein, Wilhelm Dreesen makes the "Land between the seas" known nationwide and shapes the image of the northernmost part of Germany at that time. His idyllic photographs of land, people, sheep and shrimp cutters gain bustling approval and are often reprinted. On a joint trip in 1891 with the painter Julius Runge, who likes to be shown suitable Schleswig-Holstein motifs by Dreesen, what he shows his friend is characterised by Dreesen as follows:

"Thus it is mainly about picturesque figures, they travelled to the mud flats behind Husum, where the shrimp fishermen pursued their work, in highly odd, colourful, torn clothing. During bathing season, both men and women walk for miles over the mud flats, both genders bare far above the knee and otherwise only hung with scanty rags."

"Made stylish" from the portfolio "From Schleswig-Holstein", around 1900, photo: Wilhelm Dreesen, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (CC0 1.0)

In addition to Schleswig-Holstein, with his photographs Dreesen ensures Norway is embedded on the new map of tourist destinations during his time. In 1891 he published his illustrated book "Norway – The Land of the Midnight Sun", which also appeared in Norwegian. The images of the glaciers and fjords characterise the image of Norway and prompt a Norwegian newspaper to state, that the tourism of the country probably owes no one as much as Wilhelm Dreesen.

Nevertheless Norway is not his sole aim. Dreesen travels the world for years and photographs the Mediterranean, Egypt, the USA and the Caribbean in order to publish successful illustrated books. His established prosperity does not last until the end of his lifetime: due to hyperinflation in the 1920s, Dreesen dies impoverished in Flensburg. His life's work disappears into wooden boxes, many of his photographs are destroyed during the Second World War, by bombings in Hamburg. Still, he has not been forgotten. 

More than 200 works by Wilhelm Dreesen are available in the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek.