Hannes Richter

Through the Lens of a Master

Hannes Richter

“The Passport to a Fascinating Life”

Volkmar Wentzel spent most of his life traveling the globe, and he has become a household name for those with a passion for the art of photography. If he is not as well known as many other photographers, it is because of his notorious modesty. As a staff member of the National Geographic Society for nearly fifty years, he was always given great freedom as to where and when he would photograph. He covered people and places in North and South America, Europe from Spitzbergen to the Mediterranean, Africa from the Maghreb to the Cape and from the shores of Coromandal to the steppes of the Central Asian Plateau.

He was told by his editors in 1946 to simply "do India." He subsequently spent two years covering the subcontinent. The experiences of his life have been an education in photography as few have ever enjoyed. Along the way, he made friends who became colleagues and teachers. They widened his perspective and taught him of the grandeur and misery of vanished empires, of the sole and historical experience of peoples, landscapes and cities. In his beautiful photographs one glimpses the rare wedding of a Zulu king to a Swazi princess, the last feudal splendors of the Indian maharajahs, and the coming face of the world embodied in presidents and prophets such as Pandit Nehru and the Mahatma, and their many imitators and contemporaries. Two of his professional colleagues, who became especially good friends, were National Geographic editors, Beverly M. Bowie and Peter T. White. They helped refine his natural appreciation of many things, including his love of Austria.

Wentzel developed a special fondness for the Austrian Republic and its complex, often contradictory roots in the long past of the Habsburg Empire. Along with them, he felt the easy welcome among its people, especially their enthusiasm for his Americanness, despite his German-born heritage. He enjoyed what remained of the privilege and elegance of the Austrian past like the charming couturier models at Adlmüller's Salon in the Kärntnerstraße, the languid humor of the pre-1914 coffeehouses, the pre-war comic figures Bobby and Rudi (Austrian equivalent of Laurel & Hardy), and the Vienna jokes that after 1938 emigrated to New York and have later returned to Vienna, where they again, while slightly altered, are the coin of the realm.


A village in the Burgenland near the Hungarian border

Both Bowie and White, the former a cultivated cosmopolitan American, the latter a gentle intellectual born and raised in Vienna, were able to see that Austria was older, deeper and stronger than the strident clashing ideologies of the street with their merciless emphasis on the importance of race and class, the faces filled with hatred and fear, the tawdry uniforms adorned with guns, belts and hobnail boots of the chaotic, tragic 1930s. They collaborated with Wentzel for many years, resulting in five National Geographic assignments in Austria between 1952 and 1961. White, now a retired NGS editor and writer, contributed much of his own personal knowledge and nostalgia for the gemütliche pre-Hitler Vienna, much of which was revived without effort after 1945 and is wonderfully illustrated in Wentzel's photographs.

Viennese sausage stand

Two photographs that illustrate the range of his aesthetic sensitivity and technical mastery are Cellini’s Saltcellar (front cover), the incomparable Renaissance master's only surviving gold sculpture that until recently resided in the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum and now has been lost to mankind having been stolen last year; and the now world renowned conductor and musical scholar, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, with his twelve member baroque ensemble, the Concentus Musicus, then unknown outside a small circle of admirers, playing Hausmusik. A small sample of Mr. Wentzel's other unpublished photographs of Austria are reproduced in this article. His combination of technical mastery, humanistic sensitivity and buoyant interest in humanity is palpable. There is no one quite like him in the world of photography today. (cont.)

All photos by Volkmar Wentzel