Words - 20th Century Greats - Walter Nurnberg


20th Century Greats series (1999)

Walter Nurnberg, OBE (1907 – 1991)

For three decades, the industrial images of Walter Nurnberg, OBE, were a benchmark and challenge to every other photographer in the field. John Chillingworth observes that his influence on British photography was profound, although history could have intervened and we might never have witnessed his flawless technique.

As he retired, intellectual, teacher and photographer Walter Nurnberg had every right to look back with some satisfaction.

The Queen’s recognition of his services to industry and photography with an OBE was richly deserved, but contemporary history also played its part.

During his formative years in Berlin, where his father was a respected banker, Nurnberg had originally intended to become a musician. Instead, he started training in banking and business administration.

The experience had bored him to distraction, but when in the late ‘20’s, on a business visit to the Reimann School of Arts and Crafts, his life ambitions took a dramatic turn. Being financially independent, he cast banking aside and signed on as a photography student for two years (1931-32).

On graduating, he took a job with a Berlin advertising agency. He learned fast and applied the Bauhaus influenced lighting principles he had studied so carefully at the school.

The experience proved to be a brief interlude. When Hitler and the National Socialist movement came to power, rising anti-Semitism, as well as threats to the arts and education meant one thing for him and for Germany – disaster.

By the spring of 1934, like many other gifted people who had fled Germany, he had settled permanently in London, where he set up a photographic studio and rapidly established himself as a professional photographer.

Walking tall in London
With a good command of spoken and written English, Nurnberg’s intellectual powers soon led him to write articles for trade magazines, in which he effectively conveyed his philosophy of photography.

In 1937, when the Reimann School, driven from Berlin by the regime, had re-established itself in London, Nurnberg became a part-time teacher. Concurrently, his photography for a number of ‘blue-chip’ clients made a dramatic mark on the London advertising scene.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Nurnberg found himself an ‘honorary Briton’, serving in the Army until 1944, when he was invalided out on medical grounds.

Shooting a series of stirring portraits of servicemen and women entitled ‘The Fighting Face of Britain’ for a Sunday newspaper, his images proved to be the opening salvos in his battle to change the face of British photography.

Post-war watershed
Rebuilding his career, Nurenberg became a naturalised British subject in 1947. Taking industry as his subject, he used a Rolliflex 6cm x 6cm twin-lens camera and tungsten lighting, employing his powerful personality to single-handedly change the depressed attitudes of run down, near bankrupt post-war British industry.

His books on lighting for Focal Press had became industry standards and for years to come, whilst his photography commanded high fees and even higher accolades. Particularly memorable were the covers of
Engineering, a glossy Design Council magazine in which his dramatically lit images appeared regularly for fifteen years.

Starting a second career in 1960 as head of the Guildford School of Photography, after its move to the West Surrey College of Art and Design, he was plunged immediately into troubled waters. At the time, student sit-in’s and strikes were common-place, but to his credit, he won the hearts and minds of the more responsible student population and his tenure was crowned with success.

The value of Nurnberg’s contribution to 20th century photography was twofold. Firstly, by doggedly sticking to his lighting principles, creating memorable black and white images for the printed page he did much to boost the image and confidence of British industry.

More importantly his work challenged and inspired those who followed. The best of them have sought and found new creative ways to convey the vitality and power of the fast-changing face of world industry.

© Copyright John Chillingworth