In 1978, Paul Vogt, director of the Museum Folkwang from 1963 to 1988, decided to establish a photography department; he was able to convince the curator Ute Eskildsen to take on the task. However, the name Folkwang had long been closely associated with an interest in and commitment to photography. Just a year after the foundation of the Museum Folkwang in Hagen in 1902 by Karl Ernst Osthaus, a first exhibition on international professional photography took place. In 1912, photographs by Hugo Erfurth, Rudolf Dührkoop, Nicola Perscheid and Jacob Hilsdorf were exhibited as part of an arts and crafts exhibition organized for the USA. 

After the First World War, new trends in photography were presented in Essen in the 1920’s – under the influence of Kurt Wilhelm-Kästner, who worked at the museum from 1923 to 1933. Well before the legendary German Work Federation exhibition ‘Film und Fotografie’, in 1929, Wilhelm-Kästner initiated a ‘Contemporary Photography’ project which included, among other things, a lecture by László Moholy-Nagy on “Photography and Film of the Future”. This was followed by ‘Das Lichtbild’, an exhibition from Munich extended to include a “systematic section” by Wilhelm-Kästner together with Max Burchartz, who at the time was teaching graphics and photography at the Folkwangschule für Gestaltung. With examples coming in part from Burchartz’ classes, it illustrated the design conditions and potential of photographic presentation. Before his dismissal in 1933, Wilhelm-Kästner succeeded in organizing the French Bauhaus student Florence Henri’s first individual exhibition. 

Two other names are important in looking back at the tradition of photography in Essen. Albert Renger-Patzsch had his studio in the Museum Folkwang from 1929 to 1944, the year the building was destroyed, and it was during this period that he produced his extensive work on the Ruhr Area. He was also a teacher at the Folkwangschule for a short time in 1933. After the Second World War, Werner Graeff, author of the programmatic book ‘Es kommt der Neue Fotograf’ (1929), together with Max Buchartz, who had been re-hired for the introductory course, sought to revive the creativity of the 1920’s.

Otto Steinert
In 1959, Otto Steinert was nominated for a post at the Folkwangschule für Gestaltung, where he took over the photography class. In the same year he began his guest curator activities with the Museum Folkwang with the exhibition ‘One Hundred Years of Photography 1839 – 1939 from the Gernsheim Collection’. Up to his death in 1978 he regularly organized instalments of an exhibition series entitled ‘Contributions to the History of Photography’. Already in Saarbrucken, where Steinert had been teaching at the Staatlichen Schule für Kunst und Handwerk, he had worked on expanding a specialized photography library. Moreover, through his contacts, the Saarlandmuseum in Saarbrucken was able to make its first acquisitions of photographs.

Directly after taking up his post in Essen, Otto Steinert raised the idea of establishing a collection on the history of photography. Quite surprisingly, by 1961 he had managed to convince the City of Essen’s cultural section of his plan, his Gernsheim collection show seemingly having been a clever introduction of the subject. With a budget of DM 25,000, Steinert was able to acquire the foundations of the future municipal collection at a photography auction in Geneva that year. 144 calotypes by the Scottish portrait artists David Octavious Hill and Robert Adamson were purchased for DM 8,500, together with an exquisite selection of 19th century architectural photography. Over the nearly twenty-year period that Steinert held his teaching post in Essen, this collection was expanded to include work groups, for example by Heinrich Kühn and Hugo Erfurth, individual works by László Moholy-Nagy, Florence Henri or Aenne Biermann among others, as well as images by contemporaries of the photographer Steinert. His commitment to teaching and exhibitions provided a decisive impulse both to photographic training and to the reception of the history of photography in Germany.
The Photographic Collection since 1978
Thanks to the director of museum at the time, Paul Vogt, after Otto Steinert’s death in 1978, the ca. 3,500 photographs in the Folkwangschule für Gestaltung collection were transferred to the Museum Folkwang as the foundation of an independent department. Although the Folkwangschule für Gestaltung had been merged with the University of Essen in 1972, so that it was administered by the State of North Rhine-Westphalia and not the City of Essen, the photographic collection financed by municipal funds, continued to remain exclusively for use in the classroom. With the establishment of the department ‘Photographic Collection in the Museum Folkwang’ in the autumn of 1978, that part of photographic training initiated by Otto Steinert, teaching the history of photography using original examples – something unique in Germany at the time – came to an end. From that time on, the collection was open to the public and its holdings made known through numerous publications. Through the work of Paul Vogt and Ute Eskildsen, close ties were established with regional foundations whose support has allowed the collection to continue to expand. With the help of the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach-Stiftung and thanks to Berthold Beitz’ personal commitment, Otto Steinert’s private photography collection and his library, and then later his photographic estate were acquired and an extensive lot of the works of August Sander, of portrait photographs from the 1920’s, and of photogramme works by László Moholy-Nagy could be purchased. From 1978 to 1983, when the new wing of the Museum Folkwang was completed, the Photographic Collection remained at the Folkwangschule in Essen-Werden. During this period the collection was catalogued. In the autumn/winter of 1983 the collection was then presented in the exhibition ‘Die Fotografische Sammlung’ in the Museum Folkwang and since then the Photographic Collection has presented a vast range of exhibitions, imparting the broad spectrum of photographic activity –historical and contemporary. Furthermore, since 1972 a number of grant programs have been developed by the Photographic Collection, serving both support of photographic production and publication as well as training of young curators.