Around the world with a camera in hand: How Richard Fleischhut made on-board photography into an art form

The great age of passenger shipping in the first half of the last century is associated with impressive pictures of famous ships and people. Many of these pictures were taken by photographers who went along on the voyages themselves – Richard Fleischhut was one of them.

Born in 1881 in the Pomeranian city of Koszalin, there was nothing to suggest that Richard Fleischhut would spend most of his professional life on the open sea. As a young man, he had a keen interest in photography and trained in this field. However, the latest technology at the time made him regard it as too uncertain a profession, so he subsequently undertook an apprenticeship in confectionery. This qualification enabled him to find a job in 1905 on board the express steamer “Kronprinz Wilhelm” owned by North German Lloyd.

Transatlantic Scene: Richard Fleischhut documented numerous crossings of the "Bremen". Captain Leopold Ziegenbein on the bridge in front of the Manhattan. © Richard Fleischhut / Deutsches Historisches Museum

However, while working in the kitchen, he continued to pursue his passion and earned an extra crust by selling his photographic works. The shipping company was happy to let him do so – evidently recognising his talent as well as his popularity among passengers. He declined the opportunity to become head chef, and instead dedicated his energy to being a full-time photographer on board from 1907 onwards, which he continued to do for more than 30 years. The Second World War put an abrupt end to this career.

Work scene in the dock: In the background, the steamer "Leviathan", which previously sailed as the "Vaterland" for Hapag. © Richard Fleischhut / Deutsches Historisches Museum

Right in the middle of it all

Working on board a ship provided the photographer with a varied environment in which to perform his activities: the passengers enthused over sophisticated portraits and fitting snapshots and enjoyed taking images of distant lands with them as souvenirs. In addition, the crew, the ship and the sea – with its interplay of waves, clouds and sunlight – were popular themes for him. Over the years, Fleischhut visited all the continents on numerous liner voyages and cruises.

Fleischhut is said to have embraced his work with enthusiasm and a willingness to take risks. From up on the mast, he would look for a particular perspective, or only jump onto the gangway at the last moment before the ship departed. He confronted the elements for shots of stormy conditions – a breaking wave once threw him against the railing and ripped his camera away. Weeks later, he still bore the wounds as a reminder. This level of devotion earned him a nickname: “the omnipresent one”.

Gradually, Fleischhut developed his own personal pictorial language which exhibited modern style elements at an early stage and in which his professional activities took on the form of artistry. This set him apart from his peers. He often succeeded not just in reproducing an object but in capturing its very essence in his pictures.

New York: View from the "Bremen" to Chelsea Piers © Richard Fleischhut / Deutsches Historisches Museum

“Mr. Wonderful” and the stars

When the new transatlantic express steamer “Bremen”, owned by North German Lloyd, undertook its maiden voyage in 1929 – a journey that allowed it to attain the unofficial accolade of Blue Riband for the fastest westerly crossing – Fleischhut was on board, just as he was on more than 150 further voyages by the famous luxury liner. The ship carried a glamorous mix of passengers, with many internationally prominent faces among them, and on-board photographer Fleischhut became the picture chronicler of a mobile transatlantic scene that had not yet heard of the faster alternative of air travel.

Film stars like Cary Grant, Marlene Dietrich and Buster Keaton, musicians such as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Vladimir Horowitz and Fred Astaire, prominent politicians and entrepreneurs like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Henry Ford can be found in his pictures along with many others. Amid the relaxed atmosphere on board, Fleischhut approached passengers with humility and reverence – enabling “Mr Wonderful”, as he was called on the “Bremen”, to take pictures of particular personal intensity.

Dance partners: Fred and Adele Astaire. Until the early 1930s, the siblings toured the brother and sister toured the world © Richard Fleischhut / Deutsches Historisches Museum

His last pictures

However, National Socialism in Germany cast its shadow on him, too: on account of his wife’s Jewish maiden name and his own “conspicuously friendly behaviour towards certain prominent passengers”, by which Jewish people were meant, he had to continue his activities on board the “Columbus” off the trans-Atlantic route. With the scuttling of this ship in December 1939, an act that he documented in picture, Fleischhut’s career as an on-board photographer came to an end.

70 years ago, on 14 June 1951, Richard Fleischhut died. He is regarded as a special figure among the on-board photographers of his time and left an impressive artistic legacy, which is now housed in the German Historical Museum in Berlin.

Switching roles: Richard Fleischhut both in front of and behind the camera © Richard Fleischhut / Deutsches Historisches Museum

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