Photographing celebrities and well-known personalities can be a tricky affair. That wasn’t the case, however, if the great German photographer Robert Lebeck was behind the camera. He worked with famous people from politics and culture and shot them in a very natural, almost playful light. Alfred Hitchcock, for example, responded to Lebeck’s invitation to "play around a bit", by glancing up from behind a train cabin door in Hamburg, as if he was a British spy. Famous Austrian actress Romy Schneider, whose portrait Lebeck took many times, was so photogenic that the finished pictures exuded charm. While conductor Herbert von Karajan was so absorbed and in his element that he did not even notice the click of the camera.

Robert Lebeck was born in 1929 in Berlin. When he was given his first camera in 1952, little did he know that he would become one of the country’s most important photojournalists of his time. After studying anthropology, he devoted himself entirely to photography.

His photographic training is said to have lasted just 10 minutes – the time that is needed to read the manual of his then new Retina 1a. Lebeck's early years seemed typical of a reporter living in the postwar period. They were improvised, rapid and unprepared. He allegedly developed his early photos in the bathroom and dried them in the slipstream of his scooter. He has learned the rest in passing – from colleagues and friends like Herbert Tobias – and by sheer luck.

Soon he was hired by a newspaper in Heidelberg as a photographer and later, in 1955, he photographed for the magazines Revue and Kristall. The weekly Stern became aware of Lebeck's work and hired him. After a stint as editor of Geo he returned to Stern.

In his work nothing seems forced and the deep black-and-white spectrum of many of his works reflects a flirtatious gesture, daring inquiry or gratifying compliment from the photographer himself. He said: "If I smile at you now, then you cannot help but smile back." And they have smiled back – over several decades in great numbers. Sophia Loren and Maria Callas, Günter Grass, and Willy Brandt. Even of reclusive Romy Schneider Lebeck made unforgettable portraits. "She was incredibly photogenic. Probably the camera-friendliest person I've ever gotten before the lens."

For Lebeck's 85th birthday this year retrospectives were held in the Berlin gallery Johanna Breede and the Flo Peters Gallery in Hamburg, who honoured the great photojournalist and philanthropist with an extensive exhibition. He died on 14 June in Berlin. 


Images © Robert Lebeck Courtesy Johanna Breede PHOTOKUNST