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Discovering Dreesen: a pioneering German photographer

Photographer, globetrotter, influencer

black and white photograph of two people standing in front of a large glacier
von
Dr Michael Fuhr (Museumsberg Flensburg)

Wilhelm Dreesen was one of the most influential photographers in the 19th century, who travelled the world taking photographs of far-flung places. But almost a century after his death, he and his innovative and award-winning photography have been somewhat forgotten.

That is until recently, when Museumsberg Flensburg discovered two wooden crates of nearly 300 glass negatives in their collections. The material in these boxes spans Dreesen's entire career all the way back to the 1870s. These negatives - which research shows had not been seen for more than 100 years - have been digitised and are now on display in a new physical and online exhibition.

Wilhelm Dreesen was born in March 1840 in Rendsburg in Schleswig-Holstein. Both of his parents died while Dreesen was still a child, meaning he grew up in a military orphanage and later joined the military. After retiring from military service in 1865, he founded a photography studio in Flensburg.

black and white photograph portrait of a young woman who wears a dress with a lace collar and necklace

The store did so well that he quickly opened branches across the region. Initially successful as a portrait photographer, Dreesen turned to landscape photography as soon as technical progress allowed cameras to be transportable with shorter exposure times. Dreesen was soon one of the pioneers of artistic photography in Germany, taking part in international exhibitions and winning numerous awards.

In 1887, he was appointed Imperial Court Photographer by the Crown Prince and later Kaiser Friedrich III. This honour opened the door to a great career for him.

In the same year, he signed a contract with HAPAG - the Hamburg America Line shipping company - and, from then on, travelled free of charge on their passenger steamers. In return, he made his photographs available to HAPAG for advertising purposes and thus became something like the first influencer. The range ranged from travel brochures with colourised photographs of landscapes and HAPAG steamers to travel guides and exclusive luxury editions of photo documentation that were distributed as gifts to HAPAG first class passengers.

colour image of an adverising image for Hamburg America Line with image of a sailor holding flags and text
black and white photograph of a boat at a quay

Two decades of adventure at sea followed. Since the business model worked perfectly, Dreesen entered into similar agreements with other shipping companies. The press reported on his travels, books were published, and his pictures aroused the desire to travel.

From 1891, he published not only postcards but also lavishly produced picture albums, which found huge sales across the region and increased his fame as well as his wealth.

In 1895, Wilhelm Dreesen attracted a lot of attention in Norway with his picture album 'Norway the Land of the Midnight Sun', which was also published in Norwegian. His images of the glaciers and fjords of Norway shaped the country's image for decades and made a significant contribution to opening up the country for tourism.

black and white photograph of a Norwegian fjord
black and white photograph of a number of boats and ships on a Norwegian fjord
black and white photograph of cityscape of Bergan, taken from above, with sailing boats in harbour in the centre

Wilhelm Dreesen used every opportunity to travel the world. Norway was his most frequent destination, but by no means his only one. He travelled to the Mediterranean, Egypt, the Baltic States and Eastern Europe, the United States and the Caribbean.

black and white photograph of people sitting at tables and chairs outside a cafe
black and white photograph of city scape of Danzig / Gdańsk

Hyperinflation in Germany in the 1910s and 1920s meant that Dreesen lost his fortune and died impoverished in Flensburg in 1926. His work was largely forgotten since then - until now.

The glass negatives discovered in the crates have been digitised and are now on display in the exhibition Discovering Dreesen: Photographer, globetrotter, influencer in Museumsberg Flensburg until 13 February 2022. The exhibition will also be on display at the Norwegian Museum of Travel and Tourism in Sognefjord from May to October 2022. The exhibition can also be explored online - in English, German and Norwegian - at the website Discovering Dreesen.

Photography Germany