Researching the photographer Lisel Haas

Recently, I presented at the ‘Another Eye: Women refugee photographers after 1933’ conference, which was done in partnership with Four Corners. I talked about Lisel Haas (1898-1989), a German-born Jewish photographer who settled in Birmingham in 1938. I had been introduced to her work during a module in my final year undergrad, and I was asked to put together a presentation for a seminar about her. I initially was just going to throw together a simple biographical account of her life and work, but found myself questioning the narratives framing her work, and so my research developed into something much more interesting. This post is an edited version of my presentation script.

Lisel Haas is a relatively unknown photographer. Very little information about her or her life is accessibly known. Birmingham City Archives has a store of about 70 boxes of photographs and documents from Haas which are yet to even be catalogued. Currently, the only real research conducted on Haas is that by Amy Shulman which has been presented in her 2011 MPhil thesis entitled ‘Photography, memory and identity: the emigre photographer Lisel Haas (1898-1989)’. As I have been unable to visit the archives myself, my research is indebted to Shulman’s work.

Lisel Haas, photograph of unknown family, date unknown, Postcard Portraits – Couples and Groups, MS2202 Box 54, Lisel Haas Collection, Birmingham City Archives

After the war, Haas established a commercial portrait studio. Her commissioned family portraits are of great interest in considering how photography is used to construct an identity, and particularly in constructions of hegemonic, heteronormative familial structures. Haas has been commended for her talent in creating natural portraits of families. Shulman in her thesis argued that ‘it is possible that [Haas] was able to deliver such a natural portrait photograph because of a longing for her own family identity to be restored’. However, Haas did move to Birmingham with her family, and evidence suggests that she was close to them. Notions that Haas longed for a family appear to be based on hegemonic, heteronormative assumptions of the nuclear family ideal. Haas lived with a woman her entire life, and they considered each other partners. It is her identity as someone living outside of the confines of hegemonic family structures which aided her practice in constructing images of families adhering to ideals of heteronormative structures. Haas was a highly successful commercial portrait photographer whose work constructs a particular middle-class identity, presenting to others that these families fit in with the ideals of respectability and are part of the hegemonic mainstream. In this article, I shall go through an overview of her life and work, and then examine her family portrait  photography practice in more detail.

Lisel Haas was born on the 12th October 1898 to Jewish parents in Mönchengladbach, a city in west Germany near Düsseldorf and the Netherlands border. I was unable to find much information on her parents, especially her mother. Her brother, Hans Erich, worked as a psychoanalyst. She was trained in painting, although I was unable to find any details about this training. In Mönchengladbach, Haas owned and ran her own photography studio and would occasionally conduct some commercial portrait work. She worked primarily as a photojournalist, in particular for the Catholic magazine Weltwarte. She also worked as a photographer for Gladbach Town theatre. On 18th October 1938, she was issued with a decree that forced her to label her studio as a Jewish business. During Kristallnacht, her studio was targeted. On 15th November 1938, Haas and her father left Germany and joined her brother’s family in Birmingham that December. 

After moving to Birmingham, in 1940 she gained a permit to work as a theatre photographer for the Birmingham Repertory. She photographed almost every production there at a time when many promising young actors appeared – including Albert Finney, Ian Richardson, and Derek Jacobi. She also photographed at the Birmingham Crescent Theatre, the Alexandra Theatre Birmingham, Belgrade Theatre Coventry, and the Kidderminster Playhouse. After the war, she was able to set up her own studio in her home at 12 Grove Avenue, Moseley. Throughout the rest of her life, she worked as a commercial portrait photographer, primarily catering to families. She lived with her life-partner, Grete Bermbach, and died in Birmingham in 1989. She returned to Germany only once in her life in order to collect some belongings which had been left with a friend, although I was unable to find details about this trip and do not know when it took place.

I am now going to discuss some of her family portraiture. She did create some family portraits while in Germany, however, it wasn’t until after the war that she established herself as a commercial portrait photographer. Haas explained that “as much as I liked my permit for Stage and Artists […] I was glad when […] after the war and my naturalisation, my partner and I took up portrait photography again”. Haas was very skilled as a portrait photographer, and has been commended for making her sitters feel comfortable and natural in front of the camera, especially children. She presents these families as pertaining to a certain hegemonic ideal of the nuclear family. For families, photographs like these construct and showcase a certain identity, presenting to others that they fit in with the ideals of respectability. As you can see in the photograph from the Harris and 2 Sons series, the presentation of the family is constructed in a certain way, with the mother being the centre of the family. Family portraits like this form part of a certain middle-class family lifestyle. It shows to others that this family is respectable and functional.

Lisel Haas, photograph from the Harris and 2 Sons series, 1974, MS2202 Box 3 Colour Prints 1962-1973, Lisel Haas Collection, Birmingham City Archives 

The main written literature on Lisel Haas is a MPhil thesis by Amy Shulman. In this thesis, Shulman suggests that Haas worked as a family photographer in order to satisfy some longing for a family which was left behind in Germany. Shulman writes that ‘she used family portrait photography in an attempt to overcome personal losses of home and family.’ I, however, disagree with this idea. There is not documented evidence to suggest that Haas was dissatisfied with her family arrangement. Her brother and his family had been living in Birmingham since the mid 1930s, and she travelled to the UK with her father. Shulman’s thesis is largely based on oral testimony from Haas’s niece, Dorothy Williams, which suggests that they had a close relationship, and Haas was in touch with her wider family. There is, certainly, an argument about the impact of motherhood, as during my research I was unable to find any mention of Haas’s mother anywhere.

Lisel Haas, two photographs from the R & S Berck series, date unknown, MS2202 Box 1 Colour Prints 1962-1973, Lisel Haas Collection, Birmingham City Archives 

Shulman writes in her thesis that: ‘Haas’s experiences as an émigré and her own family life may have influenced some of the ways in which she portrayed a number of her clients in their photographs and, in doing so, attempted to reconstruct the ruptures in her own life… it is possible that she was able to deliver such a natural portrait photograph because of a longing for her own family identity to be restored.’ I disagree with the notion that she was a successful family portrait photographer because of a longing for family identity to be restored, not only because it is clear that she was not disconnected from her close family, but it undermines her status as a successful and intelligent commercial photographer. It reduces her down to the gender roles expected of a woman, and I find it hard to believe that a male commercial family photographer would have been written about in this way. Haas’s photographs portray a model of the heteronormative family, and it is questionable to what extent did Haas long for that type of family arrangement. This idea seems based in hegemonic heteronormative constructions of the family, and forgets queer constructions of the family. Evidence suggests that Haas was actually a queer individual, as she lived with Grete Bermbach for most of her life. Shulman explains that ‘although it cannot be assumed from this that their relationship was a sexual union, indication may allude to the existence of a suppressed lesbian relationship’. As such, we must queer the family and consider how queer people construct family identities outside of the biological family arrangement. There is no evidence to suggest that Haas ever longed for a rigid nuclear family or to adhere to hegemonic ideals of the family. Even if Haas was not a queer individual, that does not mean that we should assume that she longed for a heteronormative nuclear family ideal. Perhaps Haas’s family portrait photography is so in tune with hegemonic ideals, as in being an outsider to this normative structure, she would have been more aware of these unspoken definitions than someone living within them. She was probably aware of the outside societal pressures expected of her because she lived outside of heteronormative structures, and so through this hyper-awareness, was able to successfully construct a specific middle-class definition of the family in her photography.

I feel that you also cannot say that her photography is rooted in a desire for a family structure, as family portraiture was not new to her career in the UK. There are examples in her work in Germany of family portraits which are similar to her portraiture in the UK.

Lisel Haas, photograph from the Vater und Sohn series, date unknown, MS2202 Box 15, Lisel Haas Collection, Birmingham City Archives. 
Lisel Haas, photograph from the Harris and 2 Sons series, 1974, MS2202 Box 3 Colour Prints 1962-1973, Lisel Haas Collection, Birmingham City Archives.

While it is true that she only took up family portraiture full time after moving to Britain, there are other reasons as to why this may have been the case. She was a photojournalist in Germany, and so could have potentially considered this work, however, the photographers in magazines such as Picture Post were anonymous, and so if she wanted to establish a name for herself, this wouldn’t have been a suitable avenue for that. It may also have been because even while in Germany working as a photojournalist, she had a passion for portraiture and a lot of her photojournalism was based on portraits of people in marginalised groups. Commercial portrait photography provided her with a lucrative business model that allowed her to pursue her interest in portraiture. It also meant that she was able to manage her own studio in the comfort of her own home. 

Lisel Haas, Anne Smart, 1972, MS2202 Box 4 Colour Prints 1962-1973, Lisel Haas Collection, Birmingham City Archives

As well as photographing families, Haas would create solo portraits, usually of women. In these photographs she breaks the usual hegemonic confines that are identifiable in her family portraits. Shulman explains ‘the photograph of Anne Smart taken in 1972… focuses on the delicate beauty ideals of an independent young woman of the time. The unimposing studio background has allowed Haas to concentrate on Smart without having to negotiate marital and/or familial duties. She gazes beyond the camera and does not engage its presence with her eyes. Although she wears makeup, Smart has a defiant look which has been illuminated by Haas. The self-sufficiency of this woman is a reflection of Haas and her professional independence.’ Haas, as an independent career-focussed woman, recognises these identities in her portraits of solo women, showcasing them as powerful individuals who are aware of their position and strength. Haas emphasises these women’s identities as unconnected to being a mother or daughter, perhaps showing that she herself was comfortable and enjoyed living outside these rigid familial definitions which were often all that were accessible to women. There is also a recognisable natural familiarity, showing that her clients were comfortable in her studio. Her portraits of women are notably progressive, and Haas said in a speech to Birmingham Jewish Women’s group that ‘When I first showed my photographs to my customers, I always heard them telling me the same: I do love your photographs, but, you see, the pictures are for my parents or grandparents and they are rather conservative in their taste’. 

Lisel Haas, photograph of unknown woman, date unknown, MS2022 Box 57, Lisel Haas Collection, Birmingham City Archives 

Haas, through both her theatre and commercial portrait photography, made significant contributions to the visual history of Birmingham. Her theatre photography has provided us with documentation of all the Rep theatre plays. Her family portrait photography will have provided many families in Moseley and beyond with documented memories and images of their ancestors, which otherwise may not have existed. Her work helped to construct a visual language for how family portraits should be created. 

In regards to Haas, photography and displacement are keenly related in creating a language which crosses physical borders. Haas believed that photography is a ‘universal language through which we are able to remember events and personal memories.’ The Moseley society explains that Haas ‘believed that ‘life’ provided the link between her and her sitters, and gave the pictures their force and effect. Photography, she felt, was charged by life and by living.’ As an émigré photographer who was targeted by the Nazi regime and had to flee for her personal safety, her photography stands in defiance of attempted historical erasure. 

Lisel Haas was a highly successful commercial portrait photographer in Birmingham whose work has a lasting impact on the legacy and history of many families. Her portraits reflect her talent and ability as a commercial photographer, as her ability to make her sitters feel comfortable is evident in all her portraits. Her work is highly important to the history of Moseley and wider Birmingham. I would recommend reading Amy Shulman’s thesis if you are interested in learning more about Haas, it is an invaluable resource that contains a lot of images and documents that I was unable to find anywhere else.

Photographer unknown, Lisel Haas, date unknown, courtesy of Dorothy Williams 

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