Hartmann first became known to a large public for his poetic approach to industry and science and architecture through work undertaken for Fortune magazine in the 1950s such as Shapes of Sound, The Building of Saint Lawrence Seaway, The Deep North, and later published comparable essays on the poetics of science in Géo magazine.
Born in Munich, Hartmann made his first photographs in 1930 and immigrated to New York in 1938 with his family. He worked in the office of a textile mill, attended evening high school and took night classes at Siena College.
After voluntary military service in Europe (1943-45), Hartmann moved back to New York and learned photography first as the assistant to a portraitist, then (1948-1950) more formally at the New School for Social Research, with Charles Leirens, Berenice Abbot, and Alexey Brodovitch.
First associated with Magnum in 1951, Hartmann became a full member in 1954 and divided his time between magazine assignments and annual reports for IBM, Boeing, RCA, Ford Motor, Citroen, etc. His personal exhibit Sunday Under the Bridge opened at the Museum of the City of New York in 1956 and his book and exhibit Our Daily Bread toured widely in the US as of 1962. Hartmann traveled on assignment on English architecture for the London Daily Telegraph while also shooting features for the Johns Hopkins magazine, ABC Television, The Sunday Times, Venture, and The Sun.
From 1969 to 1973, Hartmann devoted much of his time to lecturing and teaching workshops at Syracuse University and the International Fund for Concerned Photography. In 1972 the European Space Research Organization and Arcade published Space: Focus Earth, a study of European satellites, their technology and design featuring a large number of Hartmann's photographs.
Hartmann was elected president of Magnum in 1985. As of the 1990s, he increasingly devoted himself to long-term personal projects, becoming a Magnum contributor in 1994. Among his most important projects is the recent one on concentration camps, which deals with the symbolism of these European landscapes awash with the memory of the Holocaust.
Hartmann, whose pictures have been exhibited internationally, has received numerous awards including a Photokina Award and Art Director's Club Prize.
Erich Hartmann, was born 29 July 1922 in Munich, Germany, the eldest child of parents who actually lived in Passau, a small city on the Danube near the Austrian border in which they were one of a handful of Jewish families. Their lives became increasingly difficult after the Nazi takeover in 1933, and in August 1938 they gratefully accepted an opportunity to immigrate to the United States. Hartmann returned to Europe during World War II as an American soldier, and then settled in New York City. In 1946 he married Ruth Bains; who gave him a son and a daughter.
Hartmann started as an assistant to a portrait photographer and then began working as a portraitist himself, taking pictures of authors, musicians, and other cultural figures. He soon took on industrial and commercial work as well, traveling throughout the United States to document the grain harvest, the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway, life in the upper Midwest during winter, and many other subjects. In 1951 he was invited to join Magnum Photos, the photographers' cooperative founded in 1947 by Robert Capa.
In a career that continued until literally a few days before he died, he took hundreds of thousands of color and black-and-white pictures. His photographic essays on innumerable aspects of the world's industry, technology, commerce, and culture were published in Fortune, Life, Time, Newsweek, Business Week, The New York Times Magazine, Venture,Travel and Leisure, Paris Match, Die Zeit, GEO, Focus (Germany), Epoca, Stern, Newton (Japan), and many other periodicals. His photographs appeared in annual reports, books, and brochures for corporate and institutional clients such as All Nippon Airways, AT&T, Boeing, Bowater, Citicorp, Corning Glass, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, DuPont, European Space Agency, Ford Motor Company, IBM, Israel Government Tourist Corporation, The Johns Hopkins University, Kimberly Clark, Mead Corporation, Monsanto, Pillsbury, Schlumberger, Telefonica PR, TWA, Voest Alpine, and Woolworth, among numerous others. In 1985 he was elected President of Magnum Photos.
In 1993 he undertook a project very different from his usual work, and of great personal significance to him. Travelling in winter through Germany, Poland, and other parts of Europe, he documented in black-and-white the remains of the Nazi concentration camp system from which he and his immediate family were so fortunately spared. A book containing those photographs and text by him and my mother was published in 1995 as In the Camps; versions in French, German, and Italian soon followed. A selection of the pictures was assembled into an exhibition that was shown in New York and elsewhere in the U.S., and then travelled to venues in Italy, France, Austria, and England.
Although much of his photography for corporate and industrial clients was in color, he was never without a camera loaded with black-and-white film. In the late 1990s he began make a definitive selection from fifty years of this personal work, and just a few months before his death he began discussions with a gallery in Austria about developing an exhibition called Where I Was. He died unexpectedly on 4 February 1999, but his wife decided to continue the task of defining and preparing the pictures, and the show opened at Galerie Fotohof in Salzburg on 27 June 2000. A review (in German) of the version of the exhibition presented at Leica Gallery in New York appeared in Aufbau, the German-Jewish newspaper published in New York City since 1934.