With his photographs, Franz Schensky has influenced people’s view of the island like no other. Born on Heligoland in 1871, young Schensky trained as a photographer in Thüringen and returned home at the age of 19.
Here, he opened a photographic studio in the Unterland – the lowlands. At first, Schensky made his living mainly as a portrait photographer. His speciality was taking photos of holiday visitors in a folksy setting. He’d have them dress in local Heligoland costume and take pictures in his studio – in a mock-up of a wooden boat with props borrowed from the fishing industry. But these amusing souvenirs didn’t reflect the photographer’s personal interests.
Whenever there was an opportunity, Schensky would sling his large format camera over his shoulder and go out and about on the island. He’d photograph the islanders’ everyday lives. His shots bear witness to the hard, and often poverty-stricken lives of the fishing families. They also give an insight into historical Heligoland with its prestigious resort architecture in the lowlands, and life in the uplands. The sea, the forces of nature, and the flora and fauna were his muse. He photographed them in a personal artistic style that was far ahead of his time.
Even during his life time, Schensky became internationally famous for his photographs. He won more than 50 awards and was given the title of court photographer.
His photographic work is also a pictorial atlas of Heligoland’s history. He was there with his camera in 1890, when Kaiser Emperor Wilhelm the Second personally took possession of the formerly British island. He recorded the military build-up on the island in preparation for two world wars, as well as the complete destruction of his home.
In 1944, when Royal Air Force fighter aircraft dropped incendiary bombs on the lowlands, Schensky grabbed his camera and took pictures from the uplands as his house and his life’s work went up in flames.
Born as a native of Heligoland under the UK flag, Schensky was no friend to the Nazis. He’d doubted their superiority and wisely moved an important part of his archive to the mainland during the war, where it was safe.
At the end of the war, Schensky and his family fled to the town of Schleswig. During several visits to the island, he created a photographic record of Heligoland’s reconstruction after 1952, though he was never able to return. Schensky died in Schleswig in 1957 at the age of 85.
All depictions: © Nordseemuseum Museum Helgoland