Station: [21] Franz Schensky – The Artist

A storm was raging over Heligoland. Out at sea, a rowing boat coming from the north-west had set course for the island. In the prow of the boat, a heavy tarpaulin was sheltering precious cargo: Franz Schensky’s large-format camera. The photographer had ventured out with a crew of brave seamen to take probably his most famous picture: Heligoland in Heavy Seas, shot in 1912. Powerful waves loom in the foreground, with the dark rock beyond.

Franz Schensky saw photography as a craft, but the work that has come down to us goes way beyond that. It’s said he already had the image in his head before he took the photograph. At the time, there were limits on what photography could achieve due to the level of technological development, and Schensky was trying to breach those limits. He was a perfectionist, and despite slow shutter speeds and unwieldy equipment, he managed to capture the dramatic force of the raging sea in his photograph – and the weightlessness of the seagull in flight. His goal was to record the subject in motion, vividly and without too much staging. His portraits of the Heligoland fisher folk reflect the same realism. The photographs of their weather-beaten faces concentrate on the essentials and are impressive in their great objectivity.

The photographs Schensky took at the Heligoland aquarium are regarded as masterpieces. For the first time, a photographer succeeded in taking pictures of sea creatures under water. Schensky experimented for twelve years before he achieved the desired results for a multi-volume publication about life in the North Sea. He set fire to large quantities of magnesium powder to produce a flash. At one point, he even blew the roof off the aquarium. But the resulting pictures were worth the effort. They show an underwater landscape that conveys the motion and grace of the sea creatures in ways never witnessed before. 

In 2003, Heligoland Museum was able to secure a unique treasure. For decades, fourteen hundred original glass negatives had remained undiscovered in a cellar on the island. Schensky’s descendants had stored them there and later forgotten about them. The museum has taken on the task of processing this treasure trove and preserving it as part of the island’s cultural heritage.

All depictions: © Nordseemuseum Museum Helgoland