Hans Namuth was born March 17, 1915 in Essen, Germany. His interests in his youth were mainly politics and the arts. Namuth cites his mother as most responsible for encouraging his interest in music and the arts. As a teenager, Namuth became familiar with German expressionism and French impressionism through the Folkwang Museum. Namuth's father joined the Nazi Party in 1931 after becoming disillusioned due to an economic decline. This contrasted with the political views of his son, who found himself drawn to the liberal German Youth Movement. After Hans Namuth was arrested and briefly jailed for distributing anti-Nazi materials in July 1933, Namuth's father intervened and arranged for him to be sent to Paris. During his time in Paris, Namuth took an assortment of jobs including newspaper boy, researcher, and dishwasher.
Namuth befriended many German expatriates in Paris, including photographer Georg Reisner. In 1935, Reisner invited Namuth to assist him with his studio in Port de Pollença, Spain, and introduced the 20-year-old Namuth to photography. After several months, the two returned to Paris, supporting themselves with photojournalism and occasional portraits. Namuth and Reisner were sent to cover the Workers' Olympiad in July 1936 by French magazine Vu, which put them in Barcelona during the opening stages of the Spanish Civil War. Over the next nine months, the two photographed the war, providing photos to European publications. Namuth and Reisner returned to Paris in 1937 and continued their careers as photographers until 1939. While in Paris, Namuth studied with Joseph Breitenbach, who taught him the technical aspects of photography. After increased tension and hostilities between France and Germany, Namuth and his fellow German expatriates were interned, though Namuth joined the French Foreign Legion to avoid his confinement. After being discharged in 1940, Namuth fled to Marseilles and escaped to the United States with the help of journalist Varian Fry and his Emergency Rescue Committee. He arrived in New York City in 1941 and planned to join the Office of Strategic Services in 1943 out of a desire "to do something about everything". However, he had fallen in love with French-born Guatemalan Carmen Herrera and delayed his enlistment until he was drafted for World War II in December 1943. After completing basic training, Namuth joined the intelligence services and worked as an interrogator and interpreter in England, France, and Czechoslovakia. Upon returning to Germany in 1945 to gather war criminals, Namuth realized, "I really had cut my navel cord completely and totally, not just with my home and family but with the country as such. I was completely out of it." Namuth did not return to Germany until 1970.
With the conclusion of World War II, Namuth left the army, having been awarded the Purple Heart and Croix de Guerre. Namuth returned to New York determined to raise enough money for his family while keeping photography as a hobby. After working for a paper research company for about a year and a half, the company went bankrupt, leaving Namuth without a job. Namuth realized he had been "doing something that really was not my dish", and decided to return full-time to photography. He set up his kitchen as a darkroom and began doing location work for architecture magazines, as he had been interested in architecture and design. Namuth was introduced to Alexey Brodovitch, a photographer, instructor, and art director of Harper's Bazaar. Namuth began taking Brodovitch's classes at The New School of Social Research, where he learned how to develop ideas and how to engage the concepts of his images from Brodovitch. He began working for Harper's Bazaar, doing fashion photography, and later children's fashion photography.
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