April 28, 1886, is the birthdate of pioneering news photographer Erich Salomon, whose ability to insinuate himself into political and social events, as well as courtrooms, in pre-World War II Europe enabled him to capture candid images of the individuals who shaped world history in the early decades of the 20th century. He also coined the term “photojournalist” to describe his job, and helped shape the emerging profession.
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Salomon was born into a prominent Jewish family in Berlin: His father was a banker and member of the stock exchange, his mother came from a family of publishers. Erich studied zoology and engineering before earning a law degree, in 1913. He served with the German army in World War I, but early on was captured by the Allies at the Battle of the Marne. He spent four years in a prisoner-of-war camp, where he became proficient in French, a skill that served him well when he began photographing diplomatic events.
After the war, as the German economy descended into chaos, and the Salomon family fortune began to dissipate, he undertook several business ventures of his own. Though none of them succeeded, advertisements for his car-rental agency, in which he offered his services as a chauffeur who could give clients legal advice while he drove them, piqued the interest of the publishing company Ullstein. In 1925, the firm, which published both books and periodicals, gave Salomon a job in its promotions department, eventually making him head of the billboard advertising division.
Salomon became interested in photography almost by chance, as described by his son Peter Salomon (a.k.a. Peter Hunter), whose biography of his father appears on the website of Comesana Press Photographers. Erich Salomon first picked up a camera to shoot pictures of billboards owned by Ullstein to be used as evidence in legal proceedings against property owners who were not abiding by the terms of their contracts with the company. From this, Salomon went on to shoot photographs to accompany feature articles in Ullstein magazines and papers.
His great innovation was to turn away from the standard, bulky box camera used by news photographers at the time, and to begin using an Ermanox plate-loaded device that was similar in size to a 35-mm camera. Not only was the camera more handy, it was also more suitable for low-light situations, even indoors. (In 1932, he switched to a Leica.) In 1928, Salomon entered the Berlin courtroom where the trial of a man charged with killing a policeman was taking a place, with a camera concealed in his bowler hat, in which he had cut a small hole. With this, he merged with sensational photos of the proceedings. Later in the trial, when a guard caught on to him and demanded his film, he turned over unexposed plates, leaving the courtroom with the exposed film safe in his pocket.
Salomon was on his way, and during the next three years, he became a well-known personality in his own right. With an unthreatening appearance, and an urbane and sophisticated manner, he gained entry to proceedings of the League of Nations, for example, and even endeared himself to the politicians whom he captured on film in candid and emotionally revealing poses. At the opening of one international gathering, French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand was heard to say, "Where is Dr. Salomon? We can´t start without him. The people won´t think this conference is important at all." And if Salomon wanted to cover an event where the press wasn’t welcome, he rigged up various subterfuges to smuggle a camera in and obtain his images.
In November 1931, French Prime Minister Pierre Laval insisted to President Herbert Hoover that Salomon be permitted entry to the White House. As Time magazine reported back then, “Like Benito Mussolini, Ramsay MacDonald, and Chancellor Brüning [of Weimar Germany], Pierre Laval has become convinced that Dr. Salomon´s spontaneous snapshots are historic documents to be preserved for posterity..." He also made it to Hollywood, where he photographed such stars as Marlene Dietrich. In general, Salomon’s images of Charles de Gaulle, Albert Einstein, Neville Chamberlain, Maxim Litvinov, and royalty, musicians, intellectuals and more, continue to this day to provide insight into a fascinating if highly dangerous and unstable era in the history of the modern world.
Shortly after the Nazis' rise to power in Germany, Salomon moved with his family to the Netherlands, his wife’s birthplace. He continued working throughout the 1930s, traveling frequently to the United Kingdom and to the U.S., so that he was caught unawares when the Germans invaded Holland, having turned down offers to emigrate while it was till possible. The family went into hiding, but were discovered when a gas-meter reader noticed an unusual level of consumption at a location that was supposed to be vacant. After imprisonment at the Dutch transit camp Westerbork, the family spent five months at Theresienstadt, before being deported to Auschwitz.
Erich Salomon was last seen on a transport to Auschwitz on May 27, 1944. Red Cross records indicated that he was murdered there on July 7 of the same year. His wife and one son also died there, while a second son, Peter, survived. He later became a photographer himself, and died in 2006.