The son of painter Raphael Biow (1777-1836), Hermann Biow was born in 1804 in Breslau, Germany. There are no details about his childhood or education except that he and his family continued to live in their hometown of Breslau. As a young man, he took work wherever he could find it, and at various times was a writer, lithographer, and a painter. He also assisted his father in the design of the original interior of the Breslau Actors’ Guild Theater and Opera House.
When the daguerreotype was invented in 1839, Hermann Biow was more than just an interested spectator. He is believed to be one of the first German artists to experiment with the technique, and after forming a partnership with fellow painter Carl Ferdinand Stelzner, he opened Germany’s first daguerreotype studio in the Hamburg district of Altona in either August or September 1841. Mr. Biow soon discovered one of the major stumbling blocks of the daguerreotype and calotype processes was that they were too slow to record public events instantaneously. However, this did not deter him from capturing the massive damage of the devastating fire that swept through Hamburg from May 5 through May 8 of 1842 in a series of daguerreotypes. These are credited with being the first documented images of a disastrous news event. Three of these daguerreotypes survived and have been preserved by the Hamburg Historical Museum and Museum of Art and Design.
During his association with Mr. Stelzner, Mr. Biow developed a reputation for being an excellent specialty portrait photographer. After dissolving his partnership with Mr. Stelzner in 1843, he opened photography studios in Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, and Dresden. He specialized in portraits of politicians, scientists, and artists. Among his famous subjects were Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm the IV, sibling storytellers known collectively as the Brothers Grimm, and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. King Friedrich Wilhelm IV became an important patron and provided him with an elaborate studio within the royal palace along with intimate celebrity access. Mr. Biow prepared daguerreotypes of the members of the German National Assembly in Frankfurt am Main, which later appeared in an album of 125 lithographs known as Manner des deutschen Volks oder Deutsche National-Gallerie (Men of the German National Gallery).
Shortly after opening his Dresden studio, Mr. Biow became ill with a mysterious ailment and died on February 20, 1850. It is now believed the cause of his death was irreparable liver damage incurred after inhaling the mercury he used to develop his portrait plates. Today, Hermann Biow’s works are highly sought by wealthy collectors willing to pay up to 20,000 euros for his daguerreotypes.
1962 Creative Photography: Aesthetic Trends, 1839-1960 (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc.), p. 29.
2007 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), p. 159.
2005 Germany and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc.), p. 884.
2002 Photography: A Cultural History (London: Lawrence King Publishing, Ltd.), p. 44.
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