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Ten years ago there was a retrospective dedicated to Ulrich Mack titled Aktion und Kontemplation: what better way to refer to the two poles that define not only the range of the photographer's oeuvre, but also the busy diversity of his biography?

Now, ten years later, we are celebrating the Leica photographer's 85th birthday – happy to acknowledge that during this last decade his work has remained present in a rich variety of exhibitions and books, with some pieces even appearing for the first time. Without a doubt, Ulrich Mack is many things: a courageous reporter, discreet portrait artist, sensitive landscape observer; and, above all, a critical and attentive contemporary photographer with strong opinions.  

A loner who did not quite fit in, photography was a path Mack discovered by himself. Born in Glasehausen, Thuringia, the sixth child in a teacher family of nine siblings, he was brought up in West Prussia and later the north east of Lower Saxony. Having lost his parents early on, Mack first worked as a miner in the Ruhr district, before studying at the Visual Arts College in Hamburg in 1956. It was there that he had the luck of meeting the painter and graphic designer Alfred Mahlau, which meant that in addition to learning about art, he also learned a lot about the world – and he discovered photography. His first Leica was his companion on his journey into photo journalism; as of 1963 he started working for Quick in Munich, was published in twen, then went to work at Stern in Hamburg in 1967.

As a photo journalist, Mack was seen as an all-rounder: whether international conflicts, wars, and national events, or artists' stories, reportages and political portraits, he was known to be  a precise observer and brilliant technician. In 1964, he received his first World Press Photo Award for his Wild Horses in Kenya reportage – which remains legendary to this day; yet, despite all the success, he suffered from the lack of freedom. In 1973 he left the security of working as a photographer employed full-time by one of the highest circulation magazines in the country, to go freelance. In Hamburg, the emerging advertising and TV/film industries opened up new perspectives. Furthermore, as of 1975 he took on a new task, working first as a lecturer and then as a professor at the Technical College in Dortmund. During this period he also produced his own series where he deliberately distanced himself from reportage photography: at the end of the seventies, while on walks around the island of Pellworn, he captured images that would later he published as the ZEN cycle; he documented the islanders on Pellworm and Harkers Island, and later in the Holm fishermen's district on the outskirts of Schleswig.

Without a doubt, Mack has been among the greats of German photography for a long time already. His diversity can best be appreciated in the many retrospective photo books published in recent years in collaboration with Hans-Michael Koetzle: Ruhrgebiet (2009), Kennedy in Berlin (2013), Stille-Weite-Ferne-Nähe (2014) and Mack.Reporter (2015).

Mack is unique, because he has brought together ambition, passion, intensity and knowledge in a profound way to produce an inimitable body of work. The fact that many treasures still lie dormant in his archives is something the photographer is well aware of. We look forward to further discoveries. In the meantime, many happy returns for today, his birthday! (Ulrich Rüter)

All images on this page © Ulrich Mack
Self-Portrait, Hamburg, 2010
Police try to tame crowds during John F. Kennedy's tour of West Berlin city centre, Berlin, 1963
Henry Miller and Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt play Ping-Pong, Reinbek, 1961
Wild horses in Kenya, 1964
Speech by John F. Kennedy at the Schöneberg City Hall, in the background Federal Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, Berlin, 1963
Self-portrait, Ruhr area, 1959
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