Born in Vienna July 13, 1923, the son of a dentist and a concert pianist.
In 1939, before finishing highschool, Hitler’s occupation of Austria forced him to emigrate to Israel (then still the British Mandate Palestine). His mother remained in Vienna and died in Ausschwitz. In Israel, Erich Lessing worked in several Kibbuzim, raising carp among other agricultural jobs. He returned to photography, a childhood-hobby, working as a Kindergarden photographer and later as photographer with the British Army.
In 1947 he returned to Austria, worked as a photographer for the Associated Press and, in 1951, joined Magnum Photos, the world-famous photographer’s cooperative. Working chiefly for LIFE, Paris Match, Picture Post, EPOCA and Quick Magazine, he documented political events in post-war Europe, particularly in the former Communist countries. He covered the Hungarian Revolution, several summit meetings and President Charles de Gaulle’s visit to Algeria.
After 1960 he turned towards history, attempting to bring historical personalities and epochs alive in what he called photographic „evocations“. These evocations included the lives and times of great musicians, poets, physicists and astronomers, the latter published in bookform as „Discoverers of the Universe“. Erich Lessing’s by now more than 40 books include such classics as the history of Austria („Imago Austriae“), the travels of Ulysses (which reached 75.000 copies in several editions in many countries), two different volumes on the Old Testament, the Italian Renaissance, the history of the Low Countries, the Travels of Saint Paul, the Greek Myths, two books on Art and Religion in Ancient Egypt, a History of France and many more.
Erich Lessing has taught photography in Arles, at the Venice Biennale,
in Ahmedabad in India as a UNIDO-expert, at the Salzburg summer Academy and at the Academy of Applied Art in Vienna. He was given the American Art Editors’Award for his work during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, the Prix Nadar for his book “Odyssee” in 1966. In 1970 he received the Austrian Karl Renner prize for outstanding cultural achievments, in 1973 he was awarded the title of Professor and in 1976 he was given the
Culture-Award of the city of Vienna. In 1992 he was presented with Vienna´s silver medal for outstanding services to the city; he received the
Imre Nagy-medal, bestowed by the President of the Hungarian republic for his work during the Hungarian revolution 1956. He was awarded the Golden Medal from the governor of Styria and received the “Grosser Österreichischer Staatspreis” in 1997.
Erich Lessing lives in Vienna. He is married to a journalist, has three children and five grandchildren.
The Erich Lessing Culture and Fine Arts Archive has 40.000 photographs dealing with art, history and archaeology. The transparencies, 4x5 inch or larger, have been photographed by Erich Lessing in well over 2.000 different locations and museums all over the world.
From the early seventies, he began filing and numbering his own colour work. In the early eighties, when the PC made its appearence, he created, together with a young software specialist, a completely new retrieval system with keywords in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and phonetic Japanese. Photographs have been scanned in low resolution and can by perused onscreen, from both the hard disk or a special CD (in PC or Mac version) with all 40.000 pictures, 230.470 keywords and 1,315.678 search keys. In a further development of the Lessing system, high-resolution scanning of all photographs permits serving clients via ISDN or e-mail.
The system has 4 gigabytes and is updated continuously via CD-ROM which is sent to the agents of Erich Lessing in New York, Tokyo, Seoul, Berlin, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Oslo, Milan, Rome, Paris, London, Madrid, Barcelona and Time-Life Books, Alexandria and the Biblical Archaeology Society in Washington.
Erich Lessing is continually working on new avenues of world-wide distribution of cultural material. He is a member of ICOM, the International Commission of Museums, and CIDOC, its Information branch.