Hansel Mieth and Otto Hagel archive
Scope and Contents
The Hansel Mieth / Otto Hagel Archive contains the personal papers and photographic materials of the husband and wife team of photographers Otto Hagel (1909-1973) and Hansel Mieth (1909-1998). The materials in the archive date from 1911-1998 with the bulk of the collection dating from 1937-1990. The archive consists of correspondence files, manuscripts, financial records, biographical materials, exhibition materials, activity files, audiovisual materials and photographic materials.
- Creation: 1911-1998
Language of Materials
English and German
Conditions Governing Access
Copyright for the Mieth/Hagel papers and photographs is held by the Center for Creative Photography. Permission for any reproduction of materials in the archive must be obtained from the Center’s Rights and Reproductions department. Questions regarding literary rights should be directed to the Center’s Research Center.
To access materials from this collection, please contact CCP-RefDesk@email.arizona.edu
Conditions Governing Access
The negatives in boxes 37, 38, 41 through 44 are currently inaccessible due to renovations in CCP's cold storage facility. Negatives will be accessible once the renovation is complete and the negative boxes have been transferred to the new frozen storage space. The estimated date of availability is mid-year of 2023, although not guaranteed. Please be sure to email CCP-RefDesk@email.arizona.edu with any questions or for updates.
Conditions Governing Use
It is the responsibility of the user to obtain permission to publish from the owner of the copyright (the institution, the creator of the record, the author or his/her transferees, heirs, legates, or literary executors). The user agrees to indemnify and hold harmless the Arizona Board of Regents for the University of Arizona, its officers, employees, and agents from and against all claims made by any person asserting that he or she is an owner of copyright.
Otto Hagel and Johanna Mieth were both born near Stuttgart, Germany, in 1909. They became friends in their youth and traveled together over much of Europe, keeping a journal of their travels called a Fahrtenbuch, which did not survive World War II. It was during these travels that Otto gave Johanna the nickname Hansel because a boy’s name seemed more convenient during their travels. She used the nickname for the rest of her life. Otto left Germany in 1928 and entered the United States illegally at Baltimore. Hansel followed two years later and the couple came together again in California in 1930. Documentation for this period can be found in the letters from their family members and in the autobiographical writings of Hansel Mieth.
The United States was experiencing the Great Depression at the time Otto and Hansel reunited in San Francisco, California. Work was difficult to find and both of them took whatever jobs they could get. Otto initially found work as a window washer and managed to photograph himself on a scaffold outside an office building. This photograph won a cash prize in a contest organized by the Mid-Week Pictorial in 1930. For a time the two were at Yosemite, helping to build the Wawona tunnel. Later they took jobs as migrant agricultural workers, and it was during this period that they began to develop the humanistic sensitivity that characterizes their later work. The photographs taken during this period (later called by the photographers “The Great Hunger”) documented the Hoovervilles around Sacramento, the squalid living conditions in the Mission District of San Francisco, the Salinas Lettuce Strike, and the hard lives of their fellow migrant workers as well as the longshoremen and dockworkers of San Francisco and Oakland. Documentation for this period consists primarily of photographic materials and reminiscences contained in the correspondence files and in Hansel’s writings. The book Men and Ships used photographs by Otto Hagel to document the general strike of 1936 and the archive contains several copies of this publication. Otto and others also made a film during these years, called A Century of Progress, which is not included in the archive. Letters in the Wayne State University folder, however, provide information on the making and subsequent life of this film.
In 1937, Hansel received a telegram from Wilson Hicks, editor of the recently created LIFE magazine, offering her a staff position as photographer. After some deliberation, she accepted this post, but Otto, who had also been approached, made an arrangement to act as a free-lance photographer. Moving first to Denver and then to New York, Hansel and Otto began their photographic journalism careers. Hundreds of assignments on a great variety of topics marked the years from 1937 to 1941. Documentation for this period in their lives is abundant: correspondence with people on the staff of LIFE, the story proposals in the Activity Files, the contents of the four scrapbooks in Oversize Materials, and the listing of negatives related to their LIFE work in Photographic Materials combine to give a detailed picture of their work for this great photographic news magazine.
Otto and Hansel were married in 1940 in a double ceremony with photographer Robert Capa and his fiancée Toni Sorel, also known as Gerta Taro.* Otto became a naturalized citizen at this time as well, assisted by none other than the President of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt, who appreciated Otto’s talents as a photographer and wanted to use them in his campaign for re-election. In 1941, the couple returned to the West and purchased a 550 acre ranch near Santa Rosa, California, on which they designed and built a house as well as a number of other structures useful to their dreams of the self-sufficiency of a farmer’s life. Documentation for this period is included in Hansel’s writings and in the correspondence file of Edward K. Thompson and John Morris.
Perhaps because of their German backgrounds, the number of photographic assignments given them during the war shrank. In fact, the remarkable photographic essay on the internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry at the remote Heart Mountain, Wyoming, camp was never published by LIFE, and has come to be known through a 1997 exhibition at the de Saisset Museum at Santa Clara College. After the war, however, the assignments picked up, and the first of Otto and Hansel’s photographic essays, “We Return to Fellbach,” examining post-war life in Germany, was published in 1950. Their refusal to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities caused them to depend more on their ranching and farming to support themselves, and they enthusiastically took up chicken farming. An outbreak of disease dashed these hopes, however, and the two returned to photography, publishing a photo essay about themselves and their shattered farm dreams in a 1955 story in LIFE called “The Simple Life.” Also in 1955, a photograph of a small boy walking to school through the bombed out ruins of post-war Germany was selected by Edward Steichen to be included in his famous Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Three years later, Otto took a series of photographs of the famous potter Marguerite Wildenhain that were featured in a book and film about her.
In the 1960s, Hansel turned her creative energies away from photography and more toward painting and writing. The archive contains material related to Hansel’s paintings in Exhibitions (Barn Gallery, San Francisco, 1966), in the letters to museums from 1961 to 1966 in the Correspondence series, and in Photographic Materials (negatives, Hansel’s Paintings). Hansel’s autobiographical writings are preserved in their own series and contain much information concerning their lives. The manuscript of The Singing Hills of Jackass Flat, in addition to numerous shorter pieces, are stored here. Although Hansel’s manuscript was never published, Christiane Barckhausen Canale used it and other material to create the only published biography of Hansel and Otto. This was published in German under the title Im Tal der singenden Hügel but the archive does not contain a copy. Five German language reviews, however, are available in the Biographical Materials series.
In 1963 the International Longshoreman’s and Warehouseman’s Union brought out Men and Machines, an important photographic essay documenting the introduction of machinery into the longshoreman’s world of manual labor. Otto took all of the photographs for this publication, designed the book, and made the printing mechanical layouts. The archive has considerable material related to Men and Machines, most of it stored in Activity Files with the layout mechanicals stored in Oversize Materials. Toward the end of the decade, Hansel returned to photography and worked with Otto photographing low income children participating in the Head Start program. These photographs were exhibited at the Sonoma County Free Public Library under the title “An Unfinished Story.”
In the early 1970s Otto and Hansel took a series of photographs documenting the lives of the Pomo Indians, a Native American tribe indigenous to Sonoma County, California. In January, 1973, Otto suffered a stroke and died. His obituary notices and a folder of letters sent to Hansel after his death are located in Biographical Materials. At the time of Otto’s death, the Hagels were involved in litigation with a group of people that had established a gun club on property adjacent to the “Singing Hills.” Ultimately, the court decided the matter in the Hagels’ favor, but Hansel was forced to sell a portion of her land in the year after Otto’s death to raise money. Documentation of this episode can be found in Hansel’s writings and Photographic Materials.
Hansel continued to work on getting her manuscript published in the years after Otto’s death, seeking the advice of John Morris, Edward Thompson, and others. She also started a correspondence with photographic historians Thomas Brandon, Susan Ehrens and Sally Stein and proposed a story on the “off camera” side of her photographer-friend of many years, Imogen Cunningham. In 1983 the first retrospective exhibition of the photographic work of Otto Hagel and Hansel Mieth took place in Germany under the title “Das andere Amerika – Fotografien aus Amerika 1929-1971,” but the archive lacks material related to it. At the suggestion of Josephine Alexander, Hansel applied for and obtained a grant of $5,000 from the Margaret Mahler Foundation to organize and preserve the great body of work that she and Otto had built up. In 1989 the Eye Gallery in San Francisco mounted an exhibit of their work under the title “A Lifetime of Concerned Photography.” In 1991 another German exhibition, this one called “Simple Life – Fotografien aus Amerika 1929-1971,” was assembled in the Hagels’ home town of Fellbach. The catalog for this exhibition won the Kodak Photo-book prize for 1991. Documentation including the catalog and visitors registers is held in the Exhibitions series. A number of articles on Hansel appeared in the 1990s and these have been filed in the Biographical Materials series.
Hansel suffered a stroke in 1996 but continued to promote the work of herself and her late husband during this period. She died on Valentine’s Day, 1998 and her estate presented the archive to the Center for Creative Photography in 1999.
*NOTE: Additional research in 2005 indicates that Gerta (Gerda) Taro and Toni Sorel are two different people. Gerta Taro was with Robert Capa during the Spanish Civil War and died in Spain in 1937. Toni Sorel worked at Life magazine and met Capa after he returned from Spain. Blood and Champagne: The Life and Times of Robert Capa by Alex Kershaw, 2002.
- Otto Hagel born in Fellbach March 12; Johanna Mieth born at Oppelsbohm April 9
- The two travel around much of Europe; Johanna receives the nickname ‘Hansel.’
- Otto enters the United States after jumping ship at Baltimore.
- Hansel enters the United States at New York.
- Otto and others make a film of the cotton strike entitled, “A Century of Progress;”
- Hansel gets work from the State of California photographing the Mission District in San Francisco;
- Otto and Hansel take the photos later called “The Great Hunger.”
- Otto takes photographs for Men and Ships, as well as the Salinas Lettuce Strike; Hansel gets work as a photographer on WPA Youth project.
- Hansel is offered a staff position at LIFE magazine;
- Otto does freelance work for LIFE and Fortune;
- Hansel’s first photographic essay for LIFE, “Lambing in the Southwest,” appears May 24.
- On assignment for LIFE.
- Hansel takes “The Misogynist,” a photograph of a Rhesus monkey, which runs as “Picture of the Week,” January 16.
- Otto and Hansel are married in New York in double ceremony with Robert Capa and Toni Sorel; Hansel becomes a naturalized U.S. citizen; Otto becomes a legal resident of the United States.
- Otto and Hansel return to California;
- purchase a 550 acre ranch near Santa Rosa;
- design and build a house themselves;
- together, they take the Heart Mountain photographs of the internment of Japanese Americans.
- Otto writes the Santa Rosa Draft Board seeking permission to travel.
- Otto and Hansel return to Germany on assignment for LIFE; story on post-war Germany, “We Return to Fellbach,” is published in the June 26, 1950 issue.
- Otto and Hansel concentrate on chicken farming during the McCarthy era.
- “The Simple Life” published in LIFE’s issue of November 14; Otto’s photograph “Boy descending into ruins” is selected by Edward Steichen for his Family of Man exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
- Otto’s photographs of Marguerite Wildenhain are used in Pottery: Form and Expression.
- Hansel is hospitalized with intestinal health problems;
- Otto creates the photographs used in LIFE’s three part story on the “Farm Problem.”
- Hansel takes up painting.
- Otto designs, lays out and takes all the photographs for Men and Machines;
- Hansel is hospitalized with back problems.
- Hansel’s autobiographical memoirs, The Singing Hills of Jackass Flat completed.
- Otto and Hansel document the living conditions of the Pomo Indians.
- Otto dies after suffering a stroke.
- First retrospective exhibition of their photographic work takes place in Germany under the title “Das andere Amerika – Fotografien aus Amerika 1929-1971.”
- An article about Otto and Hansel appears in the photographic journal Left Curve.
- A retrospective exhibition of their work opens at the Eye Gallery in San Francisco.
- Another German exhibition of their work opens in Fellbach, called “Simple Life – Fotografien aus Amerika 1929-1971.” The catalog wins the Kodak Photo-book prize for 1991.
- Hansel receives a $5,000 grant from the Margaret Mahler Foundation.
- Photographs by Otto and Hansel are included in an exhibition in Cologne, Germany.
- Photographs by Otto and Hansel are included in the “Points of Entry” exhibition at Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ.
- Photographs by Otto and Hansel are included in the “Sonoma County Goes to War” exhibition at the Sonoma County Museum in Santa Rosa, CA.
- Photographs by Otto and Hansel are featured in “The Heart Mountain Story” at de Saisset Museum at Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, CA.
- Hansel dies February 14.
48.25 Linear Feet
Metadata Rights Declarations
- License: This record is made available under an Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International Creative Commons license.
Papers and photographic materials, 1911-1998, of Hansel Mieth (1909-1998) and Otto Hagel (1909-1973), photographers. Includes correspondence, writings, exhibition materials, tear sheets, clippings, publications, photographic materials, and audiovisual materials.
This collection has been designated Archive Group (AG) 170 and is arranged as follows:
- I. Correspondence
- II. Correspondence Index
- III. Writings by Hansel Mieth
- IV. Writings by Otto Hagel
- V. Financial Records
- VI. Biographical Materials
- VII. Exhibitions
- VIII. Activity Files
- IX. Publications
- X. Oversize Materials
- XI. Audiovisual Materials
- XII. Other Materials
- XIII. Photographic Materials
- XIV. Appendix: Chronology of LIFE stories
The collection was a gift in 1998 from Hansel Mieth Hagel, the widow of Otto Hagel.
- Museum of Modern Art (New York, N.Y.). Department of Film (Organization)
- Group f.64 (Organization)
- HANSEL MIETH / OTTO HAGEL ARCHIVE, 1911-1998AG170
- Edited Full Draft
- Processed by Shaw Kinsley in 2000, processed accrual and updated finding by Elias Larralde in 2022
- Language of description
- Script of description
- Code for undetermined script
- Language of description note
- Finding aid written in English