Haus Hildegard um 1934 © The Estate of Hildegard Ochse

Vila Hildegard, 1934 | © Hildegard Ochse Estate

The author photographer Hildegard Ochse (1935–1997)
First and Last by Benjamin Ochse

Her parents, Arthur Peter Maria Roemer (1893–1957) and school teacher and author Dr. Emma Maria Krusemeyer-Roemer (1894–1964) met in the 20s in Muenster. After their wedding in 1933 by Muenster cathedral priest Dr. Adolf Donders, in 1934 they began to operate a private finishing school for girls known as Haus Hildegard in Bad Salzuflen, named after Saint Hildegard of Bingen. The boarding school was a Catholic educational institution for young women from good families, housed in a large villa near a spa center. It was equipped with a large teaching kitchen, a vegetable garden and work rooms for handicrafts and house work. There were also a music room and a library for study. For the girls’ education, crafts and home economics teachers were employed.

Hildegard Römer im Garten der Gastfamilie in Rochester, USA, um 1953, Foto anonym © Hildegard Ochse Estate

Hildegard Römer in Rochester, 1953 | © Hildegard Ochse Estate

Hildegard Maria Helene Ochse (maiden name Roemer) was born at home in Bad Salzuflen, Westphalia on December 7, 1935. Hildegard’s mother Mary was exceptional for her time. The daughter of Hermann Krusemeyer (1854–1930), a high-up railway official, and Helene Krusemeyer (maiden name Dyckhoff 1868–?), she grew up in Magdeburg-Neustadt together with seven other siblings. Her parents enabled her to attend the women’s secondary school and to receive her diploma in March 1914. She then studied in Jena, Erfurt, Freiburg and from 1920 at the Westphalian Wilhelms University in Muenster focusing on English, history, German and catholic theology. In 1925 she completed a doctorate on the topic of Goethe’s influence on George Meredith. After several entry level positions working in schools, from 1928 to 1934 she worked as a school teacher at the St. Hildegard school in Muenster, the first women’s high school in Germany. During the national socialist years, children of government officials were not allowed to attend Christian school. This resulted in a significant reduction in classes taught, and in 1942 it closed. Up until 1933 Maria had published a book about great women in history, textbook essays, short articles and books of poetry, as well as later in 1949 a detailed biography of Dr. Adolf Donders (1877–1944), with whom she was friends. As of 1950 she was employed in Bochum at the Theodor-Koerner-Junior High as a secondary school and religion teacher.

Peter Arthur Maria Römer um 1920

Peter Arthur Maria Römer, 1920 | © Hildegard Ochse Estate

Hildegard’s father, Arthur Peter Maria Roemer, was born in Urft in the Eifel in 1893. His father Robert Joseph Roemer was director of the public trade school. He died early, and so Peter primarily grew up with his aunt in Belgium along with his brother Maximilian and sister Erna. In 1911 he passed his exams and left Europe. In the Natal province of South Africa, he began working as a German teacher at a Catholic boys’ school. During the First World War, he was interned by the British. Early in the 1920s, Arthur Roemer returned to Germany and worked as an assistant professor. In the late 20s, he briefly worked as a language teacher in the Hermann school in Bad Meinberg, which was forcibly dissolved by the Nazis in 1938.

Hildegard was looked after by a nanny and grew up in a sheltered, middle-class background. Her mother recorded her daughter’s birth and growth and later published about it in a poetry collection. As an only child, Hildegard spent most of her time with the young women in the finishing school. Their education was directed towards the Catholic faith and a good homemaking education. At Haus Hildegard readings and house concerts were held regularly. Hildegard was musically talented and began piano lessons at the age of six at the Municipal Conservatory, later known as Foesterling Music Academy in Bad Salzuflen. Three years later her piano teacher directed her towards a career as a pianist. As of 1942 Hildegard attended the former Catholic elementary school and from 1946 the high school for girls. She was very athletic, received numerous sports awards and at thirteen became a certified lifeguard. The Catholic parents split in the early 50s: her mother moved to Bochum, where she worked a general teacher and as of 1958 also a religious studies teacher until her retirement.

Hildegard Römer im Weserbegland um 1951

Hildegard Römer on the River Weser, 1951 | © Hildegard Ochse Estate

At age sixteen in the summer of 1952, Hildegard left in the summer the provincial Bad Salzuflen. She traveled as an exchange student on scholarship on the transatlantic route via Paris and Le Havre on the legendary SS United States to New York city and then on to Rochester. Included in her luggage was a camera, a gift from her parents to their rebellious daughter. The first remarkable photographs by Hildegard were taken on the Seine and at the bus station in Paris. It was the camera that from this point forward documented her life as a diary. Once in Rochester, she lived with a host family and attended the Catholic Nazareth Academy. She spent her free time swimming, horseback riding, reading and listening to music. Her host father was employed by Eastman Kodak as a senior chemist in the development department and his knowledge of photography became an important influence for Hildegard. In the USA, she produced her first portraits as well as remarkable street and architectural photographs. During her stay in the United States, she visited the Niagara Falls, New Jersey, Philadelphia, the Pentagon in Washington DC, Delaware and Boston. Further architectural and urban landscapes have survived from her visit to New York. After a year in 1953, Hildegard returned to Bad Salzuflen with her high school diploma and other awards aboard the Italian luxury liner, the SS Andrea Doria, via the Azores, Gibraltar and Italy. The ship was known for its modern decoration and the artworks on board.

Hildegard Römer in Aix-en-Provence um 1957 | Foto Anonym

Hildegard Römer at Aix-en-Provence, 1957 | © Hildegard Ochse Estate

In 1955 she passed her German high exams with honors and began studying romance languages and art history at the University of Freiburg in Breisgau with Dr. Hugo Friedrich (1904–1978) and Dr. Kurt Bauch (1897–1975), whose areas of research were among others Dutch painting and Rembrandt. During her studies, she took numerous study trips to Switzerland, France and to Italy and met her future husband Horst Ochse (1927–2014) at the university in Freiburg. In 1957 she received a scholarship to Aix-en-Provence in southern France and lived with a photographer in modest conditions. She was impressed by the landscape and the colors in Provence and wrote

… if I were a painter, I think I could not paint this country because it is too BEAUTIFUL. And the eye cannot take in these colors and these forms at once. If painting a landscape, then northern Germany, the marshes, the fields …

In the same year, she became pregnant in the fall, and her father unexpectedly died on her birthday. In March her marriage to the later Dr. Horst Ochse followed. In summer, she gave birth to her first child and had to quit studying. In the following seven years, Hildegard had three other children who required her full attention. After the early death of her mother in autumn 1964, she distanced herself from the Catholic Church. In the spring of 1973, the family moved to West Berlin for professional reasons. Moving to the walled city was a serious turning point for Hildegard, as she lost almost all social connections from her studies in Freiburg and fell into a deep personal crisis. After an extended stay in France with the family in 1975, their marriage began to fail later leading to a final separation. Almost simultaneously in early 1975, Hildegard again discovered her passion for photography. At first she taught herself. Subsequently she learned through the Kreuzberg photographer Association, in photography courses of the continuing education center in Zehlendorf in 1976, and later in the legendary photography workshop of Michael Schmidt (1945–2014) in Berlin-Kreuzberg.

At the beginning of the workshop, a somewhat orthodox documentary way of seeing dominated, which organized itself around the aesthetics of Michael Schmidt and focused on a presentation of everyday life. Later, the photography scene experimented with new forms of documentation which emphasized a subjective view of the author. Hildegard Ochse quickly developed an independent, artistic authorship with a personal viewpoint. Most students and attendees were self-taught and therefore had a more liberal understanding of the medium compared to professional photographers. The imagery and the content were initially more important than technical quality. She participated in courses under the direction of Ulrich Goerlich (1952–), Wilmar Koenig (1952–2018), as well as workshops by American photographers such as Lewis Baltz (1945–2014), John Gossage (1946–), Ralph Gibson (1939–) and Larry Fink (1952–) and the German photographer André Gelpke (1947–). Her imagery developed soon after initial attempts—profound, multi-layered and philosophical, dense, highly concentrated, conceptual and documentary. She created images primarily for herself and per her own wishes.

© Estate of Hildegard Ochse

Hildegard Ochse, 1978 | © Hildegard Ochse Estate

From 1978 Hildegard taught photography at the state media center, as well as at the Pedagogical University Berlin and could present her images in galleries for the first time. Shortly after her new beginning, the first photo series were purchased by the Berlin Gallery. In the late 70s, she met the photographer Karl-Ludwig Lange (1949–), with whom she remained friends until her death. After the final separation from her husband and a private fresh start, she established herself as an independent author photographer as of 1981. She received extensive commissions, grants and exhibitions at home and abroad. She traveled extensively with her camera and thus unintentionally documented her own life. Italy became her preferred destination. As of 1987 she learned Hebrew and studied Judaism, attended the synagogue and made numerous study trips to Israel. The contact with her birth city was maintained over many years through regular encounters with her classmates and teachers. In 1995 she took another trip to Israel, and in Autumn she was diagnosed with leukemia. She died in the summer of 1997 at the age of 61 in Berlin.

Grab von Hildegard Ochse © Benjamin Ochse 2013

The headstone of Hildegard Ochse, 2013 | © Benjamin Ochse


Hildegard Ochse saw herself as an author photographer and less as a contract photographer or photojournalist. Her extensive photographic work remained undiscovered for a long time after her death, even though parts of her oeuvre were already in the collection of the Berlin Gallery, the University of Parma photography Center as well as in private collections. Her estate consists of some 50,000 negatives and 5,000 original prints on baryta paper. Among the most important groups of works include Nature in the city, urban vegetation (1979), No Future—Café Mitropa (1980), Winter in Berlin (1980–83), Topographic Sequences of the City and its Changing Landscapes (1983), Host country Federal Republic of Germany (1983), The oath to the Constitution (1987), KPM Royal Prussian Porcelain Factory (1987), Jerusalem (1989), Metamorphosis (1990), Walk through Mark Brandenburg (1990), Fishing in Normandy (1991). After the first retrospectives, curated by Dr. Enno Kaufhold in 2011 and by Tina Sauerlaender in 2015, in 2016 Thomas Weski and Felix Hoffmann presented her works in the international photo gallery C/O Berlin. In 2014 more early photographs and important documents were discovered which show her photographs, life and family history in a new light. In 2019 her work was shown at the Deutsche Bundestag.

Translation by Jennifer Batlton-Stier, 2017

Gabmal von Hildegard Ochse in Berlin Westend 2020

New tomb of Hildegard Ochse, 2019 | © Benjamin Ochse

Artothek des Deutschen Bundestags
Berlinische Galerie
bpk Images Bildagentur für Kunst, Kultur und Geschichte
akg Images Bildagentur für Kunst und Geschichte
Literaturportal Westfalen
C/O Berlin im Amerika Haus
Kommunale Galerie Berlin
Haus am Kleistpark