List traveled for the family business Kaffee-Import Firma List & Heineken, Hamburg. Between 1925 and 1928 he visited plantations and contacts in Guatemala, Costa Rica, San Salvador, Brazil (where he stayed for six months) and San Francisco. During this time he began taking photographs. In 1929 he met Andreas Feininger who inspires his greater interest in photography and who gives him a Rolleiflex camera. From 1930 he began taking portraits of friends and shooting still life, is influenced by the Bauhaus and artists of the surrealist movements, Man Ray, Giorgio De Chirico and Max Ernst, and creates a surrealist photograph titled Metaphysique in a style he called fotografia metafisica in homage to De Chirico, his most important influence during this period. He used male models, draped fabric, masks and double-exposures to depict dream states and fantastic imagery. He has explained that his photos were "composed visions where arrangements try to capture the magical essence inhabiting and animating the world of appearances. »
In 1936, in response to the danger of Gestapo attention to his openly gay lifestyle and his Jewish heritage, List left Germany for Paris, where he met George Hoyningen-Huene with whom he travelled to Greece, deciding then to become a photographer. During 1937 he worked in a studio in London and held his first one-man show at Galerie du Chasseur d'Images in Paris. Hoyningen-Huene referred him to Harper's Bazaar magazine, and 1936–39 he worked for Arts et Metiers Graphiques, Verve, Vogue, Photographie, and Life. List was unsatisfied with fashion photography. He turned back to still life imagery, continuing in his fotografia metafisica style.
From 1937 to 1939 List traveled in Greece and took photographs of ancient temples, ruins, sculptures, and the landscape for his book Licht über Hellas. In the meantime he supported himself with work for magazines Neue Linie, Die Dame and for the press from 1940–43, and with portraits which he continued to make until 1950. In List's work the revolutionary tactics of surrealist art and a metaphysical staging of irony and reverie had been honed in an the fashion industry that relied on illusion and spectacle which after World War II returned to a classical fixation on ruins, broken male statuary and antiquity.
In 1951, List met Robert Capa, who invited him to work as a contributor to Magnum, but he rarely accepted assignments. For the next decade he produced copious work in Italy. During this time he also started using a 35 mm film camera and a telephoto lens. He was influenced by his Magnum colleague Henri Cartier-Bresson as well as the Italian neorealist film movement. In the 1950s he also shot portraits of Marino Marini, Paul Bowles, W. H. Auden, and Marlene Dietrich in 1960. Over the period 1949–62 he visited Italy, Greece, Spain, France, Mexico, and the Caribbean.
List's 1950 picture of a woman, her black dress spread about her, reclining at a respectable distance from an elderly man reading, with one leg of his trousers rolled above his socks and garter, both enjoying the spring sunshine on the front steps of the Glyptothek in Munich, was selected by curator Edward Steichen for the world-touring Museum of Modern Art exhibition The Family of Man, seen by 9 million visitors.
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