Wolf von dem Bussche. Photo: Nicolas von dem Bussche
Wolf von dem Bussche. Photo: Nicolas von dem Bussche

By Lewis Dolinsky

Wolf von dem Bussche, a longtime Berkeley resident whose photographs are in many public and private collections, died in Mission Viejo CA on Aug. 12 at age 80.

His son, Dr. Nicolas von dem Bussche, said the cause of death was Alzheimer’s.

Writing in ARTweek magazine in 1982, San Francisco Chronicle art critic Thomas Albright said, “Von dem Bussche is not a radical innovator; his work falls solidly within, or straddles, the classical traditions of 20th century photography:…His originality is not in his forms but in their feeling — a subtle undertow of expressionism bordering on the surreal.”

Albright put Mr. von dem Bussche in the company of Andre Kertesz, Alfred Stieglitz and Henri-Cartier Bresson.

Berkeley attorney Bill Goodman, a major collector of photography, and a longtime friend of Mr. von dem Bussche, said he had a superb eye.

“His work was just different enough to be original,’’ Goodman said. “He was meticulous, which was both a blessing and a curse. He would throw out 90 percent of what he printed. If it wasn’t perfect, it did not see the light of day.”

That drive for perfection, and Mr. von dem Bussche’s prickly nature, meant that relations with galleries were not always serene.

Among Mr. von dem Bussche’s most significant pictures are “Foley Square”; an iconic series on the World Trade Center Towers (from his Manhattan apartment, Mr. von dem Bussche had watched them being built); and the portfolio “Homage to Kertesz.” Not so well known is a photograph of Richard Nixon at Martin Luther King’s funeral. In the photo, Nixon seems to be smirking.

Mr. von dem Bussche had one-man shows in San Francisco, Paris, New York City and Hanover, Germany. He participated in group exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. His work is in the collections of about a dozen museums. His Point Lobos portfolio was acquired by more than a dozen libraries including the New York Public Library and the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.

Wolf von dem Bussche  in the Okefenokee Swamp. Photo: Maury Englander
Wolf von dem Bussche in the Okefenokee Swamp. Photo: Maury Englander

Wolf von dem Bussche was born in 1934 in Pforzheim, Germany, into an aristocratic family that traces its roots to the 12th century. Wolf’s parents were Adolf and Margot von dem Bussche. Wolf’s cousin and godfather, Axel von dem Bussche, was one of the few conspirators against Adolf Hitler to survive. He volunteered to kill Hitler by blowing himself up as he modeled an army uniform for the Fuhrer. Instead, the uniforms were blown up, by Allied bombs, as they waited in a railroad car .

When Soviet troops took over eastern Germany, Wolf’s family was given a day to get out of their house in Stecklenberg. They fled through fields and forests to the western zone.

At age 15, sponsored by an uncle, Mr. von dem Bussche came alone to New York City. While working full time, he attended high school and then Columbia University. In 1954, he was drafted into the American army.

After basic training, a sergeant said, “I see, young man, that you speak Kraut.” As Mr. von dem Bussche told it, he was given the choice of getting emergency U.S. citizenship with top secret clearance to translate documents in Germany, or be sent to Korea. He went to Germany.

After military service, Mr. von dem Bussche returned to college and painted, although his father had warned him, “Artists eat in the kitchen with the help.” With encouragement from Kertesz, his friend, mentor and neighbor, he became a photographer.

For Life magazine, he took the photographs for a cover story on the effects of oil production on life in Mexico. He took most of the photographs for the book “Canyons and Mesas,” published by Time-Life. Major income came from glossy photography for annual corporate reports. For those, he traveled to all 50 states and many foreign countries.

Eventually, he left commercial photography and continued art photography. In his later years, he returned to painting.

Mr. von dem Bussche was a man of great enthusiasms, and baseball was one of them. He and his wife, Judy, having moved to the Bay Area in 1976, were regulars at the Oakland Coliseum. He loved music (classical and jazz), dancing, wine, port, grappa, champagne and food. In all cases, he preferred the best and expected it.

He was also a collector of vintage posters. All were lost in the Oakland Hills fire of 1991. The von dem Bussches fled with their animals, some negatives, the clothes on their backs, and a suitcase with precious things that Mr. von dem Bussche always had ready because of his experience in Germany.

In 2009, Wolf and Judy von dem Bussche moved to Irvine, where he is survived by his son Nicolas, daughter-in-law Mary, and grandchildren Elias, Micah and Kyrie. His sister, Sascha von dem Bussche, died in Germany in 2003. Judy von dem Bussche died in 2013. They had been married 51 years.

A private interment service with military honors was held August 29 at Miramar National Cemetery, near San Diego.

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