A Short Biography of Ernest Nash

Ernest Nash was born Ernst Nathan from a Jewish family on September 14, 1898 near Potsdam (Berlin). There were early signs that this young man would develop into one of the twenty-first century’s premier architectural photographers—a modern-day inheritor of the mantle once held, in Rome, by vedutisti like Vasi or Piranesi.

He studied jurisprudence as well as Roman History and Epigraphy at the University of Berlin, the latter under Hermann Dessau. Interrupting his studies, he voluntarily enrolled to fight in WWI and was sent to the Italian Front. To distract himself from the misery of that conflict, he read the Classics (especially Cicero, Tacitus, and Virgil)—authors for whom he had expressed a clear interest already in high school. While in Tyrol, Nash also took to photographing his fellow soldiers. As scholar Karin Einaudi noted, that early combination of passions foretold of Nash’s extraordinary collection of photographs of the ancient world, many of which have been scanned and presented on this website. But instead of developing these passions, at war’s end, he completed his legal studies, this time at Jena, and not long after receiving his degree, Nash opened his own practice in Berlin in 1926.

The rise of National Socialism in Germany made it unsafe for Jews; additional disdain came upon Nash on account of his membership in the Communist Party. And so, the young lawyer opted to emigrate to Italy with his family (a wife and two kids) in autumn of 1936. He had first travelled there earlier in that decade to take in the classical landscape and to photograph monuments that had inspired the architecture of his native Potsdam. Opting to reinvent his life, he abandoned law and opened a photography portrait studio in Rome. Among his customers were high level prelates, including the future popes Pius XII and Paul VI.

Two years later, in 1939, when even Italy proved unsafe for Jews because of the passage of Mussolini’s racial laws, he and his family left for New York City, where, again, he began a photography studio late in 1939. Three years later he officially changed his name to Ernest Nash. It was not long before his career took off and the émigré counted the likes of Béla Bartók, Benjamin Britten, George Szell and Benny Goodman among his clients. Though his connections to the music sphere were remarkable, it was to the world of classical studies that he turned again. In 1944, he published his first book called Roman Towns. It was a compendium of ancient buildings from Tuscany, Latium, and Campania that had seldom been photo-documented before. The book had little following, but remains an important preamble to his magnum opus. One reviewer noted: “This new publication contains the work of a gifted photographer who … did not succumb to the fashionable snobbism of taking each picture from the perspective of a prostrate frog, a cliché much abused by some modern photographers.” Nash was on his way to great things.

Following the end of the war and armed with American citizenship and his trusty Rolleiflex camera, Nash returned to Europe in 1949. The intent was to focus his interests on classical architecture, a decision that impelled him to stay permanently in Rome. Already in 1950, Nash was collaborating with Herbert Bittner to publish an illustrated companion to the city entitled Rome: Portrait of the Eternal City on the occasion of the Holy Year. It contained Nash’s photographs of ancient, Christian, and modern sites. Then, in 1956, he donated his already substantial collection of images (3,135 negatives, 1,500 prints) of classical sites, focused particularly on Rome, to “The Union of Institutes of Archaeology, History and the History of Art in Rome,” a group which had been founded in 1946. This donation lead to the foundation, in 1957, of one the Union’s crown jewels: the Fototeca di Architettura e Topografia dell’Italia Antica (Archive of Photographs of Architecture and Topography in Ancient Italy). The collection would prove to be among Nash’s most lasting contributions.

Whether on the occasion of his first residency, or during the more extensive stay in the city that followed his American adventure, Nash’s understanding of Rome was greatly conditioned by the groundbreaking work A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. Written by Samuel Platner and revised by Thomas Ashby, it was published in 1929. The handy guide to classical buildings in the city inspired Nash, whose keen eyes noticed its most glaring lacuna: The book was largely unillustrated. Here, then, was an opportunity to improve the study of classical architecture and archaeology. By bringing his interests and knowledge to the table, Nash strove to provide an illustrated postscript to Platner and Ashby’s classic tome. But more than that, Nash saw an opportunity to conduct historical studies using a medium that went beyond the traditional bread and butter of scholars, namely written texts and drawn surveys. Nash was not only instrumental in stimulating the acceptance of photographs as valid documents, but in adopting the medium in revolutionary ways. Paul Zucker, a contemporary reviewer of Nash’s work, noted that: “[Earlier] photographers… tried all too often to get an axial and frontal point of view… almost like an elevation. …The result in most cases is extremely boring, pedantic and lifeless, since the plastic values are almost abolished.” As users of this website will have occasion to note, Nash was constantly in search of the dynamic angles with which to capture the spirit of a building.

For the phase of Nash's career related to the publication of The Pictorial Dictionary of Ancient Rome, see the webpage dedicated to those volumes.

From the time Nash made the donation of images that established the Fototeca, he served as that archive’s director, a position he held until his death. Gradually, the original nucleus on Rome was augmented by photos of the Roman Empire and of medieval monuments, as well as reproductions from other archives and relevant graphic documentation. Following Nash’s leadership, the Fototeca Unione continued to grow to over 30,000 negatives through photographic campaigns of archaeological sites in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

In his later years, he made a practice of traveling with Fellows of the American Academy and photo documenting the excavations sponsored by the Academy. Nash died in Rome in 1974 and is buried in the cimitero accattolico—the cemetery for non-Catholics in Rome.

Researched and written by Nicola Camerlenghi and Sebastian Hierl.