Past Glories of Ancient Civilizations – the Photography of Werner Forman

Werner Forman was an intrepid photographer, who traveled all over the world to document the greatness of ancient civilizations. During his 75 year career he went into places nobody had been before with a camera, to take stunning visual images. He was the co-author and sole photographer of more than 80 books, covering subjects as varied as the Aztecs, Tang China, the Vikings and the Maori, as well as contributing images to hundreds of other books, magazines, and TV programs.

Werner died in 2010, but his legacy lives on. Werner Forman Archive is a treasury of his photography, some of which is of artifacts which are now lost, or areas of the world which are no longer safe for one man and a Hasselblad to visit. It covers archaeological sites, cultural monuments, landscapes and priceless museum exhibits photographed in more than 55 countries.

Chichen Itza © Werner Forman
Chichen Itza © Werner Forman

Born in 1921 in Prague, he was fascinated by photography as a teenager and determined to make it his life’s work. At first intrigued by machinery, he took images of cars and aeroplanes, which were stylish enough to gain him status as official photographer to the Czech commercial airline at the age of fourteen! During the Second World War he documented atrocities for the Resistance, which eventually led to the arrest of himself, his brother, father and Jewish mother. His father, a Catholic, was offered the chance to save himself by divorcing his wife. He refused. Remarkably the family all survived the concentration camps.

After the war Forman developed an interest in Chinese art. The subject of his first book was Chinese art in Czech collections for famous publisher Artia. Designed by his brother Bedrich and released in 1954, it was an international best-seller, with editions in English and German as well as Czech. This brought him to the notice of the Chinese authorities, who invited the brothers to visit. In 1956 the pair spent two months in China, documenting museum artefacts and holding seminars for Chinese photographers. During the years that followed Forman produced many books of photographs of ancient artifacts from various countries, including North Korea and North Vietnam.

Mongolia © Werner Forman
Mongolia © Werner Forman

Artia eventually produced forty Forman volumes including monographs on five important collections in the British Museum, with texts by their curators. These were realised due to the commitment of the publisher Paul Hamlyn, who found a ready market for the Forman books. Another such project was Egyptian Art (1962), featuring the renowned collection of Cairo’s Egyptian Museum.

Nefertiti © Werner Forman
Nefertiti © Werner Forman

Werner Forman came from Czechoslovakia to live in England in 1968. He brought with him thousands of glass plates, colour and black and white negatives and transparencies, all uncaptioned or unidentified and on meeting Barbara Heller, the wife of his former Czech publisher, Martin Heller, they agreed that she would take on the work and establish the Werner Forman Archive. It was a monumental task to identify and caption the images and they are now scanned and on line at

Others who published Forman’s books included Weidenfeld & Nicolson and from the mid-seventies he edited a new series for Orbis Publishing called Echoes of the Ancient World. Fifteen volumes in all were published and repeatedly reissued in many languages, on subjects as varied as the Aztecs, Tang China, the Vikings and the Maori. In 1992 his photographs enriched The Life in Ancient Egypt by Eugen Strouhal, and in consequence the book was taken up by publishers in eleven countries and published in nine languages.

Over the next couple of decades Forman travelled extensively, often alone, into areas that could be difficult to reach, where he photographed the many different aspects of ancient civilizations, including prehistoric art, ancient Persia, Indian sculpture among others. His travels took him north to document the Vikings, and far east to picture Japan and the Samurai.

After his death, a large number of previously unseen images have come to light and are being catalogued and digitized, and are gradually being added to the collection

Barbara Heller, Director, Werner Forman Archive says, “The archive has an unparalleled collection of global art and antiquities images from the long career of the late Werner Forman, many of which are unique and some unfortunately have disappeared so the images we hold are the only record of them. Moving forward, we are cataloging and digitizing the thousands of rare photos that have not been previously seen and we hope to release the books Werner was working on before his final illness, which will be a swansong for a remarkable career in photography.

All photographs Copyright Werner Forman Archive 

Share this post:


  • Julia Ruxton says:

    WFA is one of my favourite collections – you can still ring up and get personal and really knowledgeable help. The library is as much the result of Barbara’s tireless work as Werner’s wanderlust and ability with a camera. Anyone who met him at the BAPLA Fair will remember that he had a charming manner that I’m sure won him access to all sorts of collections – hence the richness of the archive. He also lit what he was photographing, sculpture in particular, very cleverly in a way that really brings objects to life and adds a sense of drama and mystery. Well done for your article Julian.