"Accumulating an immense global mosaic of the life of as many inhabitants on this planet as possible—I have to admit that’s a pretty ambitious goal that we’ve set for ourselves and our collection.… Human beings are the focal point of the collection. What makes us human? What do people wish and hope for, what do they dream about? We are intrigued by the fact that, since 1839, there has been a medium capable of recording the history of humankind in meaningful and extremely concentrated images. Our store of photographs is useful to a wide variety of university disciplines, and it allows entirely different kinds of museums to collaborate." —Peter Herzog (Oral history, 07.07.2016, 24.11.2016)

The order that Ruth and Peter Herzog devised for their 'encyclopedia of life' (Martin Heller, 1989) does not reflect the classical canon of photography, but instead reveals their reservations regarding scientific classification and its attendant categorization. The Herzogs have bundled sections of their collection into 12 chapters, based on subject matter or geography. The result is an alternative panorama of world history.

The 12 chapters have been retained in cataloging and organizing the holdings of the Kabinett. Thus, in the online collection, the chapters are listed from A to L. Furthermore, the photographs and their location within the order established by Ruth and Peter Herzog are clearly identified by number. Each chapter is introduced by a short passage excerpted from conversations with Peter Herzog; this oral history, in progress since 2016, contributes substantially to the collection.


"Italy, the Vatican, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, all that belonged to the repertoire of educational journeys through Europe. And biblical history, too, when people traveled on to Palestine or Bethlehem. The exotic appeal of foreign cultures had a lot to do with it. Being able to take educational trips like that also meant that you belonged to the social elite. Tourists bought photographs in those days as souvenirs and also to prove they had been on those trips." —Peter Herzog (Oral history, 16.02.2007)

View Chapter
America, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Pacific Islands

"There has always been globalization in terms of photography. It’s not a new development. Large-scale trading always meant global trade, and long before the word ‘globalization’ was introduced. Swiss merchants also traveled to Asia and Africa. They established an international trade network, using raw materials and cheap labor and driven by the fascination and pioneering spirit of opening up new continents, and, of course, by the prospect of phenomenal gains." —Peter Herzog (Oral history, 24.11.2016)

View Chapter

"Italy was the destination in those days and that’s reflected in our collection.… We organized an exhibition [360°, 39 Pictures of the Arch of Constantine 1849–1910, 2002] at the Istituto Svizzero in Rome with Dieter Bachmann, who was the director at the time. The pictures of the Arch of Constantine that we selected from our collection all look the same at first. But far from it. Each photograph is different: different photographer, different exposure time, different technique, different angle, different background." —Peter Herzog (Oral history, 24.11.2016)

View Chapter
Africa, Asia Minor, Southern Europe

"One of the questions we asked ourselves while collecting was: How and when did people start acting as if the world was there to be conquered? And how did they do it? Traveling to China or Africa in the 19th century was equivalent to the idea of going to Mars today.… It’s fascinating to see how fast the world pictured in the historical photo albums is disappearing." —Peter Herzog (Oral history, 07.06.2016, 24.11.2016)

View Chapter
France, England, Benelux, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe

"I spent a lot of time in three countries in particular—Italy, France, and England. I’ve traveled around in them quite a bit and I still enjoy being there.… Actually, London more so than Paris. I feel more at home with the British mentality. How did people live in Germany, Italy, England, or Switzerland? How do people live in general? Photographs can give us clues." —Peter Herzog (Oral history, 24.11.2016)

View Chapter
Germany, Austria, Switzerland

"The first photographs that show Swiss motifs were taken by people from abroad, from France, England, and elsewhere, who traveled through Switzerland. At first, the Swiss … couldn’t understand how visitors could be so excited about the mountains, how they could romanticize everything—the so-called alpenglow, the glacial lakes. All they saw were the sparse Alpine pastures. The cliché of Switzerland, as we know it today, was invented by those first tourists; it’s an incredibly selective, rose-colored view of reality. A lot of people in Switzerland actually still cultivate that image." —Peter Herzog (Oral history, 09.07.2018)

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Art, Architecture, Theater, Documentation

"Members of the bourgeoisie weren’t the only ones who bought photographs and reproductions of artworks as souvenirs of their journeys. Scholars did too. It was a source of inspiration to be able to see something in photographs that they couldn’t see in person.… A lot of people, like art historians, used it to jog their memories, for instance, when they gave lectures. A famous example in Basel of somebody who collected photography and used it in his lectures was the Swiss historian of art and culture Jakob Burckhardt." —Peter Herzog (Oral history, 26.02.2017)

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Industry, Transportation, Military, Work, Sport, Leisure, Construction

"The consequences of war are important, what wars mean for the civilian population, the misery they cause. This is exemplified in various albums, for instance, those about the First or Second World War. Why war here?" —Peter Herzog (Oral history, 07.06.2016)

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"One of the things that makes collecting photography so interesting is that there are still countless undiscovered stashes of photographs or bodies of work." —Peter Herzog (Fotogeschichte no.145, 2017)

"Photographs are always about history and storytelling. That means that a specific oeuvre consists not only of records and aesthetic highlights, but also of marginalia, for example, a photographer’s diary." —Peter Herzog (Oral history, 24.11.2016)

View Chapter
Personal Selection Ruth and Peter Herzog

"We bought our 'first' photograph at the Bürkliplatz, where there’s an open-air flea market every Saturday. It was the first Saturday in May 1974, around nine or ten o’clock in the morning. Our background knowledge doesn’t come from books. We were lucky in that we were able to see a lot of collections, to meet people and acquire pictures that you can’t find in Switzerland.… We knew people like Helmut Gernsheim, who wrote classic reference works. They were committed collectors, with an extraordinary store of knowledge in the field of photography, and they knew how to pass it on to others." —Peter Herzog (Oral history, 24.11.2016, 16.02.2017)

View Chapter
Portraits, Family Albums

"Only after studying thousands of family albums, thousands of pictures, did we realize how very important they are. You can’t really acquire insight if you just look at the work of the big names in the field or leaf through a few photo albums.… A lot of albums start by introducing the main protagonists, the family members, and those closest to them. That’s followed, like a film, by memorable ‘events’: from the cradle to the grave, everything that’s part of a human life." —Peter Herzog (Oral history, 24.11.2016, 09.07.2018)

View Chapter
Nature, Animals, Plants

"Given the complexity of the world, we keep asking ourselves: how can photography capture it? It is important for scientists to be able to study changes, sometimes even microscopic ones, for example, in a series of photographs of plants." —Peter Herzog (Oral history, 24.11.2016)

View Chapter

Happy Accident—The serendipity that originally sparked this collection of historical photography also prevails on viewing these vast holdings. Read more

"The acquisition of Ruth and Peter Herzog's unique collection of photographs in 2015 was a completely spontaneous decision. When they approached us with an offer, we knew instantly that we wanted to take them up on it.… It was a perfectly logical step, given the long-standing connection between both of us and the collectors. The collection is now integrated into our Kabinett as an independent entity under its original name.… However, the crucial motivation behind the acquisition of these 'mythical holdings' was to reinforce the role of Basel as a city of art alongside its most important institution, the Kunstmuseum. The ongoing cataloging of these unique holdings will ensure that the museum has a vibrant and vital collection of photography at its disposal." —Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron (06.2015, 07.2020)

Happy Accident—The serendipity that originally sparked this collection of historical photography also prevails on viewing these vast holdings.

The word “serendipity” goes back to the Persian fairytale The Three Princes of Serendip, popularized in the mid-18th century by Horace Walpole. It designates the activity of “making discoveries by accident and sagacity,” prioritizing exploration and discovery rather than searching with predefined intent.

Thanks to the launch of the Fotosammlung Online, viewers now have unlimited access to a digital encyclopedia of the analog, light-sensitive holdings in this collection. Study of the albums, boxes, and loose photographs reveals affinities in material, format, technique, mode of presentation, and, of course, content. Serendipitous affinities of this kind may be encountered again and again in untold combinations and variations, leading to the realization that happy accidents of supposedly random findings prove to have a compelling inner logic.

The exhibition “The Incredible World of Photography” at the Kunstmuseum Basel from 18 July to 4 October 2020 showcased a selection of 400 historical photographs and objects from the holdings of the Fotosammlung in a presentation conceived and carried out in cooperation with the Kabinett. The selection of objects in the exhibition is accessible in the first Editorial as an exemplary introduction to the Fotosammlung Online.

View Editorial Set

The Fotosammlung Ruth und Peter Herzog is an integral part of the Jacques Herzog und Pierre de Meuron Kabinett, Basel. With the acquisition of the collection by the Kabinett two main objectives have been fulfilled: the Fotosammlung will be preserved as a whole and the Fotosammlung will remain in Basel. Another objective early on was to make the Fotosammlung accessible to the public. How does one make legible an overwhelming abundance of more than 500,000 photographs depicting motifs and themes from around the world? The collection's expansive holdings—comprising some 3,000 albums, 1,400 boxes as well as 400 cased items—range from the early days of the medium, which was invented in 1839, to the 1970s. The experience gained from dealing with this rich spectrum of historical photographs and its materiality was translated into several coordinated work processes: database-supported inventory, digital reprography, conservation, and presentation through a variety of formats and displays including the Fotosammlung Online.

The progress of the archiving initiative over the first five years becomes visible with the launch of the Fotosammlung Online. It contains a representative selection from each album and box within the collection. This digital 'Enzyklopädie' provides the public with access to the light-sensitive and often small-format objects. Because of the broad spectrum of the collection's contents, the Fotosammlung Online offers an elementary tool for interdisciplinary research among universities and other institutions.

The Fotosammlung Ruth und Peter Herzog is inspired by the ideas and interests, the thoughts and approach of the collectors. Oral history is the method chosen to preserve their expertise and to inquire into the particularities of the collection, specifically, the principles underlying its motivation, organization, and provenance. This dialogue with the Basel-based collectors is of immeasurable value.

Conversations have been conducted with the collectors since 2016 in conjunction with the work of cataloguing the thousands of photographs. The method is integral to the processing and preservation of the collection as part of our cultural heritage. The oral history will evolve through ongoing exploration of specific topics in conversation with the collectors and others. Excerpts from the conversations provide an insight into the holdings of the collection, as shown in the initial selection that accompanies the Fotosammlung Online.

The Kabinett is tremendously grateful to have Ruth and Peter Herzog's continued contribution to the oral history project and for sharing the immense knowledge they have cultivated through their 50 years of collecting.

"We have a great deal of literature on Italian photography. This is a photograph from John Henry Parker.… It’s number 42. You can look it up in Parker’s book, A Catalogue of Three Thousand Three Hundred Photographs of Antiquities in Rome and Italy, published in 1879. We have a copy of it, but it’s extremely rare, practically nobody has it. It’s an important reference book for restorers and it gives an insight into how the pictures were arranged and catalogued. Some of them are mounted on canvas. They were then framed and hung, sometimes as frescoes." —Peter Herzog (Oral history, 16.02.2017)

In the course of collecting historical photography, Ruth and Peter Herzog also amassed a specialized library, including crucial primary sources. Comprising essays, books, and other media relevant to the collection, it was acquired by the Kabinett in 2019. It will also be catalogued and made accessible for future study.

The layout and functionality of this search tool, the Fotosammlung Online, is a direct result of the organizing structure developed by the Kabinett to inventorize the Fotosammlung Ruth und Peter Herzog.

Beginning with the physical material of the collection, the inventory structure is based on the format by means of which Ruth and Peter Herzog classified each object. The collection is broadly organized around albums and pages, boxes and loose items, as well as individual objects that includes cased items and plates.  

Listed below are terms found in the Fotosammlung Online. Some terms are of a technical nature or are material designations used in the field of photographic archiving while others reflect the specific organizational criteria of the Kabinett.

Album: a bound collection of pages that contains a number of photographs or photographic items. Much of the Fotosammlung was obtained as albums as well as boxes. They, alongside the boxes, are an organizing set of the Fotosammlung Online.

Attached item: an individual photograph or photographic item mechanically fixed or adhered to a page within an album.

Author: a person or entity (e.g. press agency) that created a photograph or photographic item. An author might be identical with a set-creator if he/she also assembled the items within a set or sub-set.

Binding: a durable cover that holds an album together. The description may also include material information regarding the pages and the guards.

Book block: pages of an album that have been sewn or glued together into a single unit, then trimmed around three edges to remove signature folds, but not yet cased into a cover.

Box: a container that collects a number of photographs or photographic items. Boxes were either obtained as-is or assembled by Ruth and Peter Herzog. Alongside albums, boxes are a broad organizing set of the Fotosammlung Online.

Cased item: a photograph or photographic item contained within a frame or other enclosure. Cased items were usually obtained as individual, original items by Ruth and Peter Herzog. Together with plates they form an organizational category alongside albums and boxes.

Date: refers to the creation of an object. The main source for the date is any kind of information written or printed on the object itself (e.g. handwritten note or label). If no information exists, a date might be deduced from the context.

Description: a summary of the most relevant information about the object in the format of a short, concise text. It is written during inventorization by the Kabinett. For sub-sets the technical information is included.

Envelope: a flat wrapper that contains photographs or photographic items similar in content and/or creation. Envelopes are a sub-set of boxes.

Enyzklopädie chapter: a category within the unique system – the ‘Enzyklopädie’ – that Ruth and Peter Herzog established to order their collection. Each chapter is based off of specific iconographic, thematic or geographic criteria.

Estate: a collection of related objects having the same provenance. An estate can be bequeathed by a photographer, an institution or a collector.

Gilt: gold edging on the pages of an album.

Glassine: thin, translucent paper used to protect the surfaces of photographs or photographic items.

Guard: fan-folded light canvas or other strong cloth attached to the spine of a book block. Each signature of an album is sewn to a fold of the guard. This process is referred to as “sewing on guards”.

Item type: a category referring to the original purpose of a photograph or photographic item. Many items within the Fotosammlung were created in parallel or as a response to the development of specific social conventions or programs. Examples of item type include: cabinet cards, cartes de visite, collages, elephant prints, slides, jewelry, panoramas, postcards, and stereographs.

Loose item: an individual photograph or photographic item within a box. Loose items can be contained within an envelope, a box, or both.

Mount: the nature of attachment of a photograph or photographic item to a page. The mount supports the picture carrier.

Object: any discrete component of the Fotosammlung. This can be an item, envelope, album, or box.

Object dimension: the height, width, and depth measurements of an object as a whole.

Original title: the name given to an object by its author or set creator. It is presented in the original language of the author or set creator. In addition, every object is given a descriptive title by the Kabinett.

Page: the sheets of an album where photographs or photographic items are either mounted or loosely inserted. In the majority of the cases the material is paper. Pages are a sub-set of albums.

Perfect binding: a pamphlet binding process using only adhesive, usually a hot-melt glue, to secure pages into a wrap-around cover. Also referred to as adhesive binding.

Photograph / photographic item: a single pictorial component of the Fotosammlung. An item designates a photograph (a picture and its picture carrier) along with any accessory framing and ornamentation.

Photographic process: the mechanical or chemical technique with which a photograph or photographic item has been created.

Picture: a photographic image.

Picture carrier: the material on which the picture is developed such as glass, metal, paper or acetate.

Picture carrier dimensions: the height and width of the picture carrier.

Picture dimension: the height and width of the picture.

Place: geographical identification of the content depicted.

Plate: A picture printed upon a glass or a metal carrier. Together with cased items, they form an organizational category alongside albums and boxes.

Post treatment: all manipulation of the photograph or photographic item after its initial creation including colorization, lamination, retouching, toning, varnishing, vignetting or waxing. Post treatment is identified through visual inspection or with the use of a magnifier.

Record creation: the day, month, and year an entry was created in the Fotosammlung database.

Set: an organizational category used by the Kabinett comprising albums and boxes.

Sub-set: an organizational category used by the Kabinett comprising pages and envelopes. Sub-sets are contained within sets.

Set creator: a person or entity (e.g. press agency) that assembled a set or sub-set. A set creator can be identical with the author if he/she also created the photographs or photographic items.

Spine: the bound edge of an album where the pages are sewn, glued, or otherwise fastened together. Spines are usually thin and flexible, allowing the album to be easily opened.

Subject: a summary of the content of an object using keywords selected by the Kabinett.

Technical identification: identification of the techniques that have been used to create the photograph or photographic item. These might include: color (monochrome/polychrome), polarity (positive/negative), type (transparent/non-transparent) and reproduction type (contact print, graphic reproduction, print/enlargement etc.).

Jacques Herzog und Pierre de Meuron Kabinett, Basel

Board of Foundation
Jacques Herzog (President), Pierre de Meuron (Vice President), Director of the Kunstmuseum Basel, Esther Zumsteg (Director, Kabinett)


Fotosammlung Ruth und Peter Herzog (2021–)

Project Team, FotoKabinett
Dr. Michalis Valaouris (Head of Collection, since March 2021)
Balthazar Wyss (Research Assistant, since 2020)
Manuela Kolbe (Administration, since 2020)

Fotosammlung Ruth und Peter Herzog (2015–2020)

Board of Directors
Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron, Irène Speiser, Markus Weder, Esther Zumsteg

Project Team, FotoKabinett
Paul Mellenthin (Head of Collection, 2018–2020)
Madleina Deplazes (Head of Collection 2016–2018), Claudia di Lecce (Head of Collection 2015)
Birgit Huber (Research Assistant 2019–2020), Léa Girardin (Project Assistant 2017–2019), Balthazar Wyss (Assistant 2017–2020)
Stephan Graf, Gracia Greiner, Gian Luca Hofmann, Daniel Laupper, Silja Meyer, Miori Miyanashi, Daniel Rancic, Natalia Reichert, David Rentsch, Alexandra Siegrist, Francesca Strobino, Kevin Strütt, Alessia Wuttke (Collaborators 2015–2020)

Project Team Herzog & de Meuron, kitchen, KM-DOC
Esther Zumsteg (Senior Partner), Stefanie Manthey, Mathieu Bujnowskyj, Markus Weder (Head KM-Doc, Concept Database/Content Processing), Olaf Baumann (Database System, Digitalisation Workstation), Martin Cassani (Archive Infrastructure)

Specialist Consultants & Suppliers
Regula Anklin, Atelier für Restaurierung Anklin & Assen
Fredy Dubach (Consultant Digitalisation/Image Post Processing)
Bruno Jehle, BJ Institute (Consultant Digitalisation, Media Asset Management)
Peter Moerkerk, Zentralbibliothek Zürich (Consultant Digitalisation)
Ricabeth Steiger, Schweizerisches Landesmuseum Zürich (Consultant Content Description)
Marcel Zemp, zetcom (Consultant Content Description, Implementation Database System Art Plus)


Fotosammlung Online (2018–2020)

Project Team, Kabinett
Paul Mellenthin (Head of Collection since 2018)
Birgit Huber (Research Assistant 2019–2020), Léa Girardin (Project Assistant 2017–2019)

With special thanks to Irène Speiser (Board of Directors) for her editorial support.

Project Team Herzog & de Meuron, kitchen, KM-DOC
Esther Zumsteg (Senior Partner), Markus Weder (Head KM-Doc), Stefanie Manthey, Edward Wang

Concept and Design
Jacques Herzog und Pierre de Meuron Kabinett, Basel

Layout and Graphic
Weisswert, Basel
Claire Morin, Matthias Indermaur

Development, Implementation and Datalogistic
Sukoa AG, Interactive Technologies
Thomas Martin, Jérémie Meyer, Helmut Lehner

Translation from German into English
Catherine Schelbert (Enzyklopädie, Kabinett)

Olga Osadtschy, Paul Mellenthin (eds), Exposure Time. Photographs from the Collection Ruth and Peter Herzog. Publication on the occasion of the exhibition: “The Incredible World of Photography. Ruth and Peter Herzog Collection,” Kunstmuseum Basel, 18 July–4 October 2020, Basel: Christoph Merian, 2020.

Bice Curiger, Alice Neurohr (eds), ... et labora. Photographs from the Ruth and Peter Herzog Collection. Works by Mika Rottenberg, Yuri Pattison, Emanuelle Lainé, Andreas Gursky, Michael Hakimi, Thomas Struth, Liu Xiadong, Cyprien Gaillard. Ex-Votos from Provence. Catalogue for the eponymous exhibition at the Fondation Vincent van Gogh Arles, 16 November 2019–13 April 2020. Arles: Fondation Vincent van Gogh Arles, 2020.

Josef Helfenstein, Olga Osadtschy (eds), Chagall. The Breakthrough Years, 1911-1919. Catalogue for the eponymous exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Basel, 16 September 2017–21 January 2018. Cologne: Walther König, 2017.

Dieter Bachmann (ed.), Der Körper der Photographie. Eine Welterzählung in Aufnahmen der Sammlung Herzog. Catalogue for the exhibition “Der Körper der Photographie. Sammlung Herzog,“ Haus der Kunst, Munich, 6 April–12 June 2005. Zurich: Limmat, 2005.

Research visits to the integrated Fotosammlung Ruth und Peter Herzog are restricted due to the ongoing inventory process. We expect to be able to consider inquiries for research projects again by mid-2022. Guided tours of the collections of the Foto–Kabinett are not possible.