Herbert List was born into a Jewish family in Hamburg on October 7, 1903.
After he completed his education, he left for an extended two-year trip to South America and the US on business for his fathers coffee import company, List & Heinecken. From 1928-1936, Herbert List was a stockholder and employee of the company in Hamburg. However, he started to become interested in photography and decided to become a photographer, encouraged in this by his friend Andreas Feininger.
His early pictures from the years 1929-30 are stylistically influenced by the New Objectivity. However, during the years 1931-35, he became intensely involved with surrealism and created still lifes and engineered "visions" with the goal of "capturing the magic of a phenomenon in pictures". Given the political situation, in 1936 he decided to flee Germany because of his Jewish heritage and his homosexual tendencies and to emigrate to London.
The year after, Herbert List travelled through Greece and there he discovered the ancient world as his photographic subject. In his pictures, List wanted to resurrect the ancient myths he photographed ancient ruins, secular architecture, landscapes and male nudes. The photos that resulted were published in the book "Voyage en Grèce" and proved very popular. The pictures that were taken during his travels in Greece and France are reminiscent of the aesthetic of Chirico or Magritte and are described as "fotografia metafisica". List is considered the main representative of this style.
From 1945-49, Herbert List lived in Germany again. He documented the war-destroyed city of Munich, worked as a photo journalist and published the journal "Heute". In addition the versatile photographer created landscape and portrait photographs (of among others Picasso, Chagall and Miró) in the years that followed. Herbert List made several trips to Southern Europe, and in 1953 he had a large exhibit in Paris that helped him achieve an international breakthrough.
His photographs of Italian street scenes are world famous. In 1965, List turned away from photography in order to devote himself entirely to his collection of Italian drawings.
He died on April 4, 1975 in Munich.