Erich Lessing received his first camera when he exited the synagogue from his bar mitzvah in Vienna in 1936.
"There was no idea of taking up photography as a profession," said Lessing, 82, from his house in Austria. "In a good Jewish family in Vienna you would only be a lawyer or a doctor."
But the camera stayed with Lessing when he left Austria for Israel in 1939 to escape the Nazis. There he took photographs for the British army. When he returned to Austria in 1947, he started working as a photojournalist. His interest was the newly communist Eastern Europe, and the photographs he took in Austria and in Hungary during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 have become Cold War icons.
For one week, starting Sept. 25, a selection of Lessing's photographs of Austria will go on display at the Beverly Hills Country Club in conjunction with Austrian American Day. The exhibition, titled "From Liberation to Liberty" includes images famously emblematic of the period, such as "Four in a Jeep" -- a photograph of four military policeman, one each from the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union, a symbol of the post-war occupation in Austria.
Lessing did not stay with this reportage: "After the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, all the photographers who had been there saw that it was not our documents that were changing political decisions. I do not want to downgrade the influence of photography -- the photography at the end of the Vietnam War was very influential. But it took another 50 years for the end of communism in Europe."
In 1960, Lessing started taking photographic "evocations" of the lives of great poets, musicians and scientists, often taking still photographs of their work in museums. The result was more than 30,000 photographs of art, history and archeology that have filled 40 books. But his seminal work remains the photographs of the 1940s and '50s.
"I found it a very strange title, being dubbed the photographer of the Cold War," he said. "But I think it is true."
"From Liberation to Liberty," will be on display at the Beverly Hills Country Club, 3084 Motor Ave., as part of the Austrian-American Day Celebration. For more information, call (310) 444-9310.