Born into a prosperous Hamburg merchant family, List begins in 1921 an apprenticeship at a Heidelberg coffee dealer and studies literature and art history at Heidelberg University. The young man takes photographs during his travels between 1924-1928 for the coffee business of his father, as yet without any artistic pretensions.
In 1930, his artistic leanings and connections to the European avant-garde bring him together with Andreas Feininger. Feininger introduces him to the Rolleiflex, a more sophisticated camera facilitating deliberate composition of his images. Under the binary influence of the surrealist movement on one side and Bauhaus artists on the other, List starts to develop his own style by photographing still life images and friends. He describes his images as being composed visions where his arrangements try to capture the magical essence inhabiting and animating the world of appearances.
When he leaves Germany in 1936 for political and personal reasons, he turns his hobby into a profession. He works in Paris and London, meets George Hoyningen-Huene, who refers him to Harper's Bazaar for some projects. Unsatisfied with the work of a fashion photographer, he focuses on composing still life pictures in studios instead. The images created here will be compared later to the paintings of Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico. List becomes the most prominent photographer representative of a style called fotografia metafisica.
Greece is List's main interest from 1937 to 1939. After his first visit to the antique temples, sculptures and landscapes, his first solo show in Paris opens in the summer of 1937. Publications in Life, Photographie, Verve and Harpers Bazaar follow and List works on his first book called "Licht Ueber Hellas", which won't be published until 1953. During his work in Athens, List hopes to escape the war but is forced by the invading troops to return to Germany in 1941. Some of his work, which is stored in a hotel in Paris, is lost forever. Because of his Jewish family descent, List is not allowed to publish or work officially in Germany.
Portraits of Berard, Cocteau, Honnegger and Picasso during a short visit to Paris and a series on the Panoptikum in Vienna characterize List's main work before the war ends in 1945. In 1946 he photographs the ruins of war-torn Munich and becomes art editor of HEUTE, an American magazine for the German public. More portraits of European artists and photo-essays for European and American magazines follow.
In 1951 Herbert List meets Robert Capa, who convinces him to work as a contributor to Magnum. List turns his interest towards Italy from 1950 to 1961: from street scenes to contemplative photoessays - from architectual views to portraits of international artists living in Italy. In 1953 he discovers the 35 mm camera with the telephoto lens. His work is now more spontanous and is influenced by his Magnum colleague Henri Cartier Bresson and the Italian Neo Realism film mouvement. List completes several book projects in the following years: Licht Ueber Hellas (1953), Rome (1955), Caribia (1958), Nigeria (1961) and Napoli (1962) in collaboration with Vittorio de Sica.
In the mid 60s List gradually loses interest in photography. His collection of Italian Old Master Drawings absorbs his full attention, involving numerous trips to collectors, museums and auctions mainly in Italy, London, Paris and New York. He dies in Munich in 1975.