Born into a prosperous merchant family in Hamburg, 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 and Bauhaus art on the other side, List starts to develop his own style by photographing still lifes, architecture, and friends. Inspired by ideas of Romanticism he describes his images as being composed visions where his arrangements try to capture the subliminal essence inhabiting and animating the world of appearances.
When he leaves Germany in 1936 for political and personal reasons, he briefly 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.
Leaving personal and artistic restraints of a fascist Germany behind Lists work becomes more playful and intimate. Mediterranean life makes the years 1936 to 1938 his most fruitful. Images of young men on sunny beaches are not only erotic studies of the male physique. They seem to illustrate a private journal of friendships and encounters made during his travels. Their natural and spontaneous attitude appealed to fashion photographers nowadays, but it is the fact that none of his subjects were casted or paid that stands out.
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 due to the war. 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.
Like for most Europeans the period of 1940 to 1945 was a difficult time for List. Forced out of Greece and without a permit to work he had to duck German authorities not to get drafted and sent to the eastern front. Also materials for photography were scarce. During this time he picked up drawing as a creative outlet.
Portraits of Cocteau, Honegger and Picasso during a short visit to Paris and a enigmatic series on the wax figurines of the Panoptikum in Vienna are shot before he is drafted by the Wehrmacht to go Norway until the war ends in 1945. 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. His style changes in the postwar years. Less occupied with formal aspects his work shows a strong interest for the human being.
In 1951 Herbert List meets Robert Capa, who convinces him to work as a contributor to Magnum. Still Greece but mostly Italy attracts him. Street photography, but also photoessays and portraiture are his genres. In 1953 he discovers the 35 mm camera. His work is now more spontaneous and is influenced by his Magnum colleague Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Italian Neo Realism film movement. Travels to Spain, Mexico, Morocco and the Caribbean do follow. Postwar economy finally allows List to complete several book projects that had been on hold: 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 in Italy, London, Paris and New York. He dies in Munich in 1975.