London CNN  — 

A young Miriam Makeba dancing with her eyes closed. Her future husband Hugh Masekela receiving a trumpet from “Satchmo”, the jazz legend better known as Louis Armstrong.

Nelson Mandela staring through the bars of his prison cell on Robben Island after returning there in 1994.

They are among the best-known images of modern times, and the man behind them, Jürgen Schadeberg, has died at 89, ending an era of photography that spans more than seven decades.

The German-born photographer’s collection of 200,000 negatives includes some of the most famous shots of Madiba, bookending the former South African President’s 27-year stint in prison.

A young Hugh Masekela receives the trumpet from jazz legend Louis Armstrong.

“This was where he studied, did pushups and reflected on the goal of the liberation of his people,” said Schadeberg about his 1994 photo in notes given to CNN by his wife Claudia.

Schadeberg first photographed Mandela with activist Ruth First in 1951 and captured his most iconic moments 40 years later.

He was in South Africa when Mandela was released from prison in February 1990, which he described in his memoir as “one of the most electrifying and thrilling moments in the country’s history.”

A portrait of Mandela in 1995. Mandela returns to the lime quarry in 1994, where he was assigned to work while imprisoned.

Rejected by editors

Born in Berlin in 1931, Jürgen Schadeberg lived through the horrors of the Second World War in Berlin. “The Nazi regime controlled every aspect of life,” he wrote in the book.

He was the only child of an actress who married a British soldier at the end of the war. They left Berlin for South Africa, leaving Schadeberg to fend for himself.

After pursuing a career as a photographer in Hamburg, he made the decision himself to move to Johannesburg in 1950. However, he faced rejection from White photo editors when he started out and one story on the dangers of asbestos to mainly Black miners was rejected by eight editors.

“I was ordered not to talk to anyone or go anywhere near the mines themselves. My first trip into ‘real Africa’ was, in the end, disturbing and depressing,” he recalled in “The Way I See It.”

He turned to Drum, a monthly magazine aimed at a Black audience, even though he was told it would be unsatisfactory work and disastrous for his career because it “was about natives”.

Miriam Makeba posing in 1955 for a cover photograph in a recording studio in downtown Jo'burg.

The first person he was introduced to at the office was Drum’s chief journalist, Henry Nxumalo, who helped Schadeberg integrate himself in Black communities and photograph musicians such as Makeba and Masekela.

Schadeberg wrote in his memoir that Nxumalo was murdered in 1957 by an unknown assailant while investigating a story about a White doctor who had reportedly botched a large number of abortions.

Schadeberg said he was “devastated” at the loss of a man he described as his “only friend and a man of great courage, personality, character and humor.”

Documenting inequalities of apartheid

He continued to document the inequalities he thought were so prevalent in South African society as a freelancer, eventually becoming production manager and picture editor at Drum magazine in 1955, not long after forced evictions began in Sophiatown.

After eight years with Drum magazine, he left in 1959, and became chief photographer at the Sunday Times, South Africa’s biggest Sunday newspaper.

“I was saddened to hear of the loss of yet another of the original 1950s Drum photographers,” said Prospero Bailey, the curator of Drum magazine.

“Jürgen’s unique eye left an indelible mark on the country’s social photographic history through not only his own work but also the work of the photographers that he trained at Drum,” Bailey added.

He later moved to Europe and freelanced as a photojournalist, spending time in London, where he met his future wife, Claudia.

On sighting her at a party, he immediately thought she had the “most beautiful curly auburn hair and a gorgeous face,” but it was not until they went for a drink after she attended one of his exhibitions at the Air Street Gallery that he realized “she might be interested in me too,” he later wrote.

“Jürgen focused his life and lens on documenting social justice and human rights issues wherever they might be,” his wife told CNN. “He was a documentary photographer with a profound sense of using his camera to reveal our multifaceted human condition.”

Challenging an unjust system

Claudia told CNN that Schadeberg had “a fiery spirit” and always wanted to “challenge an unjust system.”

She said that in 1955, while covering The Treason trial in Johannesburg, where Mandela and other political leaders and academics were arrested and charged with treason.

Nelson Mandela and Moses Kotane during the 1958 Treason Trial.

Schadeberg became angry when White police attacked his fellow Drum photographer, Black trainee Peter Magubane.

He instinctively jumped on the back of the policeman to stop him and protect Magubane. They were arrested and Claudia said the incident encapsulated his ideals and personality. Out of the original group of Drum photojournalists, only Magubane is still alive.

Before returning to South Africa in 1985, Schadeberg lived in London, Spain, New York and France.

During this period, he taught at the New School in New York and the Central School of Art and Design in London, while also curating several major exhibitions.

He continued to work as a photojournalist until 2007 and currently has a show at the Railowsky Foundation in Valencia, and another in Paris at Bonne Esperance Gallery in November.

Schadeberg is survived by his wife Claudia and six children.

CNN’s Eleni Giokos contributed to this report.