Text and Indicated Photos : José Manuel Serrano Esparza
Werner Bischof, one of the greatest photographers in history, died on May 16, 1954, when the jeep in which he was travelling plunged off a cliff in the area of Peña de Águila, in the Peruvian Andes.
A dominator of every photographic scope (studio 4 x 5 large format, 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 medium format Rolleiflex and 24 x 36 mm format Leica IIIc with Leitz Elmar 5 cm f/3.5 lens, an accomplished lighting expert, featuring a great technical mastery, a very unique style with fabulous sense of composition, fairly accurate timing for the capturing of relevant moments, and an existential stance for the creation of images as a reflexion means on significant topics), the work of this extraordinary photographer and artist who thoroughly synergized his exceptional artistic qualities with his great photojournalistic potential (becoming one of the foremost figures of Life magazine and Magnum Agency since late forties until his untimely demise in 1954), goes on being exceedingly alive.
Marco Bischof, Werner Bischof´s elder son, 59 years later, in 2013. He was four years old when his father died, a day in which the world lost one of the greatest talents in all the History of Photography and a man oozing remarkable humanity and sensitiveness, whose exquisite pictures keep on arousing maximum interest in every exhibition holding images created by him, some of them truly mythical, as the ones corresponding to his famous reportage on the Famine in Bihar (India) in 1951, considered one of the diachronic peaks of photojournalism.
Since 1986, year of the death of his mother Rosellina Bischof (administrator of both the photographic archives of his husband Werner Bischof and Magnum Agency Office in Zurich), Marco Bischof has been the key factor and great driving force in fostering the knowledge on his father´s oeuvre, personally running exhibitions with his pictures all over the world, making an ardous work of classification of images, vintage copies, letters, diaries, interviews with Werner Bischof in different countries, etc.
Astoundingly, almost 60 years after his passing away, Werner Bischof´s photographic production goes on begetting a very high interest all over the world, and the exhibitions including pictures made by him yield intense levels of expectation and massive influx of visitors once and again.
BEGINNING OF A PROMISING CAREER
The decade of thirties means to practical effects the immersion of Werner Bischof in photography sphere, because his initial vocation was painting, having already proved to be a very good drawer since his childhood.
But his inscription at the School of Applied Arts of Zurich in 1932, attending to the photography course imparted by Hans Finsler means a turning point from which he decides to professionally evolve in this domain.
During 1933 and 1934, Werner Bischof put his heart and soul into photography, turning into the best pupil of the School of Applied Arts of Zurich, being endorsed by Alfred Willimann (his teacher of graphic design) and Finsler himself (his teacher of photography) who closely monitor him, aware that the young Bischof, being 18 years old at the moment, has phenomenal skills for arts and specifically for photography, also making great botanic pictures like “ Dandelion” with 4 x 5 large format camera within studio.
The thirst for knowledge of the young prodigy is boundless, and during 1935, Bischof learns a wide range of photographic techniques with which he incessantly experiments, bewildering his teachers and displaying an inexhaustible creativity and originality, with works like “Vine” (with wondrous lighting of the plant in the foreground with dark background, accurately capturing its textures), “ Caterpillar on Leaf”, “Photogram”, and others.
Likewise, he becomes a consummate expert on lighting, gets his Degree in the School of Applied Arts in 1936 with cum laude marks, and a few months later he opens a photography and publicity studio in Zurich, doing abundant advertisement photography for a number of brands of both the commercial sphere and fashion sector, with noteworthy success.
Also during this year he goes on with experimental techniques in 4 x 5 large format studio photography, with pictures like “Floating Snails”, “ Fiddle Carved Volute ” and others.
And though Bischof continues with his career as a recognized publicity and fashion photographer, painting keeps on breaking loose an irrepressible passion in him, and three years later, in 1939, he travels to Paris with the aim of opening a painting studio, but the start of the Second World War makes him come back to Switzerland and go on with his professional activity in his original atelier, where he keeps on making commercial photography for important brands like Guerlain and its perfume Mitsuko in 1941.
During the war, Bischof makes two years of military service in Switzerland. He goes on being a recognized professional and earns good money, but he´s in a stage of both vocational and conceptual transition, so he takes refuge inside his studio and devotes hundreds and hundreds of hours to deeply delve into the mastery of lighting, continuously experimenting (to this period belong some pictures like ´ Sleeping Beauty in Zurich´, ´ Mercury ´, ´ Nude Zebra ´, ´ Deaf-Mute Girl ´ and others,
"Mercury". 1941. Another very interesting image that shows the turning point that Werner Bischof was living in early forties, a transition phase embodied by the movement of these mercury waves. His strongest passion is still the painting, but at the same time he´s now a top-notch studio photographer mastering every stage in image yielding both in portraits, commercial and fashion scope. In addition, he has turned into an artistic avant-garde driving force in himself (fostered by his contacts with remarkable pros of the graphic design and brilliant artists like Max Huber, Emil Schultness, Max Bill, Hans Neuburg, Josef Muller-Brockmann, Achille Castiglioni, Carlo Vivarelli, Albe Steiner and others) and his production is influenced by painting and other graphic media. © Werner Bischof / Magnum Photos
" Pupil of the Mimi Scheiblauer School for Deaf-Mute Children in Zurich" . © Werner Bischof / Magnum Photos
until late Summer of 1945.
EMERGENCE OF HIS LATENT PHOTOJOURNALISTIC VOCATION
But in September of 1945, after a six years uninterrupted stay in Switzerland, he decides to travel to the south of Germany on a bicycle, equipped with a 2 ¼ x 2 ¼ medium format Rolleiflex Automat and a lot of 120 rolls.
What he finds is terrible and harrowing. A country utterly destroyed by war, the population being hungry and looking for food in the dumping places and among the rubble, children playing innocently in neighbourhoods levelled by the bombings, starving horses wandering at their free will, people who have lost their homes sleeping on makeshift mattresses, etc.
Two girls inside a church destroyed by the war. Friedrichshafen (Germany). 1945. The accuracy in the timing on pressing the shutter realease button of the Compur-Rapid shutter of his 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 medium format Rolleiflex Automat Model 2 Type K4B is amazing, brilliantly capturing the movement of both girls. The nearest one to the camera has her right leg forward, with her right foot about to touch the floor, and her left arm is advancing well separated from the body, while the youngest one located on the left has her left leg forward with her left foot about to touch the floor and her right arm forward and slightly crossed on the stomach. Unlike the elder girl who is stepping on the dark rhombus shaped floor tiles while she walks, the youngest girl is photographed walking just on the clear rombus shaped floor tiles while she advances, in such a way that the Swiss genius makes the observer get the conviction that the shorter girl is floating in the air, wisefully framing both girls with the arches in the background and managing to spot the attention on them by means of a slightly out of focus area next to the camera which is progressively increasing its sharpness until reaching both girls, perfectly focused and simultaneously preserving enough depth of field regarding the architectural structures visible in the background and the altar located in the center, just behind them. © Werner Bischof / Magnum Photos
A man looking at the city in ruins. Frankfurt (Germany). 1946. © Werner Bischof / Magnum Photos
It´s obviously a context ruled by misery and the uncertainty of persons who are enduring a great deal of hardships that Bischof strives after documenting.
But simultaneously, he feels that his presence photographing this kind of situations is necessary, he begins being aware that along with his stature as a photographer, this sort of reportages requires to have compromise and feel empathy to the photographed people, with whom a link will be created.
Shortly after, his pictures raise admiration at the head office of the top-notch illustrated Swiss magazine Du (which had already within its ranks Zurich based photographers of the caliber of Peter W. Häberlin, René Groebli and Otto Pfenninger), and in November 1945 he travels by car as a photojournalist for such publication with Emil Schulthess (Art Director and Picture Editor of Du between 1941 and 1957) across France and Holland, also razed by the war.
Unemployed French men looking for job at the Rouen train station. France. 1945. © Werner Bischof / Magnum Photos
On returning to Du offices, his images make a sensation once more and it´s decided to launch a special number titled ´Europe being Rebuilt´ featuring Werner Bischof´s photographs, including the cover with a colour picture of a Dutch boy whose face is utterly mangled by small impacts of shrapnel, showing the aftermath of war.
In early 1946, thanks to Alfred Kluber (Director of Du), Werner Bischof meets another genius of photography: the Austrian Ernst Haas, five years younger than him, who with the elapse of time will become the greatest expert on colour photography in the world. A huge and sincere friendship is born between both of them.
In May 1946, Bischof decides to come back to Germany and make an integral trip on a bicycle all over the country, getting new extraordinary pictures of the war after-effects on the German civil population, which are published in Heute.
During the summer of 1946, he visits Italy, likewise a country laid waste by the Second World War.
Bischof is enthralled by its beautiful landscapes, but documents above all the sufferings experienced by its people, with images that once and again depict destroyed buildings everywhere, going in Autumn to Greece, where he will stay until March 1947.
CONSOLIDATION IN DU AND LIFE
In mid 1947, Werner Bischof´s pictures enjoy great reputation within the European photojournalistic market, above all in Du and Heute, until the prestigious illustrated magazine Life comes into play and also hires the services of Werner Bischof, assigning him to make reportages on the settlements of children victims of the war in Eastern Europe countries.
Some of his most acclaimed images belong to this period, like the ones of orphan children going out by train from Budapest bound for Switzerland, and whom he captures from outside the wagons (many of them being with their gazes lost or crying) through the windows,
Werner Bischof. © Magnum Photos
Werner Bischof. © Magnum Photos
and the ones made in Poland in 1948.
Warsaw Street. 1948. © Werner Bischof / Magnum Photos
´ Sculpted Couple ´. Warsaw. 1948. © Werner Bischof / Magnum Photos
An orphan boy beside a table in Warsaw (Poland). 1948. The deep knowledge of the selective use of the reduction in depth of field shooting wide open together with the masterful use of natural light, along with the capturing by surprise of the absent-minded boy, who is not looking at the camera, reveal the huge talent of a real genius. © Werner Bischof / Magnum Photos
MEMBER OF MAGNUM
Early 1949. Two years have elapsed since the foundation of Magnum Agency by Robert Capa, David Seymour “ Chim”, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Maria Eisner,George Rodger and William and Rita Vandivert.
Robert Capa, main driving force of its genesis, is at the New York office of Magnum located in the basement of the brownstone 17 East Sixty-fourth Street, near the Wildenstein Gallery (it would later change to 15 West 47th Street).
He has already been in communication for some months with Maria Eisner (Director of the Magnum Office at 125 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, which will get married in a few months and will definitely fix her residence in New York), who has been raving him about a very young Swiss photographer featuring immense gift and great future prospects.
Maria Eisner, one of the best picture editors in the world at the moment (she was taught by Simon Guttmann), is likewise highly experienced as a photographic agent of photojournalists since 1933, year in which she started her activity as Simon Guttmann representative in Paris, that she continued after the inception of Anglo-Continental Press-Photo Service in mid 1934 – which would last only a few months-, after which she founded Alliance Photo, that definitely consolidated during the second half of thirties and distributed the photographic production – among others- of David Seymour ´Chim´, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa.
Two years before, Capa (President of Magnum) had named Marie-Jeanne Eisner as a Secretary and Treasurer of Magnum.
Throughout these two years, Maria Eisner has met different times with Warren Trabant (editor of the illustrated magazine Heute, based in Munich and financed with American wherewithal) since this published in 1947 the extraordinary reportage made by the young Swiss genius on Austrian prisoners of war coming back to Vienna in 1947.
Maria Eisner, indefatigable and commanding all Magnum operations in Europe, has also held some encounters in Vienna with Inge Morath (a correspondant of Heute in the Austrian capital) during 1948 in which they have spoken about Bischof.
Both of them coincide: There isn´t any other photographer sporting his qualities.
The Swiss genius is an exceptional photographer possessing tremendous technical knowledge and experience for his youth (he´s only 32 years old), being able to make great pictures, both inside studio ( a sphere in which she gets superb results thanks to his lighting mastery, the control on the depth of field, etc) and with persons in outdoor assignments, where by means of his great humanistic sensitiveness, intuition, precision in the timing on pressing the release shutter button of his cameras, outstanding grasping to capture the most representative moments and passion for his trade, also creates very powerful and meaningful images once and again, taking care of the most minute details, even when working under the most extreme contexts, since he´s a great perfectionist.
But Maria Eisner, a highly versatile and hard working professional, who acquired from Simon Guttmann the nose almost infallible to detect the truly great photographers, clearly perceives the noticeable photojournalistic potential of Werner Bischof, who has already made some excellent reportages for Du and Life magazines.
Therefore, in early 1949 Eisner sends Capa (President of Magnum) from Paris Magnum office to New York Magnum one a portfolio with an assortment of pictures made by Bischof for his evaluation.
Capa has now on the table that portfolio, on whose cover can be read:
He starts to see the pictures and becomes dazzled.
A lot of first-class images featuring an unusual subject variety pass before his eyes: Russian pioneers repairing a bridge in Vienna; a woman between the ruins of Montecassino in Italy; some German children playing forming a ring in a street of Freiburg with a neighbourhood ravaged by the bombs visible in the background; the Littmatt dock from the Grossmunster in Zurich; unemployed French men looking for job at the Rouen train station in France; a studio photograph in which can be seen snails and shells enhanced with masterly lighting; children with their names written on pieces of paper hanging from their necks on board of a Red Cross train taking them from Budapest to Switzerland; a barefooted ragged beggar showing his dirty feet and sleeping on a bench in a street of Bonn; a man wholly dressed in dark clothes, wearing boots and a hat and taking a basket in his left hand, captured from behind and walking between the tracks of an out of service tram in Freiburg (Baden-Würtemberg) looking for something to eat amid the devastation surrounding him; a boy sitting at a table reading a book only lit with the light of a candle; a man inside a shallow river and pulling a boat with a chain; tin soldiers advancing while a fire is setting off in the background; the bed of Vistula river in a wonderful landscape picture; Hungarian farmers drinking wine; a crying Hungarian child captured by surprise at point blank range, etc.
The President of Magnum realizes that Werner Bischof is a first-rate photographer, a full-fledged prodigy, and quickly phones Henri Cartier-Bresson, Chim, George Rodgers and Ernst Haas. They all unanimously decide to accept Werner Bischof as a Magnum photographer.
A few months later, in July 1949, with Maria Eisner already a resident in New York, Werner Bischof is officially named as a Member of Magnum Agency.
1949-1954, YEARS OF GLORY AND INTERNATIONAL CELEBRITY
After being elected as a new member of Magnum in 1949, Werner Bischof plunges himself body and soul into photography and has frequent meetings with Robert Capa, David Seymour ´Chim´, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ernst Haas, with whom he keeps a strong rapport.
Robert Capa becomes his great mentor and above all a great friendship is born between them that will last until the death of both in May 1954.
Marco Bischof posing by a vintage copy of the mythical photography ´ Shintoist Monks Walking Under a Snowfall by the Meiji Temple in Tokyo (Japan) ´, captured by his father Werner Bischof in 1951. He is holding between his hands the book Magnum´s First, opened on his page 117, which shows one of the pictures made to Anjali Hora Dancer in Bombay, also in 1951.
This is the period in which Werner Bischof reaches his maximum photojournalistic level, turning into one of the international benchmarks in Photography, making a number of reportages for the Generation X Project, developed by Magnum throughout fifties and through which each photographer had to capture the new generations of the countries they visited, depicting those young people who would be the future.
Within his production from the first half of fifties (between 1950 and 1954, year of his demise in a car accident in the Peruvian Andes), we can highlight:
a) Reportages in Italy and Great Britain in 1950
A boy in Verona (Italy). 1950. © Werner Bischof / Magnum Photos
A young girl in Sardinia (Italy). 1950. © Werner Bischof / Magnum Photos
Two peasants in Sardinia (Italy). 1950. © Werner Bischof / Magnum Photos
Penguins of Edimburgh zoo making their weekly stroll to draw visitors. 1950. © Werner Bischof / Magnum Photos
A view of Thames from Westminster Abbey in London. © Werner Bischof / Magnum Photos
b) Reportage in India during five months, between February and June 1951, being specially relevant:
- Photographs depicting the temple dancer Anjay Hora, the rich trader Ushakant Ladiwala in Bombay, an ironworks in Jamshedpur and the Jaipur Observatory in Rajasthan.
Vintage copy of " The Dancer Anjai Hora ", a picture made by Werner Bischof in Bombay (India) in 1951. The textures and pleats captured in the clothes of the woman, with lights and shadows shown in all its splendor, are wonderful. It´s a magical moment witnessed by Bischof. The dancer is leaned forward praying or in an introspective attitude and perpendicular to a bed on which she rests. Her headgear and comb lie on the sheet which reveals an exceedingly wide range of whites without ever burning the high keys. The blacks of both the upper area of the long hair and the zones of clothes in shadow are rich and deep, also being prominent the realism of the wrought iron made supports on both sides, with their worn bars and repoussé ornaments. Throughout all of his career as a professional photographer, Bischof proved to be an accomplished master of medium format, and in this image he takes advantage of the symbiosis between the black and white 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 - 6 x 6 cm- negative (400% bigger than 35 mm format) of his Rolleiflex Automat X Model K4 / 50 and his Zeiss Tessar 75 mm f/3.5 lens to get a gorgeous picture, underpinned in a fairly insightful use of natural light and composition.
People sleeping in the street while the wealthy vendor Ushakant Ladiwala walks past them. Bischof was constantly witness in India of the prevailing huge social inequalities and their obscene everyday statu quo, to such an extent that only within a few meters you can watch the greatest affluence or the most extreme misery, something against which the acclaimed Swiss photographer always rebelled, using his camera as a weapon. Werner Bischof / Magnum Photos.
Working woman in an steelworks of Jamshedpur (India). 1951. Werner Bischof was one of the pioneers in capturing with his camera the risks for the workers stemmed from the uncontrolled industrial development in which everything goes for the sake of profit, and the dangers for health that such predatory dynamics of natural resources entails for human beings: massive pollution, inhalation of venomous vapours, high accidents rate, etc, along with the usual labour overexploitation of persons in contexts of utmost surviving needs, making them do piece work in schedules between 12 and 16 daily hours to be able to get ahead. Werner Bischof / Magnum Photos
Observatory in Jaipur, Rajasthan (India). Werner Bischof / Magnum Photos
- Photographic Essay on the Famine in Bihar (India) in 1951, published by Life and which launches him into international fame, being recognized as one of the best photographers in the world.
´ Hungry mother with her son suffering from Kwashiorkor. Province of Bihar (India) , 1951 ´. Pictures like this reveal the ability of Werner Bischof to create iconic images even under the most gruesome conditions, together with his endeavor for documenting utterly shameful and indecent situations of a world in which then and now a significant percentage of the globe population died and goes on dying because of lack of food while another one died and goes on dying because of the excessive quantities of them ingested. Werner Bischof / Magnum Photos
Another of Werner Bischof´s pictures corresponding to his series The Famine in Bihar (India) in 1951. Werner Bischof / Magnum Photos
c) Reportage in Japan, where he stays throughout ten months, between June of 1951 and May of 1952. Bischof gets in this country some of the most hailed photographs in his career, like the wonderful image of the Shintoist monks walking by the Meji Temple of Tokyo in the midst of a snowfall.
Vintage copy of the mythical picture ´Shintoist Monks Walking Under a Snowfall by the Meiji Temple in Tokyo (Japan)´, made by Werner Bischof in 1951. Bischof creates a kind of living landscape highlighted by its unmatched formal and compositive precision, masterfully using the natural light, obtaining plentiful details and exceedingly delicate transitions and hues of gray scales, exploiting the capacities of square medium format to the utmost. The very pure whites of the snow on the ground, the temple roof and the tree tops are likewise worth being mentioned.
" Class at School ". Kyoto (Japan). 1952. © Werner Bischof / Magnum Photos
d) Reportage during three short trips to Korean War in July 1951, January 1952 and March 1952, in which Bischof documents the effects of this conflict over civil population, specially the children, also focusing on people belonging to the same family who were separated after the division of both Koreas by Paralel 38 once the war had finished.
´ Poor Korean boys in a street of Busan ´ (South Korea). 1952. Werner Bischof / Magnum Photos
´ An exceedingly young soldier collecting his dishes with food in the internment camp of Koje Do island for North Korean prisoners ´. © Werner Bischof / Magnum Photos
e) Photographic Essay in Hong-Kong, where he gets pictures in May and June of 1952 as part of a picture book on Asia he´s preparing.
´ Harbour of Kowloon (Hong Kong) ´. 1952. Werner Bischof / Magnum Photos
´ Sleeping refugee child taken on his mother´s back ´. Hong-Kong. 1952. © Werner Bischof / Magnum Photos
f) Reportage in Indochina during five months, between June and October 1952, sent as a war photographer in the middle of a full-swing war between the French troops and the Viet Minh, though Bischof has much more interest in photographing civil population and the aftermath of war on them.
Vintage copy of ´ A peasant protecting himself from the sun by an exotic shade, beside two cows ´ , a picture made by Werner Bischof in Cambodia (Indochina). 1952. The quality of this vintage copy made in 1955 is excellent, with very subtle gradation high key/low key from the most extreme whites of the middle area of the frame to the deepest blacks of the peasant in shadow, without forgetting the lack of depth of field of the grass in the foreground on the black and white negative lower border. Superb the craftsmanship by the printer with burning and dodging until rendering the copy on b & w photographic paper in its optimum point of interpretation of the moment. In addition, the very low angle of shooting chosen by Bischof provides the image with apparent impact and originality.
´ Boy in Angkor ´ (Cambodia). 1951. © Werner Bischof / Magnum Photos
g) ´ People from the Far East ´ photographic exhibition organized by Werner Bischof in Zurich in 1953, while Du magazine launches a special number with identical title and pictures made by the great Swiss photographer.
h) Photographic reportage in México, Panamá, Chile and Peru during 1954.
Vintage copy of ´ Village near Macchu Picchu ´, a photograph made by Werner Bischof in Peru in 1954. We can see two Peruvian women and a llama, photographed from behind and heading for a little village, whose visible houses in the background and slightly out of focus, make up a splendid composition, enhanced by the straw roofs.
Specially relevant is his photographic production made in Peru, truly exceptional and where he captures with praiseworthy skill, sensitiveness and discernment the ancient culture and habits of its inhabitants, its popular festivities and its landscapes and dwellings, living with them and attaining a remarkable empathy, taking an interest in their daily life, most times governed by hard working conditions.
On the other hand, though from a percentage viewpoint vast majority of Werner Bischof´s photojournalistical pictures during his professional career were made with 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 (6 x 6 cm) Rolleiflex medium format cameras, a scope in which he was an accomplished specialist, he also used a rangefinder 35 mm Leica IIIc camera with Leitz Elmar 5 cm f/3.5 lens with which he likewise got great photographs, in such a way that a number of portfolios with images made by him with that camera and lens appeared nothing less than in two different numbers of the prestigious Leica Fotografie magazine (5/1954 Master of the Leica: Werner Bischof and 3/1955 Werner Bischof and his book Japan) which was at the moment the reference-class benchmark in its scope along with the legendary Camera (greatly fostered from mid fifties by Walter Läubli, Hans Neuberg, Imre Reiner and Romeo Martínez) and
LFI Leica Fotografie International (5/2012 Generation X, Tokyo 1951).