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First ever colour images by master of 20th century photo reportage – Walter Bischof – uncovered to go on show for the first time

First ever colour images by master of 20th century photo reportage – Walter Bischof – uncovered to go on show for the first time

MASI Lugano launches its 2023 exhibition season with a show of previously unexhibited works by one of the absolute masters of twentieth century reportage and photography, Werner Bischof (Zurich, 1916 – Trujillo, Peru, 1954). Presenting around 100 colour digital prints from original negatives dating from 1939 to the 50s, the show is the first complete exploration of the Swiss photographer’s colour work. 

Best known for his black and white reportage work, shot all over the world, Bischof was an artist renowned for iconic images that bear witness to war and capture humanity at its truest. As the title suggests, the exhibition in MASI highlights an alternative, lesser-known aspect of his work, expanding our knowledge and image of this illustrious photographer. In a period in which colour photography was often snubbed, relegated to the realm of advertising, Bischof was one of the few to grasp its expressive potential, and it quickly became a fundamental part of his creative practice.

The exhibition is designed to offer a free-wheeling tour in vivid colour of the worlds Bischof visited and experienced, and covers the entire span of his career, presenting previously unexhibited images taken using three different cameras: a Rolleiflex, with its distinctive square negatives, a handy, pocket-sized Leica, and a Devin Tri-Color Camera, which was based on the colour separation system, and though bulky, guaranteed high quality colour rendering. The images taken with this camera are being presented to the public for the very first time thanks to the photographer’s son, Marco Bischof, director of the Bischof archive, who discovered and investigated the original glass plates.

The subjects featured in the images are those Bischof is famous for, and showcase his prowess in combining the aesthetic and emotional elements to create superlative compositions. They range from the formal experiments of his early years to his studio and fashion shots; from his post-war reportage in Europe to his introspective images of the Far East; from his tours of the US to his final journey to South America. The works on show reveal the Swiss photographer’s great technical skill and in-depth artistic research, something which he concentrated on more in his later years, boosted by the use of colour. 

The exhibition also includes an introductory section which offers insight into Bischof’s story and his creative milieu through original negatives and period documents, including the Devin Tri-Color Camera purchased for him by the publisher of the prestigious magazines “Du” and “Zürcher Illustriert”, and now kept at the Musée Suisse de l’Appareil Photographique in Vevey.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a catalogue published by Scheidegger & Spiess and Edizioni Casagrande in Italian, English and German, with texts by Tobia Bezzola, Clara Bouveresse, Luc Debraine and Peter Pfrunder.

Unseen Colour: the exhibition layout

The images are grouped into sections based on the three cameras Werner Bischof used in his work. The first section features those taken with the Devin Tri-Color camera, which he used right from the beginning of his career. Still lifes, light studies, abstract compositions and even fashion shots from the early 1940s reveal the attentive, curious, experimental approach he developed after training at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Zurich with Hans Finsler, pioneer of the “Neue Sachlichkeit” (New Objectivity) movement.

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Bischof’s experimental vein was soon overtaken by the advent of the Second World War, when he felt the need to get out of the studio and start capturing what was going on around him. He was subsequently commissioned by the prestigious Swiss magazine “Du” to document post-war Europe, and the show includes one of his most famous and controversial shots, that of a boy from Roermond, Holland, whose face was disfigured by scarring caused by a Germany booby trap. Published in colour on the cover of the May 1946 edition of the magazine, the image caused an uproar.

In contrast, the colour photographs of Berlin, Cologne and Dresden and other bombed cities, taken in ’46, convey an atmosphere of suspension, thanks to the careful composition work, which contrasts starkly with the vivid details and colours captured. The shots taken around Europe in that period really threw the focus on colour, and Bischof’s skilful, purposeful use of it enabled him to work around the static element imposed by the limitations of the bulky Devin Tri-Color, which required a tripod and bright light. This can be seen in the genre portraits of rural Italians, in which the colour stops them from looking posed and postcard-like, and becomes an essential element of each composition.

Bischof worked on developing the artistic potential of colour photography in the late 1940s and early 1950s, in the medium-format images taken using a Rolleiflex 6×6, the camera that offered the most scope for compositional work. From photographs depicting Europe in all its diversity – from Sardinia to Poland – to accounts of the long journey of 1951 that took him to Asia – he deploys colour with great proficiency to convey mood. And his expressive use of colour helped him capture the spirit of Oriental culture, especially in the pictures taken in Japan: fascinated by the spirituality of the country, this experience was to be one of the highlights of his career, lending added depth to his work. In addition to several shots taken in Kyoto, this trip is also featured in the introductory section of the exhibition, which includes the stunning book Japon. Alternating between black-and-white and colour images, and impeccably edited by the artist, it won the Nadar Prize in 1955.

An entirely different register characterizes the photographs Bischof took with his handy little Leica in 1953 during his trip to the States. He seems to have had fun capturing reflections, striking details, and effects of light and colour in fragments of urban architecture. The warmth of the places and people of Central America shines through in vivid shots that present bold colour contrasts. The Leica also proved a perfect travel companion on his trip to Peru. Here Bischof was struck by Inca culture, and splashes of light and colour on ancient walls and ruins, which opened up to vistas and “windows” on ever-new perspectives. Yet during what the photographer called his “Grand Tour”, his life was abruptly cut short in a tragic accident in the Andes in May 1954. Among the questions that remain as to how his work might subsequently have developed, a prominent one undoubtedly regards his use of colour, and how it might have evolved in the practice of this incredibly talented photographer.