A roving lens – Glass interview profiles Werner Bischof – one of Magnum Photos’ first members

A roving lens – Glass interview profiles Werner Bischof – one of Magnum Photos’ first members

The creative vision of Werner Bischof, one of Magnum’s first members, was cut short by a tragic car accident. His son, Marco, who has kept his father’s legacy alive, talks us through a remarkable photographic chronicle of a post-war world

As a young man, the Swiss-born photographer Werner Bischof had an insatiable curiosity for faraway places and other ways of living. His wanderlust and love of photography carried him beyond the comfortable confines of life in Switzerland to the remotest corners of the globe.

Born in Zurich in 1916, he studied design and photography at Zurich’s School of Applied Arts under the tutelage of iconic photographers Hans Finsler and Alfred Willimann. After graduating, Bischof opened his own studio, creating advertising campaigns for fashion labels and various commercial outlets. During this early period he perfected his photographic skills creating exquisite still lifes. Yet he was already becoming restless, losing interest in advertising work and the predictable rhythms of everyday life in Zurich, and was eager to see more of the world.

In 1939 he moved to Paris with the intention of becoming a painter, but war was already fomenting on the continent, so he was forced to return home and was conscripted into the Swiss army for over two years. During military service he continued working in his studio, earning recognition for his photographs of natural scenes and formal portraits. In 1942, aged 26, he began shooting for Du, a new Swiss magazine covering new trends in the arts and cultural scene. Arnold Kübler, the editor in chief, became Bischof’s mentor and encouraged the young photographer to avoid studio settings and inject a more subjective stance into his work.

A Roving Lens Werner Bischof

When the war ended Bischof left Switzerland and began to chronicle the aftermath in various other European countries. He traversed the war-devastated areas of central Europe, and also made excursions to Poland and Finland. While in Milan, he met his future wife, Rosellina Mandel. Then in 1949 Bischof joined the fledgling Magnum Photos collective and was one of the first photographers to join founding members Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour and George Rodger.

Photo shoots for Life magazine and Magnum took Bischof as far as Asia where he photographed the famine in India, the war in Korea, and the ravages of war in Japan. He forged a strong connection with Japanese contemporary culture and his black and white photographs captured a Japan restoring itself after the trauma of the war. His iconic image of Shinto priests with umbrellas trudging through a snowstorm outside Meiji Shrine may be seen as a visual testimony of tradition restoring tranquillity to a war-torn nation. In a letter to his wife, he described Japanese children as ‘paradise in Japan, so sanguine, so unpolitical, so untainted, seeing everything with wide eyes.’

During one of these photographic expeditions across South America in 1954, the car he was driving careened off a mountain road in the Andes, instantly killing him and two of his friends. He died at the age of 38. In a tragic twist of fate, just nine days after Bischof’s own untimely death in the mountains of Peru, his friend and mentor Capa lost his life on the other side of the world when he stepped on a land mine while on assignment in Vietnam; Capa was only 40.

Bischof’s son, Marco, a documentary filmmaker, has dedicated much of his own career creating films, books, and a CD-ROM as a tribute to the father he remembers intimately through a timeless photographic archive. He discusses the Magnum photographer’s legacy and lessons for the future.

What do you think were your father’s dreams for the future?
PEACE, PEACE, PEACE, and the end of global injustice.

How would you characterise your father’s worldview?
To look for the general in the individual. To look for beauty in daily items. To combine form and content.

Did your father consider himself more of an artist or more as a photographer?
First he wanted to become a painter. He liked to immerse himself into environments and could not just superficially fly in and fly out. He was in search of beauty, of truth, of something deep inside.

Why do you think you father “felt compelled to venture forth and explore the true face of the world”?
He was looking for human nature, the things that keep us together – and not apart. He was travelling quite a lot for his living during the ’50s, and had a hunger for more to know the world. After South America, Africa was on his list, but that never happened.

Was photography a way for your father to escape his comfortable life in Zurich?
He had not many moments of a comfortable life in Switzerland. He was an artist, ascetic and earned very little money, but he was very much aware of the situation in Switzerland compared to many other places in the world. Photography certainly allowed him to satisfy his adventurous curiosity and led him to places difficult to access. There was no TV at the time and magazines were the only visual source in households. As one of his missions he sought to show the people, for instance, in Switzerland, that not everybody lives in abundance.

What was Hans Finsler’s influence on your father’s early works?
The new objectivity, taught by Finsler, had been the starting point. Later in the studio and under the surrealistic influences, he developed it into his own style of painting with light and shadow. Alfred Willimann was his other very important teacher and influence.

What was it like to read his diaries and letters for the first time?
It was overwhelming and inspiring to really understand the man behind the pictures. Even now, after reading them the tenth time I am always inspired by them.

Have you travelled to some of the places he had photographed?
Almost all of them, and beyond. And I’m always looking for people or their relatives in his pictures.

What were the questions that he sought to answer with photography?
What is it that makes us all the same? Black, white, yellow, red, others. Of course behind that there is the concept of one world living in peace.

What do you think is the defining photograph of his career?
Of the known ones, the Snow Scene and the Flute Player. As a lesser known one, I think the Vultures of the Battlefield – the press photographers in Korea – is a very typical picture for him and his attitude. Not taking the picture that everybody takes, but the other view.

Why did he prefer to document remote cultures?
I think he was more fascinated by nature, and mankind and its culture, rather than technology.

Was he a perfectionist when it came to photography?
He was a perfectionist by character and photography was his profession, but he was an excellent writer, painter and athlete.

How did that help (or hinder) his more documentary work?
I think he was ready to go out in 1945. Like somebody who practised for a long time in the studio he was very eager to work in the field. You can see it in his pictures and contact sheet that he was just a master in his craft and knew what he was doing. As he always saw art in the duty of the society, he was in his element and did probably the best overview of post-war Europe.

Why was he so enthralled with Japan?
I think Japan did not let him go, as there was so much perfection, aesthetic, and respect for details. That mattered to him.

Your father had seen terrible scenes during the war, especially the atomic bombs in Japan. How did that affect his photography?
Yes, he has been moved each time he looked into the abyss of violence, and he never got used to it. He thought it is important to show people that not everybody is living so happily on that planet. He was never looking for action and preferred to photograph the effects on the civilians than going to the battlefront. A typical move was that he went into little microcosms like Kausai in Hong Kong and Barau in Indochina, and studied there in his quiet way the beauty and human nature.

Your father and Robert Capa died within two weeks of each other. From their correspondence, what kind of relationship did they have?
Yes, nine days apart, but the news got to New York the same day. My father died in a very remote area in the Andes of Peru and Capa in a war zone with good communication. They were certainly different, but got along quite well. You might say Capa was more like an older brother to Bischof.

From the Glass Archive – Issue Five – Dreams