Werner Bischof's color photographs on display for the first time in Lugano

From Feb. 12 to July 2, 2023, at MASI in Lugano, for the first time an exhibition investigates the color production of the great photographer Werner Bischof.

MASI - Museo d’Arte della Svizzera Italiana in Lugano opens its 2023 exhibition season with an exhibition of previously unseen works by one of the greatest masters of 20th-century reportage and photography, Werner Bischof (Zurich, 1916 - Truijllo, 1954), from Feb. 12 to July 2, 2023. Through about 100 digital color prints from original negatives from 1939 to the 1950s restored for the occasion, the Swiss photographer’s color work is explored for the first time in full.

Best known for his black-and-white reportages made around the world, Bischof was an artist of photography, capable of capturing in iconic shots the witness of war and the representation of humanity. As the title Unseen Colour states, the exhibition at MASI aims to highlight a new and lesser-known aspect of Bischof’s work, broadening and deepening our understanding and idea of this important photographer figure. Indeed, at a time in history when color photography enjoyed little consideration and was relegated to the advertising dimension, it emerges how Bischof had instead grasped the potential of color as a means of expression, making it a fundamental part of his creative process. The exhibition’s itinerary aims to offer itself as a free color journey through the worlds Bischof visited and experienced and covers the entire span of his career, in an alternation of unpublished images obtained from the use of three different cameras: a Rolleiflex, with its distinctive square negatives; a nimble Leica, with its pocket-size format; and a Devin Tri-Color Camera, a bulky machine that used the trichrome system but guaranteed high-quality color rendition. The core of images taken with this camera is made available to the public for the first time thanks to the discovery and related investigation of the original glass plates by the artist’s son, Marco Bischof, who directs the archive named after his father.

The subjects of the photographs on display are the well-known ones of the Swiss photographer, who was able to combine aesthetics and emotion in a perfect composition like few others: from the formal experiments of his early years of research to studio and fashion photographs, from the postwar narrative in Europe to the intimist presentation of the Far East, from the photographic campaigns in the United States to his last trip to South America. The works on display reveal Werner Bischof’s great technical skill and careful formal research, an investigation that becomes more constant in the production of recent years and takes on new vitality thanks to color. Also part of the exhibition itinerary is an introductory section in which the artist and his context are told through original negatives and period documents, including the Devin Tri-Color Camera purchased for Bischof by the publisher who published the prestigious magazines “Du” and “Zürcher Illustriert” and now preserved at the Musée suisse de l’appareil photographique in Vevey.

On the occasion of the exhibition, a catalog published by Scheidegger & Spiess and Edizioni Casagrande will be published in Italian, English and German, with texts by Tobia Bezzola, Clara Bouveresse, Luc Debraine and Peter Pfrunder.

The exhibition itinerary

The presentation of the works in the exhibition follows an orderly progression based on the three cameras used by Werner Bischof. The section with images taken by the Devin Tri-Color camera, which has accompanied the Swiss photographer since the beginning of his career, opens the itinerary. Still lifes, light studies, abstract compositions and even fashion shots from the early 1940s reveal the observant and curious experimentalist Bischof after training at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Zurich with Hans Finsler, a pioneer of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity).

The experimental afflatus would soon be extinguished in Bischof by the experience of World War II, when he felt the urge to get out of the studio to photograph reality. These were the years when he began documenting postwar Europe for the prestigious Swiss magazine Du. On display is one of the photographer’s most famous and discussed photographs, the one depicting a child in Roermond, Netherlands, with his face littered with the scars caused by the explosion of a toy mine. Published in color as the cover in the magazine’s May 1946 issue, the image would provoke heated reactions of outrage.

Color photographs of Berlin, Cologne, and Dresden and other ruined cities taken in 1946, on the other hand, restore an atmosphere of suspense, thanks to the studied framing, in sharp contrast to the vivid details and colors. It is especially in the core of photographs taken in Europe in those same years that the explosion of color is particularly appreciated. Indeed, through the skillful and focused use of color, Bischof proves capable of breaking the staticity imposed by the limitations of the cumbersome Devin Tri-Color, which required a tripod and bright light. This is the case in the genre portraits of the Italian rural population, in which the motionless postcard-like fixity is avoided thanks to color, which becomes an essential element of the composition.

It is in the medium-format works made in the late 1940s and early 1950s with the Rolleiflex 6x6 that the artistic essence of Bischof’s color photography manifests itself. It was, this, the camera that offered him the best possibilities for composition. From the photographs that chronicle the most diverse Europe-from Sardinia to Poland-to the accounts of the long journey that would take him to Asia in 1951, color here becomes a vehicle for states of mind. The expressive use of color helps Bischof to express the soul of Eastern culture especially in the images made in Japan; fascinated by the spiritual beauty of the island, here he will experience a high point of his career, seeking a deeper approach. In addition to several shots taken in Kyoto, this experience is also restored in the introductory section of the exhibition by the precious book Japon, which alternates black-and-white and color images. Edited in every detail by the artist, the volume won the Nadar Prize in 1955.

On an entirely different register, however, are the photographs, taken with the small, nimble Leica in 1953 during a trip to the United States. Bischof’s gaze seems to revel in catching reflections, bold details, plays of light and color in fragments of urban architecture. The warmth of the places and people of Central America stands out in vivid shots with strong color contrasts. The Leica is also the perfect companion on the trip to Peru: here Bischof is struck by the Inca culture, by the patches of light and color on the ancient walls and ruined architecture, from which glimpses and “windows” open up with ever new viewpoints to capture. During what the photographer had called “the great journey,” his life would be abruptly cut short in a tragic accident in the Andes in May 1954. Among the many questions about his work, the one about color and the role it could still have played for such a talented artist of photography remains open. For all information you can visit the MASI Lugano website.

Pictured, left: Werner Bischof, Model with Rose (Zurich, Switzerland; 1939; Inkjet print from digital reconstruction, 2022) © Werner Bischof Estate / Magnum Photos. Right: Werner Bischof, Orchids (studio) (Zurich, Switzerland; 1943; Inkjet print from digital reconstruction, 2022) © Werner Bischof Estate / Magnum Photos

Werner Bischof's color photographs on display for the first time in Lugano
Werner Bischof's color photographs on display for the first time in Lugano

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