PRINT September 1963


The World of Werner Bischof at University Art Gallery, U.C., Berkeley

THIS EXHIBITION, ORGANIZED BY Magnum and circulated by the Smithsonian In­stitute, is the first large-scale show­ing of Bischof’s work in the United States. The photographs—full of love without any hint of sentimentality—re­veal a great human soul who was de­voted to documenting the brotherhood of man. Bischof’s world embraced the people of many countries, England, Hun­gary, India, Indochina, Korea, Japan, Peru, the United States (surprisingly, no photographs of America are included in this exhibition, and, for that matter, none from his native Switzerland), and it reveals to us a photographer with a profound vision of human dignity and the unity of all mankind. The man gazing solicitously at his friend in the emergency ward of a London hospital might (except that he does look so very English) be considered a symbol of universal sympathy; the Indian children running noisily and laughing to meet a shipment of food to a starving village might be typical of children everywhere forgetting hardship in the joy of the present and the hope of a better future; the dubious cant of the shoulders of several young men in front of a Picasso drawing in a Tokyo museum might stand for the bewilderment of all of us when we are confronted with something so completely new.

Bischof is rather special in the field of photo-journalism, because his hu­manity is coupled with an exquisite sense of design. Many photo-journalists have given us powerful human images but have shrugged off design as an un­necessary luxury. Bischof seems to have had an uncanny ability to find the best place, the best time, to make photo­graphs where design and content com­plement each other to strengthen emo­tional impact. His early photographs, a sunflower head closeup, a snail shell, the stress pattern of a piece of molded celluloid under polarized light, are all tightly, exactly, composed, and they pre­dict the design feeling that pervades his later work. But the early photographs might have been made by many other photographers.

Bischof’s camera comes alive when he is photographing people and their emotions. His camera isolates a group of Hungarian farmers drinking wine to­gether at a table as they discuss their common problems, and the closeness of his cropping gives them importance and universality. The photograph of the grave of a French soldier in Indochina gains poignancy because of the almost too obvious placement of the cross against the figures of the three coolies carry­ing goods along the embankment. The beautiful forms of the Cambodian farm­er with his palm-leaf umbrella and his oxen are all equally important, and we are made to realize the interdependence of their lives.

The people he photographed trusted him. They knew that he was looking at them not as a curious outsider but as a friend. They paid him the supreme compliment of continuing to behave as they had before they were aware of his camera. Many people are praying before the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, but they are not paying any attention to the photographer who must have been fully visible to all of them. His photographs of the effects of war on children are extremely moving, and the photographs of the famine in India show us that here is a man who was deeply involved and in despair that he could not alleviate the suffering.

The now classic photograph of the Shinto priests in the garden of Meiji Shrine in Tokyo—in dense snow, the priests carrying umbrellas which repeat the forms of the trees above—on the other hand, reveals a delightful poetry. The Japanese striptease dancers’ dress­ing room with two girls resting between performances amuses us with the inci­dental details—the boxes of Hershey’s Milk Chocolate and Lifebuoy Soap. We are caught up in the lilting joy of the solitary Peruvian flute player as he steps along, mindful only of his own music.

Bischof was killed in an automobile accident while he was on an assign­ment high in the mountains of Peru. The year was 1954, and he was 38 years old.

Margery Mann