Werner Bischof

The Search for Beauty

Looking at the works of Swiss photographer Werner Bischof, it does not take long to realize that they are remarkable in many ways. In just nine years between 1945 and 1954 that remained for him to work as a photo journalist, he created a huge volume of outstanding photographs. He traveled half way around the world to take them, back in the days when a long-distance flight was still an adventure with numerous stopovers. The variety of his motifs and themes is as impressive as their artistic quality. Among all the suffering and distress he witnessed and photographed, he always picked out signs of hope and beauty. He applied himself to both aspects of life with deliberation, sensitivity and an unmistakable sense of the right moment. Even as a journalist he remained always an artist.

Werner Bischof did not really intend to become a photographer at all, but a painter. He started working with the camera by chance – when he began studying at the School of Applied Arts in Zurich, there were no places left on the course in graphic design. Influenced by his teacher, Hans Finsler, he devoted his attention to working intensively in the studio with objects and with light and shade. Later, he managed to transfer the compositional skills he had developed and honed in this way to his work on the road, even if he often had only little time to take his pictures there and everything was in motion. But it was not until after the war had ended and the borders had reopened that Werner Bischof was finally able to travel. He did this to an extent that suggests how trapped he must have felt in Switzerland during the years of war.

His travels took him through Europe, to India, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Indochina, to the USA and finally to South America, where he died in a car crash in the Andes in 1954 aged just 38. It was usually specific jobs that took him to certain places. These came from the photo agency Magnum, for example, of which Werner Bischof had been a member since 1949, but also from major magazines like Life, Paris Match or Picture Post – the most important clients for photo journalists at the time. But Werner Bischof felt increasingly uncomfortable with their demands for sensational reports from trouble spots in Asia and with the way his pictures were used. He had to feed his young family, however, and pay for his many travels, which at the time were extremely costly. So he delivered the photos the magazines wanted, but in between he took time out to work the way he wanted: At his own pace, calmly, he set his humane sights on the civil population and expressed his solidarity for their hardships. In doing so, he always treated his subjects with respect. Werner Bischof’s pictures blend ethical and aesthetical aspects to an extent that is extraordinary, not only for the time in which he lived.

Biographical information

1916

born in Zurich, Switzerland

1932 – 1936

studied Photography at Zurich’s School for Arts and Crafts

1949

became the first photographer to join the original Magnum founders

1954

died in a car accident in Trujillo, Peru while being on a expedition in the Andes