Point of View

‘Point of View’ is a major photographic print exhibition at the Musée de L’Elysée, Lausanne, Switzerland retrospectively featuring the work of the Swiss Magnum photographer Werner Bischof to mark the centenary of his birth. Over 200 mainly black and white prints are on display. Included are also some unpublished works. The exhibition concentrates on his photojournalistic work in Europe (1945-1950), Asia (1951-1952), and North and South America (1953-1954). Bischof met an untimely end at the age of 38 when his car fell off a cliff on a mountain road in the Andes, and all three passengers were killed.

While I would not normally write a ‘biography’ of a photographer as part of my response to an exhibition visit I think in the case of Werner Bischof this has to be an exception in that his life and experiences determined the content of his images.

Bischof originally trained, studied and worked as an advertising, fashion and portrait photographer in Switzerland. While working for the Zürich based magazine Du the editor encouraged his latent photojournalism skills. Although Switzerland remained neutral during the Second World War Bischof was conscripted as a soldier and was deeply affected by his witness of the desperate conditions, poverty and despair he saw from the Swiss border.

After the war finished, and based on his experiences, Bischof set off on a number of trips around Europe to record the ravages and effect war had on the ordinary people. During this time his work established him as one of the foremost photojournalists of his day. His pictures tended to have the theme of isolation, alienation, trauma, and struggle. They were not sensationalist but recorded things as they were but with a strong sense of composition to emphasis the point.

His body of work ´Europe being Rebuilt´ demonstrated him as a socially conscious photographer was soon recognised and became a member of the original Magnum Photos team. From then started travelling extensively for LIFE magazine.

For the rest of his remaining short life in his work he continued to somehow find the beauty of nature and humanity in the most desperate of conditions such as famine in India or poverty in Asia. While he recorded those at the social margins of life his images did not strip them of their sense of dignity for sensationalist reporting.

As the body of work on display was extensive I highlight the following three differing images for my viewing response:

Taken in 1948 this picture show the total destruction of Warsaw and the state of the place three years after the war. We cannot but help feel for the citizens who are dwarfed by the scale of the destruction. We know not where the people walk to or why, but we know that somehow they continue their lives in the shadow of the destruction. In fact there is little in this picture, essentially people and rubble. However it is the way that from his distant standpoint Bischof combines the two. Also from that distance the subjects are faceless and almost ghostlike being that just walk the street.
Interesting that we now see this picture as a historical record. We cannot believe how things were then. Yet that was a reality. Therefore a contemporary viewer of the time may well have had a differing view that we see and feel today in that bomb damage was more mundane as it was more common place. Therefore this image serves both as part of a photojournalistic and historical statement.
http://prophotos-ru.livejournal.com/1683121.html (5th image)

Victim of Hiroshima
The beauty of this photograph (if beauty is the right word to escribe such a horrific incident) is that the image works both well as a photojournalistic statement and also that as an excellent piece of photo craft.
We are left in no doubt as to the point of the picture. We see the suffering of the individual and we also see the destruction of the total infrastructure around him. We do not have to see the face to understand what this person has endured. What is noticeable is the absence of any middle ground in the picture. This maybe the fact that there actually was not any (as it was all destroyed) or more than likely Bischof framed the shot so to emphasise the foreground. Interesting to note that the building in the background today has become the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.
From a technique perspective it is an excellently crafted study in form and composition. The natural lighting conditions with harsh shadows showing the relief of the scars and the almost artistic pose reflect Bischof’s advertising skill yet they are used here to demonstrate suffering rather than consumerism.

Famine in Bihar
In some respect today we are used to pictures of famine. They are still distressing but they are not ‘new’ to us. I would argue that those images we see today are aimed more to mobilise people to do something about famine (donate money, clothes, political action etc) rather than as Bischof did that is just record the fact of what is happening. He felt the need to communicate events and problems but remained as a detached observer rather than as a changer. Yet his images were powerful enough to cause reaction and extra support for the region. In this pitiful picture from 1951 Bischof has chosen an unusual angle that highlights the plight of the mother and her child. The low angle captures the mother looking outward to someone passing rather than her attention captured by Bischof. He as a photographer cannot offer her anything, yet perhaps that passing person can. The child with stomach swelled by hunger does not understand and looks is if it is mimicking the mother in holding a hand out for food. The strong white background ensures the focus is purely on the subjects and nothing to distract us from this point. Yet the picture is expertly balanced and we can see that Bischof does not lose his sense of composition even in the most extreme situations

A much bigger theme occurred to me here is that since Bischof’s time is that of the decline and almost death of the photojournalistic profession. How would have Bischof fared today in a time of shoestring budgets for anything else but a headline story and the “omnipresent citizen journalists equipped with smart phones and a broadband connection” [1].

It is a theme that is much worthy of a greater debate and this exhibition review is not the right place however in respect of Bischof’s place in photojournalistic hall of fame as Hostetler notes
In the 1960s, as video journalism replaced the role of picture magazines, the Fund for Concerned Photography was established to preserve and recognize the contributions of photographers whose social dedication and acute humanity changed people’s understanding of their own and foreign cultures. Bischof’s achievements were duly recognized, as he was one of the first photographers whose work the Fund collected.” [2]

Point of View is at Musée de L’Elysée, Lausanne, Switzerland, 27 January – 01 May 2016

Visited 16 February 2016

[1] Muirhead, Nic (2014) Is Photojournalism Dying? The Listening Post, Aljazeera [Available Online]
http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/listeningpost/2014/01/photojournalism-dying-2014112112734391149.html [Last accessed 5 Mar 2016]

[2]Lisa Hostetler, Lisa (nd) Werner Bischof, International Centre of Photography [Available Online]
http://www.icp.org/browse/archive/constituents/werner-bischof?all/all/all/all/0 [Last accessed 5 Mar 2016]


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