Like many of us, Werner Bischof wrote letters and journal entries chronicling his thoughts, concerns and expectations. In retrospect, such correspondence among artists offers valuable depth into the legacy of their work and lives.
In 1953 Bischof wrote to fellow Magnum photographer, Robert Capa, whom Bischof referred to as a father-figure, “I am sick of doing nothing and eager to leave for South America. It is the only place I am interested in – as far as possible from civilization, back to nature”. Six months later, even less fond of the masses of highways and “assembly line” way of living, he wrote to Henri Cartier-Bresson, “I am soon going on my great trip over Central America [...] to see simple people with more heart and less [...] television sets.”
Unfortunately, all did not go well in Peru, where Bischof died in a car accident. Despite his short life, he made masterful work, and though he photographed difficult subjects like war and famine, he continued to “seek out beautiful things.” Filling his compositions with strong visuals, Bischof framed rich design elements around both natural studies and action shots. His lighter scenes of children playing and people at rest are as effective as his heavier pictures of active soldiers and emaciated figures.
Werner’s eldest son, Marco, manages his father’s estate and frequently communicated with former MIA curator Ted Hartwell. After a 1996 visit from Zurich, Marco wrote of the Boundary Waters, “we spent a wonderful week exploring more of the beauty of your country. Full with memories [...]. Physically we are here now – I guess our souls need some time till they arrive.”
Marco continued collaborating with the MIA, which presented Werner Bischof Photographs 1932-1954 in 2003-04, along with a CD biography by Marco Bischof, Carl Philabaum and Gary Brandenberg, Werner Bischof: Life and Work of a Photographer 1916-1954. The CD, which Marco initially referred to as Werner Bischof: Dream of Purity, housed an archive of 1,000+ images and included notes, sketches, interviews, and letters such as the following excerpt written by Werner from Calcutta in 1952, to his wife, Rosellina:
Of course, my dearest – there is beauty too, temple dances of dreamlike beauty in the south … I am an observer in the abattoir of beauty.
On display at the MIA again soon, view Bischof’s gelatin silver print “In the Court of the Meiji Temple, Tokyo, Japan” from 1951. Related post: Werner Bischof’s “dream of purity”
Jen Dolen, Photography & New Media intern