20 May 2020

Marco Bischof on curating his father's photography

From Nights, 9:30 pm on 20 May 2020
JAPAN. 1951. Photographer Werner BISCHOF. 
Photo by Goro Suma (Generation X boy).

JAPAN. 1951. Photographer Werner BISCHOF. Photo by Goro Suma (Generation X boy). Photo: ©Werner Bischof / Magnum Photos

A collection of work put to together by the son of humanist photographer Werner Bischof will be exhibited in Auckland, featuring ironic images of the twentieth century.

Bischof's USA series (1953/54) will be on show from Sat 23 May on Queens Wharf in Auckland as part of the Auckland Festival of Photography.

Bischof, a Swiss photographer and photojournalist, is best known for his post-war humanist photography showing the poverty and despair around him during that period in Europe.

He arrived in post-war United States from Switzerland in 1953, and stayed there for one year, chronicling a booming and optimistic United States through the eyes of an outsider.

However, his work is diverse and reflects an independence of mind, one desiring to experiment with new techniques and show empathy for his subjects.

His son, international curator Marco Bischof, told Bryan Crump his father had left his job as a photojournalist in Asia because he objected to the editorial lines at the newspapers he worked for.

He wanted to capture images without them being then framed with ideological and editorial distortions. One simple, iconic image is of a boy in Peru playing flute.

“What I think is interesting is that the picture is the first distributed in the 1950s about an indigenous person in south America, from Peru, and the fact Peruvian photographers considered my father as a Peruvian photographer after that.

“Of course, it was distributed by Magnum photos, the group of photographers that had been founded in ’47, and it was distributed worldwide, so this picture really became like an icon of this indigenous person.”

When he looks at the pictures he imagines what type of relationship or connection his father had with these people.

“He must have had some kind of human empathy, or whatever you call it, to get their confidence that you don’t feel from somebody photographing somebody. I think photographing people is not so easy… people from another culture, to take a picture of them that they don’t look abnormal or make funny faces or think that you rob their soul when you take a photograph.”

Children were a theme for the photographer. Another famous image shows children waiting to meet the Japanese Emperor in Hiroshima after the United States detonated a nuclear bomb there.

“That’s another fascination of my father – after the war when he travelled he went to war zones, he went to Hiroshima. He always said kids have a very important role. On one side, they are the ones who suffered most and on the other side they are the future.

“So, he took a lot of pictures of children from different cultures to show this future also.”

One of the unique features of the Auckland exhibition will be the inclusion of colour photography, alongside Bischof’s famous black-and-white imagery.

 “My father has the reputation of being a master of black-and-white photography of the twentieth century and now I also found some colour pictures that are pretty interesting.

“I have to know that colour photography in the ‘50s it was still an experiment … So, for him, many times he took a picture in black-and-white and picture on colour. So, now I thought it would be interesting to show some of his colour pictures.”

His photos within the United States reflect a vibrant optimism of the 1950s, his images capturing an energy and mood.

“One of things he really masters is the combination between form and content, which gives this energy,” Marco says.

“I also realise that when people look at the photographs, the pictures somehow talk to the people, they say something to them and that for me is photography - being an international language is one of the strongest achievements of my father.”

His father died when he was four years old, so Marco had to rely on memories of his family members to get a flavour of what he was like. However, numerous diaries, letters and the humanist nature of his works have allowed Marco a unique insight into the character of his father.

“My mother, of course, told me a lot of stories, and my grandmother told me stories. I’m a filmmaker so I also did a lot of interviews with people who know him. So, I know probably my father better than many other kids.

“Boys know their fathers and because he also l left an enormous collection of diaries, letters and all these things, I had some insight into his whole life and feeling and think I was very fortunate to explore this character of my father.”

He said the exhibition's setting on Auckland’s waterfront was an ideal location, not least because of his father’s love of nature and the outdoors.

Werner Bischof's USA series (1953/54)

Werner Bischof's USA series (1953/54) Photo: ©Werner Bischof / Magnum Photos

Werner Bischof's USA series (1953/54) will be on show from Sat 23 May on Queens Wharf, Auckland.

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Photo: ©Werner Bischof / Magnum Photos

AFP director Julia Durkin says it’s an honour to have this colour work on display at this year’s festival.

“Our theme in 2020 is Unseen so we invite these 25 works to be shown here, it’s an important series. Werner’s work was mostly shot in black and white, the work is important in this medium as he visited America as the country was starting to have influence culturally post war and at a time that nationhood was still being formed there. As a migrant nation the USA has many similarities to NewZealand, both being ‘pioneer’ countries and many of the inhabitants of both countries arrived by boat. The decision to host the work by Werner Bishcof on the fence of one Auckland’s working wharf’s is a deliberate proposition to that history, the boats arrive full of hopeful migrants searching for a new and better life. Werner’s insight to America of the 50s is critical documentation of that national genesis.”

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Photo: ©Werner Bischof / Magnum Photos

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