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Werner Bischof – USA
Werner Bischof –Roof of the bus terminal, New York, USA, 1953

Renowned Magnum photographer Werner Bischof brought early 1950s America vividly to life through his series of enigmatic and expansively composed images, yet his tragic death at 38 meant that this work was never printed in his lifetime.  A true innovator, Bischof was one of the first documentary photographers to approach colour seriously. At the time, most of his celebrated contemporaries were still predominantly working in monochrome and would continue to do so until the mid 1960s. Now this fascinating collection of both black and white and colour images, taken during his travels around America, many shown here for the first time, will be unveiled in a landmark exhibition that celebrates the legendary photographer’s work.

Werner Bischof is recognised as one of history’s most influential photographers. During his lifetime he received international recognition for his outstanding and innovative photography and became the first non-founder to be inducted into the fledgling Magnum collective in 1949, joining Robert Capa, David ‘Chim’ Seymour, Henri Cartier-Bresson and George Rodger. Sought-after by the world’s leading international newspapers and magazines, Bischof’s ground-breaking photographs informed many of the greats that were to follow. Hailed for his pioneering early colour photography and sensitive, humanitarian reportage style, by the time Bischof’s life was tragically cut short in 1954, he had already produced an important body of work, despite having been a professional photographer for only nine years.

Featuring 25 photographs, this experimentation with colour and movement interweaves the tender intimacies of daily life with striking street scenes.   Cars blur past lone, shadowy figures, rain splatters the sidewalks, the multicoloured lights of Broadway glimmer in a vivid haze. This is a booming and optimistic America documented with warmth and empathy through the post-war eyes of Swiss-born photographer and photojournalist, Werner Bischof.

Writing in his diary in 1953, Bischof’s first impression of life in New York City was of a ‘mechanized’ and ‘numb’ existence, adding: “now I realise what Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’ was really about.” The isolation he felt as an outsider clearly impacted his photographs; very few people are the focal point. Instead, the images evoke anonymity, stolen moments taken through shop windows or from high-up vantage points; under bridges and on buses. Remarkable geometric streetscapes starkly contrast with evocative, personal scenes. The result is a contemplative look at everyday life in America during a period that signaled immense change, as well as austerity and upheaval.  

Travelling after the Second World War, Bischof reached the United States in 1953 – given free passage for acting as the ship’s photographer – and stayed for only one year. ‘USA’ is a compelling chronicle of that time; a landmark study of the beauty of ordinary people, the streets they walked and the shops they frequented, as well as an honest look at the colorful and nuanced landscape that fashioned post-war America. These remarkable images are exhibited together for the very first time by the David Hill Gallery in London.

WERNER BISCHOF (1916-1954) was a Swiss photographer and photo journalist, who became a full-time member of Magnum in 1949 following his extensive documentation of the devastation across Europe in the aftermath of World War II. The only member of Magnum up until his death in 1954 who had received an art school training, Bischof had originally intended to become a painter and his style was influenced by his graphic design background. His experiences documenting post-war Europe made Bischof question his role as a photographer and he became committed to using the medium as a tool for social change. His desire to focus on post-war humanist photography, sparked a longing to travel the world capturing the beauty of humanity and nature, as well as the poverty and despair.   He began to embrace a more photojournalistic approach and, from 1951 to 1952, dedicated himself to documenting social and political issues across Asia. Bischof worked for national newspapers and magazines including LIFE and Paris Match, for which he worked as a war reporter in Vietnam. After visiting the U.S. in 1953, he travelled down to Mexico and Panama, before carrying onto Peru and Chile, which would be his final journey. Werner Bischof died on 16th May 1954, at the age of only 38, when the Jeep that he was travelling in veered off an Andean mountain road, killing all passengers, only nine days before Magnum founder Robert Capa lost his life in Indochina.

DAVID HILL GALLERY shows established and lesser-known photographers, with an emphasis on previously unshown work. Exhibitions include the first solo show outside of West Africa of Sanlé Sory’s vibrant portraiture. Mario Carnicelli’s sharply observed mid-1960s American street photography also debuted at the gallery, along with Hunter Barnes’ extraordinary work documenting the over-looked margins of American society. Previous shows include Burt Glinn’s coverage of the Cuban Revolution, Bill Bernstein’s Disco work, and George Rodger’s recently unearthed 1940s colour photographs of Southern Sudan’s tribes.

Author: Mae Cuthbertson

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