One of the last photographs Werner Bischof made before plunging to his death in a car accident high in the Peruvian Andes was a portrait of a boy playing the flute. At first glance, the picture might seem unexceptional, another National Geographic-type snapshot of a cheerful native in an exotic locale. But look closely at the scalloped mountainside behind the boy, or the ropy muscles of his calves, or the way he's shot in stark profile against the contoured landscape.
Then consider this note Bischof dashed off to his wife back in Switzerland the week before his death: "In the afternoon I went to the market place--it must have been feeding time, almost every woman had a child at her breast, wonderful poses, others continued to feed as they sold their wares." That phrase "wonderful poses" gets close to the heart of Bischof's knotty aesthetic: In his portrait of that Peruvian flute-playing youth, and elsewhere, Bischof's humanistic photojournalism rubs shoulders with an almost icily formal precision.
Probably because of his premature death, in 1954, Bischof isn't nearly as well known as his colleagues at Magnum Photos, a collective of freelance photojournalists that included luminaries like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa. But, as a new MIA exhibit of 60 recently acquired black and white photographs makes clear, Bischof's photos were every bit as iconic. These photos, shot in a dozen countries over two decades, read like a bleak travelogue of the 20th century.
Although the exhibit is organized chronologically around his various foreign assignments--covering an Indian famine for Life, for instance, or photographing U.N.-run POW camps during the Korean War--Bischof didn't necessarily think of himself as a photojournalist. His picture of a jostling, near-vulpine scrum of war photographers even suggests a measure of disdain for the profession. And though Bischof spent much of his time traversing combat zones, his war photographs are mostly concerned with the aftermath of conflict--what would, in another generation, be quaintly termed collateral damage. His pictures of the Korean camps, for example, in which Chinese prisoners are being forced to square-dance beneath a grotesque replica of the Statue of Liberty, say as much about the rank insanity of war as could any scene of battle carnage.
Bischof came of age in the shadow of the Second World War--he served as a ski instructor in the Swiss army, the kind of scenic assignment that might explain why the Swiss cling so tenaciously to their neutrality. Although he wasn't directly affected by the war, many of the exhibit's most compelling photographs date from a tour of Germany he made shortly after its end. Traveling in a car with a makeshift darkroom in the back seat, Bischof photographed Hungarian war orphans gazing blankly from a train, children playing in the bombed-out ruins of cities, and even the skeletal remains of the Reichstag poking out of the smoldering remains of Berlin. Even amid such apocalyptic ruin, Bischof's compositions are as precise as a Swiss clock, suffused with detail and light. (Cartier-Bresson later said admiringly that Bischof's images "were structured above all around light.")
But looking at these early photos, you may also sense the first stirrings of a young man's conscience, as though Bischof were struggling to square journalistic dispassion (and perhaps Swiss neutrality) with the ruin he saw around him. It's telling that, soon after that trip, Bischof left the safety of Switzerland to begin photographing the world. "Henceforth," he wrote in 1945, "my attention [will be] focused on the face of human suffering."
Despite the fact that he worked in both Korea and Indochina, Bischof never cut the figure of the dashing war photographer. Marco Bischof, the photographer's eldest son and a co-curator of the MIA exhibit, tells this story about his father's working method. Once, while in Indochina, Bischof came upon a small village. The residents, rightly distrustful of a foreigner, quickly ducked out of the way. Instead of pursuing them, Bischof sat down and started sketching, eventually luring some curious children out of hiding. "He ended up staying for two weeks," the younger Bischof explains.
Indeed, although he was often near the center of world-changing events, Bischof was seemingly more captivated by scenes of everyday life. In Hong Kong, he finds a fleet of junks floating in an impossibly placid sea. And, in what is possibly the exhibit's most haunting image, he captures white-robed monks walking near Tokyo's ancient Meiji Temple beneath the delicate swirl of a spring snowstorm. That Bischof could coax such beauty out of pedestrian scenes may also suggest why his images of war and famine retain so much of their power to shock. For all his formal perfectionism, he was too much in love with the world to regard even the smallest corner of it with dispassion.