Werner Adalbert Bischof was born in Zurich, Switzerland on April 26, 1916, but he spent his childhood in Waldslut, Germany. He returned to his native country to attend the Zurich School for Applied Arts, where he studied photography under "New Vision" school supporter Hans Finsler. Under Professor Finsler's tutelage, Mr. Bischof mastered the art of emotionless technical precision in his photographs of shells and plants. After completing his studies, he worked independently as a designer and photographer for Zurich fashion houses and advertising firms.
The growing political tensions in Europe forced Mr. Bischof to return to Switzerland in 1940, where he served in the military for the next two years, after which time he once again picked up his camera. His experimentation with shadows and light were featured in the important European art periodical Du. He became a contributor, which led to his fateful foray into photojournalism. World War II changed Werner Bischof's attitudes about life and photography. He exchanged inanimate subjects for people; in whose faces were forever etched the anguish of combat. The public outrage over Mr. Bischof's controversial photograph of a Dutch boy's war-ravaged face abruptly halted his plans to publish a book graphically detailing the physical and emotional costs of war. While traveling through Milan, he met Rosellina Mandel, the woman who was to become his wife and artistic partner.
His postwar activities included a two-year stint as a photographer for the Swiss relief organization known as Schweizer Spende, and in 1949 he joined photographic colleagues Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, and David "Chim" Seymour in founding Magnum Photos, an international agency with headquarters in Paris and New York.
In 1950, the Bischofs welcomed their first child - son Marco - and the following year, the proud father embarked upon his most famous photographic expedition, reporting on the shocking poverty of the famine-crippled Indian province of Bihar for Life magazine. Mr. Bischof's photographs did not exploit the plight; his images were straightforward but nevertheless packed an emotional punch. The early 1950s was a period of frequent globetrotting for the traveling photographer, and a sojourn in Japan on another photographic assignment for Life produced serene photographs that were in stark contrast to his emotionally-charged wartime images. His time in Tokyo and the resulting artistic transformation were chronicled in the text Japan, for which Mr. Bischof received France's Prix Nadar award. With his wife about to deliver their second child, Mr. Bischof embarked upon a solo photographic journey to South America, where he accompanied geologist Ali de Szepessy on his expedition along the Amazon River. While in Peru, he took what would become his most famous photograph, Boys Playing Flutes in Cuzco. On May 16, 1954, Werner Bischof died of injuries received in an automobile accident. Nine days later, Rosellina Bischof gave birth to the couple's second son Daniel. Sadly, that was also the day Mr. Bischof's close friend and colleague Robert Capa was killed after stepping on a landmine while taking photographs in Vietnam. It was truly the end of an important era in the field of international photojournalism. Of his approach to his photographs, Mr. Bischof once observed:
"There is something often static about photographs that are not purely aesthetic, not so-called 'beautiful' photos, and one runs the risk of becoming detached from the color and excitement of life to compose perfect pictures... I believe we have a duty to tackle problems from our point of view with great concentration and judgment and shape the picture of our generation."
1991 Creative Photography: Aesthetic Trends, 1839-1960 (Don Mills, Ontario, Canada: General Publishing Company), p. 223.
2006 Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Photography: A-F (New York: Taylor & Francis Group, LLC), pp. 133-134.
1999 Magnum: Fifty Years at the Front Line of History (London: Pimlico Random House), p. 87.
2003 Werner Bischof (URL: http://www.wernerbischof.com).
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