In living colour: the forgotten photographs of Werner Bischof | Photography

Winford Hunter

A hidden treasure trove of previously unknown colour images by Werner Bischof, one of the towering figures of 20th-century photography and reportage, has been uncovered in Zurich bringing a new dimension to his work and introducing stunning depictions of Europe and beyond.

About 100 colour prints from original negatives, some rediscovered but most never seen before, taken by Bischof between 1939 and 1954, have been restored and feature in an exhibition exploring a little-known aspect of his creative output.

The images include extraordinary sights of a bombed-out Europe, including the ghostlike ruin of the Reichstag building and skeletal cityscapes of Warsaw, Berlin and other cities. There are intimate portraits of women sorting through rubble, children playing in the ruins of bombed residential areas and a Dutch boy whose face has been scarred by a German booby trap.

There are also images from Bischof’s lengthy trips to Asia, North and Latin America, concluding tragically in Peru where, aged 38, he was killed in a car crash in May 1954 en route to visit a goldmine.

Best known for his black and white images, Bischof, who joined the photography cooperative Magnum in 1949 as its sixth member, went against the grain by pursuing his love of colour at a time when it was widely frowned upon among his contemporaries, who viewed it as little more than a seductive tool for the advertising industry that helped photographers pay the bills.

The images were discovered four years ago after his son Marco, who curates the Werner Bischof archives in Zurich, came across boxes containing hundreds of glass-plate negatives.

Model with a rose, 1939.
Model with a rose, 1939. Photograph: Werner Bischof

“It was strange at first because we appeared to have three black and white identical negatives of each image,” he told the Guardian. “Only on a closer look you see they are each a bit different. We consulted experts, and embarked on the very technical and sophisticated restoration process.” Using scanning equipment that allowed the plates to be seen as a single whole, the images came alive. “It was magic, like the effect you have when you make a black and white print by putting it into the developer. Except it was colour,” he says.

He and the restoration team spent several years developing the negatives and obtaining the correct colours using pigment technology, before printing them on cotton paper.

They are on display at the Museo d’arte della Svizzera italiana (MASI) gallery in Lugano, Switzerland, under the title Unseen Colour. MASI’s director, Tobia Bezzola, has called Bischof’s oeuvre “a vigorous and brilliant incomplete chapter”. The images range from the “spirited and lurid to soft watercolour qualities, from rococo playfulness to the aggression of pop art”.

Marco Bischof describes the act of discovering the images that emerged – from psychedelic models and polar bears to steelworkers and cats, the war-ravaged Tiergarten park in Berlin, to butterflies and a bicycle in the bombed-out shell of a house in Italy – “like diving underwater and discovering a treasure trove”.

Bischof was just four years old when his father was killed. His mother, Rosellina, also an accomplished photographer in her own right, gave birth to her second son, Daniel, nine days after her husband’s death, on the very day the news of it reached her.

“She told me Papa had stayed with the Indians in Peru,” Bischof recalls. “That’s what we believed for years.

“He was always travelling so I only spent a few months physically in the same space as him when I was very small and he had come home for about four months in 1953. So I only really know my father through his work,” he says. “His pictures, which were everywhere around our flat, were like good friends to me when I was growing up. So to suddenly see a complete new aspect of his photography is nothing less than discovering a new part of him.”

Jo Corbey, Roermond, Netherlands, 1945.
Jo Corbey, Roermond, Netherlands, 1945. Photograph: Werner Bischof/Magnum Photo

Werner Bischof used three cameras: a Rolleiflex, a Leica and, far more unusual for the time, a Devin Tri-Color camera, with which he’d experimented during the war years in his studio, mainly for still life, and, having mastered the technology, took it with him on trips through postwar Europe. The bulky contraption was lent to him by the Zurich publisher Conzett & Huber, an international leader in the field of colour gravure, which used the illustrated magazine Du as its calling card. Bischof was assigned to furnish the magazine with colour images.

Although unwieldy and slow the Devin was technically advanced compared with previous colour cameras. It allowed one-shot images for the first time.

“The camera was made more or less just for still pictures, so he had to avoid movement as much as possible and to stabilise it by hand or tripod,” says Marco Bischof. “He had to consider his composition in advance and to have good light.” The resulting pictures, Bischof says – owing to the glass being more stable than celluloid – have “incredible resolution. The bigger you blow up the print, the more detail you see. They also have a certain alluring slowness compared to black and white.”

Marco Bischof poses next to a picture by his father at the Unseen Colour exhibition.
Marco Bischof poses next to a picture by his father at the Unseen Colour exhibition. Photograph: Alessandro Crinari/EPA

During the six months Werner Bischof spent travelling through Europe in 1945 and 1946 capturing the effects of war, first on a bicycle, then in a car with in-built dark room, his inclination to use colour film came to the fore whenever he felt it would serve his subject better than black and white. In the Dutch town of Roermond in 1946 he came across a boy called Jo Corbey, whose face had been badly injured by a pencil-sized booby trap left by German soldiers. In his diary Bischof described the boy’s “blue-violet burn marks from the shrapnel, a glass eye and a red mask, the tender red flesh a cruel contrast”. The image appeared on the front cover of Du’s May 1946 edition, along with an appeal: “Help the Children of Europe”, provoking a strong reaction from readers.

Marco Bischof, who is a film-maker, speaking from his studio in Zurich, the walls of which are full of his father’s black and white photographs, says he believes his father’s love of colour photography had much to do with the fact he had originally wanted to be a painter and viewed it through the eyes of an artist for whom colour was a form of genuine artistic expression. But his plans to go to Paris and set himself up in a painter’s studio had been dashed by the war. In a letter to his colleague Robert Capa – who was killed just nine days after Bischof – he wrote: “In my heart I will always be a painter who sees past things in colours, who is always in thrall to the abundance and richness of ways humans express themselves and who always sees the camera’s limitations with a little melancholy.”

Kalavryta, Peloponnese, Greece, 1947.
Kalavryta, Peloponnese, Greece, 1947. Photograph: Werner Bischof/Magnum Photo

Marco Bischof has returned several times to the ravine in the Andes where his father died. He claims not to have a favourite image but has tried to retrace his footsteps to discover for himself the places where the photographs were taken, including the village of Kalavryta in the Peloponnese, its tightly knit redbrick houses and farmsteads nestled together on the hillside appearing to defy the that which took place there in December 1943. “You think to yourself ‘what a pretty village’, but then you discover it is the site of one of the most cruel massacres carried out by the Nazis, killing almost the entire male population and you view it completely differently. This is typical of my father – combining form and content in this way.”

He’s also been on to the roof of the Swiss embassy in Berlin from where he believes his father captured the ruins of the Reichstag. “In that image it becomes not only an incredible monument of the time, surrounded by destruction, but it looks like a monster somehow – a remembrance of a terrible war and everything that happened as a consequence of that,” he says.

He says he still has 60,000 undeveloped negatives in the archive. “So there may still be more surprises to come.”

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