The sense behind the snowflakes

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts hosts an exhibition on the life and work of Werner Bischof.

Jenny Phan

Sixty black-and-white photographs can take you to every corner of the globe.

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts is now displaying the acclaimed Werner Bischof’s photographs, which impacted photography and popular consciousness through their subtle visual style. The artwork includes photography, drawings, paintings and vintage posters spread throughout two large galleries.

The exhibit includes a running narrative documentary and a detailed map that outlines the photographer’s global travels.

The exhibition is more than a show of masterpieces; it is a show of character and a search for purpose in life. Each photograph not only cracks through the walls of perception to allow a glimpse of the artist’s character, but also places a context around various historical events.

Bischof began his career in Switzerland, where he focused on studio arts. During World War II, he set out to document the issues that plague societies during war. The result is his documentation of famine in India and the devastations of World War II.

Bischof saw the bitter disasters of war and began setting his thoughts and ideas onto paper.

Traveling to India, Indonesia, and other far-flung parts of the world, Bischof became an anthropologist-documentarian-photojournalist-artist. He researched the society by participating in local cultural gatherings and events. He gained the trust of the people by joining in their lives. Then, he photographed the emotions that lay before him. His work documented the feeling, not the scene.

It was through these methods of participant observation that Bischof produced the magnificent works that have maintained his fame. His method of observation allowed him to notice details other artists or photographers might overlook.

The detailed hairs on a rug or the delicate design inlaid on snowflakes falling from the skies in China bespeak an attention to detail that was a major characteristic of the artist’s work.

After Bischof’s death in 1954 and the death of his wife Rosellina Burri-Bischof in 1986, their son Marco Bischof began a quest to immortalize the theory, ethics, and life of his father.

Bischof’s strong will and enthusiasm for ethics is easily seen through his photographs. But it is made even more visible in the institute’s exhibition of his life.

“He didn’t necessarily want to see new things, but see things in a new way,” said Marco Bischof, the director of the Bischof Archive in Zurich. “He wanted to focus not on sensationalism, but on the civil population and humanism.”

In the end, Werner Bischof knew he was not a photojournalist; he was an artist. He did not want to merely document the scene, but to document the tears and the laughter as well. He wanted to document the sounds and the thoughts of the people.