The Magnum photographer’s images of 1950s America were never printed during his lifetime; an exhibition in London marks the first time they are publicly displayed
Cola and cigarette advertisements, a man scaling San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, the fuzzy bright lights of Broadway. This is some of the iconography that makes up Werner Bischof’s collection of colour photographs from early 1950s America. Alongside them are images of everyday life; the shadow of a tree on a brick building, a car in snowfall, and workmen constructing a highway bridge in California. The work is going on show for the first time, in an exhibition devoted to his USA series at David Hill Gallery.
Bischof was the first non-founding member to be welcomed into the then-fledgling Magnum collective, in 1949 joining Robert Capa, David Seymour, Henri Cartier-Bresson and George Rodger. He had already become recognised for his pioneering use of colour photography, and was one of the first documentary photographers to take the format seriously. At the time of joining Magnum, most of Bischof’s contemporaries still predominantly worked in monochrome, a trend that continued well into the 1960s.
USA is a series of work that brings early 1950s America vividly to life, yet Bischof’s tragic death at 38 meant the photographs were never printed during his lifetime. This is the first time they are being shown to the public.
The photographs serve as a fleeting snapshot of a unique point in history: Bischof arrived in post-war United States from Switzerland in 1953, and stayed there for just one year, chronicling a booming and optimistic America through the eyes of an outsider. The 25 photographs that make up the series comprise few suggestions of interaction, they are instead stolen moments through shop windows and cars that blur past, evoking anonymity, and a contemplative look at everyday life in America during a period of immense change.