Few things describe artists more intimately than the subjects they choose to depict, and a new exhibition of more than 25 years of photojournalism by relatively unknown but influential Swiss photographer Gotthard Schuh offers both a fascinatingly diverse historical document and a portrait of the artist himself.
On display through July 16 in the Museo del Arte del Banco de la República in downtown Bogotá, this particular collection of 93 of Schuh’s most dramatic and impacting photos, combined with 20 pieces by followers and students, represents the rediscovery of an important and unquestionably talented photojournalist.
Touching on key moments from a stylistically varied, globetrotting career, the exhibit chronicles everything from Schuh’s early scenes of Paris nightlife to social realist images of coal miners in Belgium, sensuous and philosophical depictions of Southeast Asian culture and portraits of daily life from around Europe.
Originally trained as a painter, Schuh began taking photographs while working in Paris in the late 1920s, and his keen eye for capturing entire stories in a simple glance or subtle motion drew almost immediate acclaim. His unique style, mixing documentary photography with subjective storytelling, eventually became known as “poetic realism” and influenced generations of photojournalists.
Though also a talented landscape photographer, Schuh’s most compelling work revolves around humanity, and his portraits are particularly striking. Whether contrasting the blackened skin of coal miners with their dazzlingly vibrant eyes or pondering the enigmatic smile of a Nazi girl in pre-war Berlin, his human images effortlessly evoke incredible depth of emotion.
Indeed, Schuh considered emotional involvement with his subjects of the utmost importance, a clear departure from traditional notions of journalistic objectivity. According to Schuh, “Anyone who is incapable of empathizing with events and situations to the extent that they feel love for them, at least for a moment, will not possess the power to reproduce them.”
That ability to capture a thousand stories, some factual and others completely subjective, with a single photo reached its peak during a yearlong journey through Java, Singapore, Sumatra and Bali. The journey left a profound personal impact on Schuh and marked the final stage in his transition from a more traditional journalistic style to a sensual, even erotic blend of impressionism and realism.
Shortly after returning to Europe, then embroiled in the Second World War, Schuh largely retired from journalism to focus on publishing his work and educating the next generation through his association with the Kollegium Schweizerischer Photographen, a loosely organized group of prominent Swiss photographers.
His involvement with the Kollegium arguably represented Schuh’s greatest impact on modern photojournalism. While Schuh himself remained largely unknown outside of Europe for decades, followers like Robert Frank, whose chronicling of the United States in the turbulent and wildly prosperous post-war era remains a powerfully significant work to this day, went on to become acclaimed photographers.
That his career played such an important role in the aesthetic development of some of the century’s greatest photojournalists makes it easy to forget just how revolutionary Schuh’s vision really was, but the photos featured in this engrossing exhibition offer a clear reminder of the lyrical, narrative beauty of his work.
Gotthard Schuh deserves rediscovery, and for students of photojournalism, history buffs or simply fans of aesthetically beautiful photography, a trip to the Museo del Arte del Banco de la República is an all but mandatory experience this month.
The exhibition is on display on the third floor of the Museo de Arte del Banco de la República, Calle 11 No. 4-21. Admission is free.
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