Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Werner Bischof’s 'Japan'

I came across this photograph (click, gets big) quite haphazardly looking through the posters in a now defunct frame shop around 1998. I bought the poster and framed it and it has decorated my home ever since and will always have a place there as long as I live.
It was taken by Werner Bischof in 1952. To me it is a very powerful statement of the beauty of the visible in Japanese architecture and of the invisible in the Japanese soul. Is there a better example of architecture in perfect harmony with nature? And the photographer has perhaps instinctively so framed the photograph to enhance this harmony. See how the lines of the upper roof are a mirror image of the lines of the branch that reaches out to it. I never tire of contemplating this image and the period that it evokes so eloquently and wondering why I feel such affinity.
I had never heard of Werner Bischof so I searched on the web and found the book the photo came from (‘Japan’ Werner Bischof, Simon and Schuster, 1954) and I ordered it from a rare book dealer. When it arrived I was taken aback to read this beginning to the author’s profile:

This is a book the author will never see.
Werner Bischof finished his work on it in New York in February, 1954, sent the layout and captions off to Zurich, and departed by jeep for what was to have been a year’s photographic trip to Latin America. His trip ended abruptly on May 16th, high in the Peruvian Andes, when a car carrying him and two companions went over a 1500 foot cliff.

I was filled with sadness when I read this. How grateful we should be for each day we live, for how abruptly it may end. To the nostalgia evident in this photo was added the knowledge of the observer’s sudden end. What a loss we feel, when we open the book, for this photo is but the portal to an inestimable treasure of images of Japan by this great photographer.

Werner Bischof, one of the half-dozen most brilliant photographers of his generation, spent almost two years photographing every corner of Japan, every aspect of Japanese life. Out of the many thousands of pictures he took, the 109 most beautiful examples of his work have been assembled in this book.

You will search in vain on the web for these images, which is quite astonishing given their quality. The image above is to my knowledge the only one on the web and I hope I don’t get into trouble for it. But it is the shame of the world that his work is not better known and if this post and this photo introduce you to him then it will be a very great good and I hope I will be forgiven.

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Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)

Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)
Kiyomizudera Temple has a large veranda looking out over Kyoto and beyond