Gotthard Schuh – A Kind of Infatuation

30 May to 11 October 2009

    

Gotthard Schuh (1897-1969) is regarded as one of the outstanding photographers of the 20th century. Not only was he a pioneer of modern photojournalism, but he also developed a personal style which may be described as “poetic realism”. Schuh was aware of the fact that the photographic view of the world is always subjective and that the photographer needs to become completely absorbed in a particular situation in order to grasp it intuitively. Forty years after Schuh’s death, the Fotostiftung Schweiz inspected and reprocessed the photographer’s estate, which had been entrusted to its care. This retrospective exhibition, which is accompanied by an extensive monograph, principally acknowledges the subjective gaze that essentially holds Schuh’s pictorial cosmos together – what he himself called “a kind of infatuation”.

Miner, Winterslag, Belgium, 1937
© Fotostiftung Schweiz

The Cancan at the Tabarin, Paris, 1936
© Fotostiftung Schweiz

Sarna, Bali, 1938
© Fotostiftung Schweiz

From the “New Photography” to Reportage
Gotthard Schuh was self-taught, like most photographers of his generation. He already had a 13-year career as an artist behind him when, around 1930, he discovered the camera as a means of expression, allowing himself to be swept along by the prevailing mood of a new beginning which enveloped the “new photography”. Visual effects and a charged composition played an important role in the first photographs he published. Schuh engaged above all with the sensations of the everyday – seemingly unspectacular scenes that are full of mystery and create as much tension as the opening sentence of a story. This was also the approach he took to photojournalism, which underwent a distinct modernisation in the early 1930s. In Switzerland the Zürcher Illustrierte (ZI) under Arnold Kübler set new standards. As of 1932 Schuh, along with Hans Staub and Paul Senn, was among Kübler’s prized reporters.

In addition to his photojournalistic works in the narrower sense of the term, Schuh repeatedly took photographs which betrayed the eye and sensibility of the earlier painter. Not long after becoming involved in photography, he distanced himself from the avant-garde trends so as to develop a sensual pictorial idiom of his own. He let himself be inspired above all by the pulsating life of the Parisian metropolis. He captured night and twilight scenes, sought movement and flowing contours, immersed himself in feminine worlds, allowed himself be swept along by Eros. Street scenes were among his favourite subjects, and his main interest was in the atmosphere, the emotional expression or the psychology of the moment.

The Salvatation Army, Zurich, 1934
© Fotostiftung Schweiz

Schoolchildren near Perugia, 1929
© Fotostiftung Schweiz

The Journey to Asia – and Inwards
In 1941, after about ten years at the photographic front, Schuh abandoned the hectic life of the reporter to become the first picture editor for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Together with Edwin Arnet, he created the NZZ supplement Das Wochenende, which quickly developed into a well-respected forum for photography. Here, in addition to his own reportages, he could present the works not only of internationally renowned photographers, but also of young unknown talents. From then on, however, he channelled a significant part of his own photographic work into illustrated books. The most famous and successful, running to 13 editions, was published in 1941 under the title Inseln der Götter. It contained the fruits of an almost 11-month journey to Singapore, Java, Sumatra and Bali, which Schuh had undertaken just before the war. What on the surface could be seen as a mere escape to a paradise populated by beautiful women, turns out on closer scrutiny to also be a successful mixture of reportage and self-observation, a journey inwards.

A High Brahman prays with his Child, Bali, 1938
© Fotostiftung Schweiz

Boy Playing Marbles, Java, 1938
© Fotostiftung Schweiz

“Everyone just sees what corresponds to his being”
In his book Inseln der Götter Schuh sometimes rated the poetic content of his photographs higher than their documentary authenticity. Later too, he frequently used the camera to give expression to his fantasies and emotions – his conviction being that images of the external world corresponded to internal images: “Everyone just depicts what he sees, and everyone just sees what corresponds to his being.” This credo is most evident in the book Begegnungen which Schuh published in 1956 and in which he freely and associatively combines older and more recent images to create a new integral composition. With Begegnungen Schuh pursued the objectives of the ‘Kollegium Schweizerischer Photographen’, the Academy of Swiss Photographers which he founded together with Paul Senn, Walter Läubli, Werner Bischof und Jakob Tuggener. This loose group of outstanding photographers propagated a photography that shifted to the fore the author’s ‘signature’ and artistic composition. Within the Academy, Schuh stood out by the fact that his images were often the fruit of an act of passionate abandon in which the transitions between dream and reality were fluid. His portrayals of women and lovers are indicative here. In the 1950s Schuh still fell back sometimes on pictorial ideas which had preoccupied him as a painter in the 1920s. And he did not shy away from arranging certain scenes so as to approximate as closely as possible to his ideas. This enabled him to achieve a lyrical richness that has preserved its validity to this very day.

Peter Pfrunder

 

Publication:
Gotthard Schuh – A Kind of Infatuation. Ed. by Peter Pfrunder in collaboration with Gilles Mora. Texts by Peter Pfrunder, Gilles Mora, Martin Gasser. 312 pp., 200 illustrations
Steidl Verlag, Göttingen 2009.

Today the Fotostiftung Schweiz also administers the rights to Schuh's images. As of June 2009 it will post about 300 photographs by Schuh on the online database of Keystone AG, Zurich, for public use (see www.keystone.ch).

With the generous support of: Bundesamt für Kultur, Lotteriefonds des Kantons Zürich, Stadt Winterthur, Pro Helvetia, Migros-Kulturprozent, Stiftung Erna und Curt Burgauer, Zuger Kulturstiftung Landis & Gyr, Jean-Marc Payot, Cassinelli-Vogel-Stiftung, Neue Zürcher Zeitung