The Enigma of Hong Kong in the 1950s: Werner Bischof’s Photos at the F11 Photographic Museum

Monochrome photos of old Hong Kong hang in a restored Art Deco building in Happy Valley. Among them is an ethereal image in which a lens peers into Kowloon Harbour. It shows a fleet of a dozen junk boats in front of vast, ragged clouds, which makes for a thoroughly arresting spectacle.

The image was taken in the summer of 1952 by Swiss photojournalist Werner Bischof. Since then, those iconic fishing boats, with their singular, jagged sails, have all but disappeared from South China’s waters. The city’s frenetic development over the last half a century has unwittingly brought about their demise, as has been the case with many vanishing emblems of old Hong Kong.

“It’s my favourite photo in the collection,” says Douglas So, owner of the F11 Photographic Museum, one of Hong Kong’s few private museums and the only one dedicated to photography. Bischof’s photos of Hong Kong are on display until March 30.

So loves the image because it speaks to the disappearing world he himself wants to preserve. The solicitor turned photography and heritage promoter founded F11 in 2014, in a yellow heritage building that appears alien next to the grey tower blocks that surround it. So’s aim is not only to conserve the building but to also use it to host exhibits that pay homage to photographers past and present.

Bischof’s collection shows images of Hong Kong at an energetic time when its population was booming as a result of political instability and famine on the mainland. Luxuriant but sweaty scenes of colonial festivities run side by side with images of poverty and dislocation. With a diversity of scenes depicted, including refugees arriving from China and cheongsam-wearing socialites at Happy Valley racecourse, the images speak to the extensive exploring and researching Bischof undertook in order to understand the city in a time of uncertainty.

“Hong Kong’s biggest problem lies in the 300,000 ‘end of the road,’ squatters – refugees who have no prospect of returning to their villages in North China, who live in patched together huts in the flat lands of Kowloon,” Bischof wrote in unpublished notes. “There are frequent fires, but still the refugees pour in, crossing frontiers here and there, finding their way illegally into the colony on fishing boats.”

That Bischof set upon depicting the refugees speaks to his strong journalistic instincts, putting front centre the people most impacted by the cogs of history – the proverbial little people. All these elements are what have given his entire body of works a cult following. And they’re qualities that So believes should be promoted at a time when billions of photographs are created every day and when every smartphone owner is a photographer. We need now more than ever to be reminded of what enduring photography looks and feels like, he says.

Bischof was born in 1919 in Switzerland, where he established a photography and advertising studio after training with noted Swiss photographer Hans Finsler at the Zurich School of Arts and Design, under whose guidance he became an adherent of New Objectivity, an art movement that emphasised observing the world with a sense of detachment that was at odds with the Expressionists that preceded them.

Bischof developed an eye for lighting and composition, and he garnered acclaim as a fashion photographer. He had pursued an interest in painting since childhood, which later led him to explore Paris’ Avant Garde art scene, an adventure that was cut short by the start of the Second World War, when he was drafted into the Swiss military service.

The war and its aftermath triggered a dramatic shift in Bischoff’s approach and concerns. Cycling to South Germany in 1945 with a 2 ¼ x 2 ¼ medium format Rolleiflex Automat camera, he took in the apocalyptic scenes of a country ravaged by war: children playing in the rubble of their old homes, stray, emaciated horses wandering the streets, the homeless sleeping out in the open on worn mattresses.

Witnessing this devastation shook Bischof and changed the way he thought of his work and what it could and should do. An aura of empathy and understanding would come to permeate his reportage that would soften and add nuance to otherwise dismal images of destitution and hardship.

“I felt compelled to venture forth and explore the true face of the world,” Bischof later wrote. “Leading a satisfying life of plenty had blinded many of us to the immense hardships beyond our borders.”

He travelled across Europe photographing individuals trying to survive the aftermath of the war. A wet-eyed girl migrating out of Hungary on train is one such powerful image. Another depicts a Polish boy with a furrowed brow and vacant stare one doesn’t expect to see on a child; it hints at the impact this war had on the generation that grew up with it.

These portraits are of the kind that sit with the viewer for a long time after he or she has seen them. The viewer feels a peculiar closeness to a person he or she will never meet but who might still impact them and the way they see the world.

A photojournalist reporting on history’s grim chapters grapples with the conflict of wanting to draw attention to hardships without sensationalising them. Bischof was working at a point in which this tension was really starting to present itself. World War II was the first major calamity in which technology was up to a standard that it could be used to bear witness to events. As such, the empathetic elegance of his work helped set high standards for journalists documenting atrocities that are still applicable today.

Bischof was recruited by the Magnum agency in 1949, two years after it was established in Paris by a cooperative of high-minded photographers who shared his vision of telling visual stories with a respect for human dignity and globally-minded curiosity. What followed was years of globetrotting that were tragically cut short when Bischof accidentally drove off a cliff in the Andes in 1954. His three-year-old son Marco survived him, and in later years devoted considerable time and resources to cementing his father’s name in the history books of photojournalism.

Werner Bischof in Kau Sai

Last year, So approached Marco about the possibility of showcasing his father’s Hong Kong works to mark the 100th year anniversary of his birth. Marco readily agreed, flying out to the city to help curate the 85 images that document the summer Bischof spent in Hong Kong with his wife Rosalina. From junk boats and back door hair salons to fishermen napping on rocks and British colonials celebrating the queen’s birthday, the collection captures the diversity and energy of life in the 1950s.

As with his European photography, what underpins his Hong Kong works is a genuine desire to inhabit the minds and the experiences of his subjects despite his distance from their circumstances. One image shows Bischof himself, squinting behind a sun hat. The portrait was taken on a trip to a secluded island of Kau Sai, where the photographer stayed for some days to acquaint himself with the life in a remote fishing village. Marco Bischof visited over half a century later to stand on the same spot as his father, wearing a matching sun hat, to recreate the photograph in colour.

It might have been the closest Bischof junior would have got to experiencing Hong Kong as his father had, captured through a medium that brings us closer to the lives of others as much as it draws attention to our differences. This ambivalence might be felt by many visitors to the exhibition. The Hong Kong of the 1950s feels both very close to the heart – but also very distant.

“Werner Bischof – Hong Kong 1952” runs until March 31, 2017 at the F11 Photographic Museum, 11 Yuk Sau Street, Happy Valley. +852 6516 1122. Open 15:00-18:00 Tuesday, Thursday and Friday by appointment only.

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