Arthur von Schwertfuehrers New York Portfolio 1963|64 - ESSAY

Arthur Edler von Schwertfuehrer took the America photographs between 1962 and 1966. Those turbulent years during which Cold War, civil rights movements and the looming Vietnam conflict dominated the media, the Beatles conquered America and America the universe, while the World Exhibition took place in New York Flushing Meadows. His IMPRESSIONS FROM AMERICA, which he prepared as independent work, were presented at sensational slide shows. The NEW YORK PORTFOLIO 1963|64 is just one part of the entire America series. The series consists of several hundred photographs to say medium-format positives, all carefully framed behind glass and provided with the photographer's stamp. He archived about 100 thereof in a heavy wooden box marked NEW YORK I. The addition of the Roman letter I indicates first choice, i.e. in his view these pictures are some of the best and were shown at presentations. Inside the box are handwritten legends for each photograph.
Today, it would be premature to say: Oh no, New York - not again! But 50 years ago, when he took the photographs and we were not yet oversaturated with motives of the Big Apple, this statement was not true. New York was and undoubtedly is the embodiment of a modern city, the capital of the 20th century and the most intriguing of all metropolises. It is gigantic, over dimensional, different and awesome. It is a city of great careers and shattered dreams. New York is a mega city, the center of the financial, cultural and media world, a mecca for advertising, fashion and design, it is a stage for film productions and setting for countless novels. The most ambitious and outstanding photographers dabbled on New York, such as Alfred Stieglitz, Diane Arbus, W. Eugene Smith, Helen Levitt, Elliott Erwitt, Andreas Feininger, William Klein, Lee Friedlander, Bruce Davidson, Robert Frank, Ernst Haas, Roy DeCarava, Weegee, Saul Leiter, Fred Herzog and many more have left us their photographic legacy of this town.

Vivian Maier, just recently discovered by John Maloof, got people's hearts pumping. Completely undetected she took quite impressive photographs of New York in the 1950s and 1960s. At that time there were just a few photographers from the German-speaking countries devoting their attention to New York – the Swiss Werner Bischof (The World of Werner Bischof - A Photographer's Odyssey), the Austrian Ernst Haas (New York – Images of a Magic City), but also Arthur von Schwertfuehrer. He traveled to America several times and returned with fascinating photographs which are admired today. Unlike his younger, North American colleagues he was from a completely different era and looked back to decades-long profession as a professional photographer when he traveled America and Canada 1962 at the age of 71 for a second time in his life. His first journey to America was already at the beginning of the 1930s when he stayed two months in Hollywood for sound film productions.
At the sixties of the 20th century it was usual to work in black and white exclusively - “Black and white is the color of reality” is a saying by Robert Frank. The upcoming color photography was regarded as unaesthetic and common and was condemned as cheap sensationalism. Moreover, it had not yet been perfected. The production of useful color paper prints which were permanently stable and did not change color was expensive and a difficult venture. Mostly, the photographer had no choice but to forgo colored paper prints. Instead, color slide films were used and the photographs were viewed by a projector. But this color film material was far from being perfect and was prone to change color. Moreover, its use demanded a great deal of handicraft skills of the photographer. It was no longer possible to correct an once exposed positive which then represented the final product. For instance, an underexposed black-and-white negative could be subsequently brightened during the production of the paper print in the laboratory, thus corrections could be made, even the image detail could be redefined or cropped. With positive films this was impossible, meaning that an under- or overexposed positive was useless, the once determined image detail was set.

The majority of the photographers working in the streets used small-format cameras and exposed inexpensive black-and-white films in the format 24x36 mm. At the end there was a small or medium-sized paper print, ready for being printed in magazines, journals or books. Arthur von Schwertfuehrer, however, exclusively used the expensive medium-format for works outside his studio. He exposed KODAK and ADOX color positive film with his manual HASSELBLAD camera in the format 6x6 cm. Thus he was able to present his pictures to the public with a convincing brilliance in color which had hitherto only been known from movie pictures. There are skyscrapers, bridges and Harbor Area, Manhattan, and the Financial District, incidents between Wall Street and Lincoln Center, street scenes between Broadway and the United Nations, people wandering around the Rockefeller Center, Downtown Manhattan, Fifth Avenue and Diamond District. Nowadays these kind of photographs are called Street Photography.
A fundamental component for illustrating a city are its citizens. Precisely the photographs of the New York people are characteristic for Arthur von Schwertfuehrer's strength as a portraitist and reveal him as philanthropist. Photography is always a coincidence and the result of a chance encounter. In this spirit, he took pictures of the protagonists at the very moment and in their urban environment in which they meet, in the Here and Now. Nothing is posed or arranged, everything is natural. He keeps a clear distance, but at the same time approaches the protagonist as closely as necessary so as to develop a discreet poetry. The poetry is reflected in our eyes and it is up to us to inter-pret the portrayed figures and situations. He utilizes various visual stylistic tools, works with different perspectives, image planes, movements and colors.

The photograph MIDTOWN, NBC BUILDING (Come In See Yourself On Television) is one example for such photos, it is structured in several planes. The systematic of the composition creates a maximum of tension. In the background there is a young family in a television studio. They are filmed in action by a television camera which broadcasts the picture live onto a screen in the inside so that the family members can watch themselves. At the same time the picture is conveyed onto a second screen, which is positioned at the golden ratio of the photograph, to the outside through the shop window. Passers-by will be able to watch the action. They are invited with the slogan “COME IN SEE YOURSELF ON TELEVISION“. You cannot miss the slogan, it characterizes the various planes. It can be seen three times: above the studio, above the screen and at the lower shop window frame. Every plane has its own light: studio light, neon ceiling light and street light. The scenery reminds you of a theater stage set, in which flat, two-dimensional scenic backdrops standing in row or the effect of mirrors, create a spatial depth. With this clever trick the photographer outwits the two-dimensionality of his photograph. On the right side you can still see part of a globe reflecting the ceiling light, as well as further colored screens on the wall promoting the upcoming color television. The photograph is exceptional. In the end, we notice that its intention is to procreate modernity and faith in the future. But only the color photograph of the photographer makes us see that the displayed screen picture appears in black-and-white. The screen does not keep its promise for a colored future and suggests that we experience the action in real-time. When we take a closer look we realize it is not true because the TV picture shows a different, time-delayed scene than the one back in the studio. Actually it is not live. The three-dimensional dialectic, the playful interaction color vs. black-and-white, the ambivalence of the time delay between studio action and its representation on the screen, as well as the inviting slogan create an interesting and remarkable picture.
A similar photograph from this series shows a selfportrait of the couple Arthur and Erika von Schwert-fuehrer who had taken the place of the young family in the television studio. The result is a color photo-graph illustrating the television camera and the screen on which you can see the couple in black-and-white. Arthur von Schwertfuehrer takes a picture of the screen and the television camera which, in turn, films Arthur taking a picture. This results in a never ending loop which, however, remains invisible. The observer just sees the picture of the picture in the picture.

Remarkable is the group portrait MIDTOWN, PUERTO RICAN DAY PARADE, a street scene capturing the moment of a procession as is common in American cities for ceremonial purposes. The photograph captures a group of young scouts or cadets dressed up in uniform with aiguiletts cord and cap; equipped with polished shoes and gaiters, white guard gloves, salute rifle and flag banner. The formation fills the whole street, in the background automobiles and a bank become visible. Without doubt the photograph has a very solemn patriotic effect and is strewn with insignia and symbols: badges of rank, polished belt buckles, flags equipped with eagles, metallic crosses and golden cords, even the bank building in the back is flagged. The eye of the observer inevitably wanders between the boys in the first row. They are leading the group carrying three flags – the Star-Spangled Banner and two Christian flags. In the middle of the photograph there is an Afro-American boy with the flag of the US Episcopal Church the cross of which faces the observer. The boy forms the golden ratio of the picture. Then our attention is immediately drawn to the boy standing aloof from the others on the right edge of the picture. Strangely lost in reverie and withdrawn he looks into the camera. His view pauses, just as the whole group pauses and time seems to stand still, not even the flags are in motion. Exactly this moment of pause and stillness had been captured by the photo-grapher quite impressively. This photograph is a moment of peace in the constant flow of the world.
The photographer has captured another quiet moment with the same degree in patriotism in the night shot MIDTOWN, SALVATION ARMY. The center of the picture shows an elderly lady wearing raincoat and headdress. Devotional and absorbed in thought she clutches the Star-Spangled Banner. She seems to float, surrounded by a group of engrossed men barely visible by outline.

The photograph MANHATTAN, SKYLINE is quite modern. The scene is not set in the streets of New York but on a roof of the metropolis. Again, the photographer clearly uses different planes dividing the photo-graph into sections. In the front there is a swimming pool and persons bathing in the sun on sun loungers. In the back there is a brick wall and the final background is the New York City skyline with the towering Empire State Building. The wall horizontally cuts the picture through the entire width, thus dividing the picture into fore- and background. Visually the planes are connected merely by the lamppost on the right side in the front, which corresponds to the Empire State Building on the right side in the back. Again, the people in the picture seem somewhat absent, minding their own business, not communicating with each other. This photograph illustrates the proficiency of the photographer to turn the event into a kind of stage setting. This is a clear sign for his decades-long profession as a still photographer. Today the connoisseur might think of Staged Photography, those staged photographic works of art which remind of cineastic pictures for instance, by Jeff Wall or Gregory Crewdson, Cindy Sherman or Hannah Starkey.

The intention of the photograph EMPIRE STATE BUILDING - an airplane supposedly approaching New York City, is to impress and astonish the beholder, and is targeted to exactly this effect. The picture shows the clear blue view from an aircraft to the Empire State Building, which seems to be within reach, and down to Manhattan. But we also see a twinkle in the eye of the photographer, because only when taking a closer look we recognize that there is something wrong and we begin to analyze the picture. At first, it strikes as odd that the aircraft flies past the Empire State Building so close, but there is more evidence. Strictly speaking the photograph is marked by two or three overlapping planes: The plane of the aircraft with the white horizon, which runs diagonally from top left to bottom right; the plane of the Empire State Building standing vertical like a clock hand, whereas engine and Tower form an intersection; the plane Manhattan comprising Hudson or East River which seems to shimmer through the Tower. Finally, we identify this image is an impressive photo montage.

The NEW YORK PORTFOLIO 1963|64 also contains photographs of places and buildings, places of interest and street scenes of the mega city. Even a small series from the New York World's Fair 1964 which reminds us on Garry Winogrand's New York series. However, the most convincing are those photographs showing humans, the individual moves to the center of the photograph.
Today, after half a century, these rediscovered photographs of America by Arthur von Schwertfuehrer have not yet lost their enchantment. They were produced with a keen sense for the Decisive Moment and great virtuosity with regard to composition. They bear the charm of early color photographs. Meanwhile they have become a contemporary document. The NEW YORK PORTFOLIO 1963|64 is the photographic homage of a German artist to the American metropolis and its citizens. The impressive late work of a photo-grapher buried in oblivion, who wholeheartedly dedicated his life to photography.