René Groebli. Master of Colour

On view until 27 March 2021, at CHAUSSEE 36, Berlin / currently closed

The extensive and diverse oeuvre of the Swiss photographer René Groebli (*1927) can hardly be reduced to one style. Always daring to do something new, he set new standards in photography. His passion for experimentation is particularly evident in his color photography. These “magical pictures” challenge conventional ways of seeing, through their play with perspective, composition, defamiliarization, but above all through the use of various photographic techniques. At a time when black and white was still considered the “colors of photography”, Groebli’s work was pioneering. His photographs tell the story of color photography and its acceptance as an artistic medium.

René Groebli was born in Zurich in 1927. After an apprenticeship as a photographer with Theo Vonow, he studied under Hans Finsler, a proponent of New Objectivity who established the first photography class at the Zurich School of Applied Arts. Groebli soon realized that New Objectivity was not his visual language, and after half a year switched to film, where he trained as a documentary cameraman. Dissatisfied with merely serving as a “henchman” in that field, however, René Groebli returned to photography. Working as a reportage photographer, he travelled in Africa and the Near and Middle East. In the mid-1950s, he founded his own photo studio for advertising and industrial photography in Zurich and specialized in color photography. He quickly made a name for himself, his reputation reaching far beyond the national borders. In 1957, he was praised as a “Master of Color” by the US magazine Popular Photography Color Annual. But René Groebli was best known for his black-and-white photographs. His first two photo books – Magie der Schiene (Rail Magic) and Das Auge der Liebe (The Eye of Love) include some of the artist’s best-known motifs today. In 1981, Groebli sold his commercial photo studio but continued to work as an artist, producing photo books and working on his image archive.

Groebli’s works not only push boundaries in terms of content but also with regard to the medium of photography, attesting to its mutability. For Groebli, it is about “translating ideas in a young and thus surprising medium: To think, steer and stage color.” (Hans-Michael Koetzle) The darkroom in particular played an important role for the artist. His images were not created primarily at the moment of taking the picture, but rather through what could amount to hours of editing, using a wide variety of techniques. What is achieved through Photoshop and a few mouse clicks today, Groebli realized in analogue form years before digitalization. In this way he created ever new compositions of visual motifs and colors, montages with unconventional, associative perspectives. The exhibition presents the different techniques that the artist used in his color photographs. With colored light, for example, Groebli transformed somber factories and their technical operations into unique and unexpected places. By using color in a subjective way, he created particular atmospheres or underscored the deeper message of his images. Particularly striking are his color portraits, which are limited to a few bold colors. In this case, the dye transfer process is used to break down the images by means of color separation into individual primary colors, which can be influenced and manipulated separately. “This can be done through special masking, mechanical or photographic screening, and changing the structure, through inversion, solarization, switching colors or visual elements, etc.” (René Groebli) The photographs are reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s screenprints, which were made around the same time. Other portraits by Groebli look like paintings or reliefs. His portrait of Aja Iskander Schmidlin, for example, depicts the painter as if he had painted his own self-portrait with a paintbrush. For yet other works – such as René Groebli’s New York series – the artist constructed a “box of wonders” in which he used semi-transparent mirrors and lighting to combine several photographs into one image. (Text: Mona Mathé)