Jakob Tuggener, who died in 1988 aged 84, was included in Edward Steichen's legendary exhibition of photographs, 'The Family of Man', in 1955 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Although the show toured 44 European and American cities and was visited by nine million people, and although Tuggener was admired and honoured by photographers and film directors in his native Switzerland, he remained largely unknown during his lifetime. He became a recluse in 1960 and lived the uncompromising life of an artist who has chosen to exist like a hermit. This exhibition of Tuggener's formerly unpublished work has made it possible to reassess his position within the history of photography.
A highlight of the show was the book Fabrik - Ein Bildepos der Technik von Jakob Tuggener, (Factory - a Pictorial Epoch of Technology by Jakob Tuggener, 1943). An unusual sequence contrasts lathes, melting furnaces, turbines and generators with single portraits of workers; the sharp contours of a carved wooden mask or the natural resources of industrial energy such as sluices and waterfalls. These images may be reminiscent of Rodchenko, but they never seem apologetic or nostalgic about technological progress. The book is rich in formal references, while numerous little stories form pictorial narratives. These include, for example, an almost cinematic sequence of a young woman called Berti, who, with blueprints under her arm, rushes along beside a high brick façade before vanishing through a metal door. The camera constantly shifts between Berti's face and the scenes that surround her.
Unlike many of his more politically motivated colleagues such as Paul Senn, who concentrated on the world of workers and farmers, Tuggener took many photographs of the wealthy. During the 40s, with almost post-Modern enjoyment, he joined the rich and beautiful at their balls held in the Hotel Palace in St Moritz, a place where war-profiteers met in the unreal quiet of the Swiss mountains. Tuggener created a series of trance-like photographs, which look like film stills, depicting sparkling crystal glasses, heavy silver cutlery and chandeliers; bare shoulders and low-cut back décolletages juxtaposed with a plate of German sausages shining with grease; the exchange of flirtatious glances and brief hand contacts. He also took superb images of fetishistic details, such as an ornamented room key, ambiguously held by slender fingers in a black velvet glove. It is these minimal details which hint at the complex stories which lie at the heart of Tuggener's oeuvre.
Although the photographer comes across less as a voyeur than a participant, the people he photographed blocked the publication of Ballbuch (Ball Book, 1943-46), an action which reveals the explosive nature of the pictures in their social and historical context.
The way Tuggener's images seem to shift between reality and fiction recalls the heightened realism of contemporary photographers such as Philip-Lorca diCorcia. Unfortunately, however, this exhibition did not seem to trust the innate dynamism of the work, and overloaded the gallery with too many pictures. Nonetheless, it couldn't obscure the photographer's greatest strength - the way he managed to capture the ephemeral nature of his subjects.
Translated by Imke Werner
Translated by Imke Werner