Swiss pioneers in documentary and street photography – An introduction to Jakob Tuggener

Sascha ZeitzPhotographer Introductions 5 Comments

70 years ago, in 1951, five Swiss photographers came together to establish the Kollegium Schweizerischer Photografen (College of Swiss Photographers). It was short-lived and only staged two exhibitions at the Helmhaus in Zürich in 1951 and 1955. It combined, however, five photographer who were born around the turn of the century and were to become the founding fathers of modern Swiss photography and pioneers in documentary and street photography: Werner Bischof, Walter Läubli, Gotthard Schuh, Paul Senn and Jakob Tuggener. Over the next few months, we will look at each of these artists in turns, at their lives, their work, and their unique contributions to modern photography and, more specifically, to street photography.

Being independent and in full control over his creative process was front and centre to Tuggener`s understanding of himself as a photographer. He did not compromise, he did not chase the easy dollar – even when he was working for a company magazine in the 1930s. As a consequence, there have been highly successful periods during his creative life followed by long troughs without his work been featured in exhibitions or in magazines (and him earning little money).

During his lifetime, he managed to publish only two books but tried for years, even decades to find an editor for “Ballnächte” (“Ball nights”) – his three-decade project to document lavish ball nights in Zurich and St. Moritz. Given his long streak of misfortune when it comes to publishing, Tuggener resorted to producing maquette, mock-ups of photo books he designed and kept re-designing over time. Maquettes became his way of expressing himself as an artist – not through single images but sequences of images, evolving over time.

The early years

But let’s go back to the beginnings. Jakob Tuggener was born in Zurich in 1904. He started out as a technical draftsman at Maag Zahnräder AG, a Zurich-based factory. Their factory photographer introduced Tuggener to photography, mostly the technical aspects of it such as operating the camera or working in the darkroom. Tuggener saw himself as an expressionist artist. The seed for that was planted in his time at Maag. He began to develop his own artistic language but also to adopt the “standard” expressionist toolkit: collages, slanted angles, light effects, lots of diagonal lines, close-ups etc. (The movies were an important source of inspiration, too. If you want to read more about the interplay of cinema and photography please check out Bastian Peter`s series.)

In the aftermaths of the Great Depression, Tuggener lost his job at Maag. He decided to leave Zurich to study at the Reimann School, a private art and applied arts school in Berlin. Up to this point, his education had been purely artisanal and almost everything he had learned as an artist was self-taught. Reimann School did not offer photography classes though, which was possibly an advantage as he needed to explore other fields of art, particularly typography and film making, that inspired his photography. As did Berlin, the incarnation of the modern city, constantly changing, breathlessly exploring the novel, putting the individual to the fore. Now, Jakob Tuggener was shooting more modern(ist) architecture and technology and was honing the expressionist techniques mentioned above.

Tuggener returned to Zurich in 1931. He had been away for just one year, but it was an important, probably the most important year in his unfolding as an independently minded photographer. Again, he found himself without a job and started freelancing. It was at a time when magazine around the world started adopting photo journalism: Life and Look in the US, Picture Post in the UK, Vu in France. Switzerland was no different which helped Tuggener to land occasional jobs.

He took on a permanent but still freelance job at Maschinenfabrik Oerlikon (MFO) where he was contributing photographs to their company magazine and numerous company brochures.  None of them was commercial in a sense corporate or stock photos are today. Tuggener could stay true to himself, shooting at the intersection of machines and technology on the one hand and women and men, especially woking class, on the other hand. His people photography, in particular, was very much “street”, by today’s standards.

“Fabrik” – A milestone in photographic storytelling

“Fabrik” (“Factory”), the first book Tuggener published in 1943, was a commercial failure but a seminal and influential body of work. It built on his work at MFO but also differed materially from it. While his work at MFO is very positive and modernist, “Fabrik” is dark and pessimistic and talks to Tuggener`s growing skepticism towards the machine age, as indicated by the cover shot “The Executioner” (His next book, twelve years later when his change of hearts is complete, will cover purely rural themes). In this book, Tuggener masterfully sequences and juxtaposes images very cinematically and in a way that opens up a wide associative space, not only about technology but about mankind and the world we live in more generally. This is what makes “Fabrik” a milestone in the history of photo books and it influenced many photographers, including the young, aspiring Robert Frank.

Plant entrance, Oerlikon Machine Factory,1934
Grande Dixence power station, 1942

Let’s have a closer look of two images from this period: they show Berti, an errand girl at MFO, who works in administration and spends the day running to and fro between the office and the shop floor, distributing letters, technical drawings and the like. In both images, she is trapped: running down an endless line of cabin-type buildings with no visible goal, heading towards a white wall. And standing in front of a huge brick wall, about to open the door (and one wonders if the doors actually will open; as a side note: there is a later version with the same wall but no door). This is not an ordinary brick wall, it is a prison wall, foreshadowing Truman Burbank trying to escape from his prison.

While many of the the photographs Tuggener includes in “Fabrik” (which only came out ten years after he took these two shots), show factory workers like “The Executioner” in close-ups, he shows Berti in (very) long shots, underpinning how she is lost in this factory prison. She, one of the few women, is fragile, the men around her are sturdy and marked by physical labour. In an unpublished piece Tuggener writes about Berti (whom he calls Eva here): “She, too, is tied to the machinery of the company. But Eva is not a crankshaft, she is the carrier of life, hope, and bloom.”

The Berti photographs point far into the future, making them very much relatable for today`s viewers (and underpinning how much Tuggener was ahead of his times). Berti is no longer part of something bigger, she walks alone. She is a shining light (in a dark factory), an incarnation of life but, at the same time, trapped in a spinning hamster wheel with no way to get out.

An errand girl at Oerlikon engineering works, 1934
Facade, Oerlikon Machine Factory, 1934

Band of Brothers – The College of Swiss Photographers

In 1951, Tuggener was one of the founding members of the Kollegium Schweizerischer Photografen (College of Swiss Photographers), together with Werner Bischof, Walter Läubli, Gotthard Schuh and Paul Senn. The group came together at a time when Tuggener had some of the most successful years of his career as a photographer. In 1949, his work was part of the seminal exhibition “Photographie in der Schweiz – heute” (“Photography in Switzerland – today”) at the Gewerbemuseum in Basel and, in 1950, in Copenhagen. The same year, Camera, the leading Swiss photography magazine at the time, dedicated a complete issue to Tuggener`s work.

A few years later, in 1955, he was commissioned to shoot “Zürcher Oberland”, a book about the rural southeaster part of the canton of Zurich. This book that came out in late 1956 was only the second book Tuggener, then in his early 50s, published under his own name. And it was to be the last. Things were going downhill in the second half of the 1950s when it became much more difficult to see his work published, when magazines that had published his work before increasingly replaced documentary photography with advertising.

Untitled, Oeschgen, 1942

Paul Senn and Werner Bischof died in 1953 and 1954, respectively, which was a personal blow to Tuggener as well a blow to the Kollegium Schweizerischer Photografen. The group invited Kurt Blum, Robert Frank, René Groebeli, and Christian Staub to join, four up-and-coming Swiss photographers, the next generation after the founding fathers of the Kollegium. However, when Tuggener resigned from the group shortly after their 1955 exhibition, centrifugal forces prevailed and the group fell apart.

“Ballnächte” –Celebrating lavishness, luxury and abundance

As early as the mid-1930s, Tuggener had started shooting at balls in Zurich and at the Palace Hotel in St. Moritz where the high society met and feasted among themselves. The project grew in to a significant body of work – “Ballnächte” – and his personal favourite. He would pursue it for most of the rest of his life and dedicate several maquette to the topic.

“Ballnächte” celebrates lavishness, luxury and abundance. Women are at the center of Tuggener`s attention, they are cheerful, seductive, beautiful while their male companions are stiff, earnest, and absorbed what is probably business matters. The second group of men at the balls are hotels employees – waiters, musicians, cooks – who are almost equally visible as the male ball goers. The atmosphere is very intimate, most of the photographs are medium shots or close ups, Tuggener generously made use of cropping. Everything keeps moving so that many images are blurred, grainy, slightly out of focus – which adds to the feeling to be part of it.

Many of these characteristics come together in the photograph below: It must have been a long night, with champagne, cocktails and coffee. A woman in a white silk ballgown is getting ready to leave, another woman outside the frame is handing her a fur coat. She is obviously about to get up. But being dressed to the nines, with perfect makeup and hair, she could be just coming in and sitting down. It feels as she was stuck where she is, at a ball, in the middle of the night, that will go on and on and on. She is boxed in between the table in front of her, the fur coat to the left and two other women to the right. The strong diagonal lines and the black background underpin this impression. And still, she appears to be relaxed and engaged, her mouth half open as if she was just talking to us.

ACS Ball Grand Hotel Dolder, 1948

Tuggener tried hard to publish this body of work – in magazines, exhibitions, and as a book. Some images were published in magazines or included in exhibitions, although only occasionally. And the book never materialized. This was in part due to bad timing: while the photographs showed the world of the rich, powerful and beautiful, the world outside was a different one: Europe was heading into, going through and starting to recover from the most bloody, deadly and tragic war imaginable. Also, many of those captured refused to release the images of themselves for publication. Although Tuggener`s “Ballnächte” photographs are very documentary and non-judgemental, they considered them too compromising and behind the scenes.

Being forgotten – and re-discovered

During the 1960s and onwards until his death in 1988, Tuggener lived a very secluded and quiet life. By the time the Neue Sammlung in Munich opened an exhibition dedicated to the “Ballnächte” photographs, Tuggener was mostly forgotten. Klaus-Jürgen Sembach, curator at the Neue Sammlung, had added photography as focus of the collection that had hitherto focused on design only. He acquired one hundred ten “Ballnächte” photographs for the collection and was, through the 1969 exhibition, was instrumental in raising public awareness of Jakob Tuggener again. 

The last twenty years have seen Jakob Tuggener and his broad body of work been appreciated to the full extent. In 2000, the Kunsthaus Zurich staged a solo exhibition, providing an overview of Tuggener`s wide-ranging work. The show was curated by Martin Gasser, the then curator of the Swiss Foundation of Photography. Gasser`s catalogue of the 2000 show is also the authoritative biography of Tuggener, based on his archive that Glasser sifted through and made accessible to the public. More recently, Gasser and Gerhard Steidl cooperated to finally publish Tuggener`s maquettes.

Such exhibitions, awards, and publications based on his estate have helped to bring Tuggener back on the main stage. He stands out as one of the most important Swiss photographers whose ideals, creative ethos and artistic beliefs still resonate today.

If you want to know more

Urs Bader: Die Grossedition von Jakob Tuggener wiegt über 15 Kilo, 28 September 2018

Marcus Bunyan: exhibition: ‘jakob tuggener – machine time’ at fotostiftung schweiz, winterthur, zurich, 21 January 2018

Daniel Di Falco: Das Leben der anderen, 29 December 2015

Claudia Herzog: Jakob Tuggener – Der ewige Romantiker, 15 September 2018

Martin Gasser: Jakob Tuggener, Zürich, 2000

Fotostiftung Schweiz: Tuggener, Jakob


  • Sascha Zeitz

    Sascha Zeitz is a street photographer living, working and shooting in Zurich and Frankfurt. Photography and in particular street have been an important part of his live since early on. As a viewer, however, and it was not before 2016 that he picked up a camera for reasons others than family snapshots. He has been an avid learner ever since, starting to really pay attention and see the world around him with different eyes - colours, light, fleeting moments - and finding and developing his own voice. Street photography is Sascha`s passion (and obsession at times), his way of being himself. His recent work explores the crossroads of people, architecture and light. Sascha shoots with his Fujifilm X100V and Nikon D750, both with a 35mm focal length. He presented selected work at photo20 in Zurich.

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