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Theo Frey
Swiss reportage photography

Along with photographers such as Hans Staub, Gotthard Schuh or Paul Senn, Theo Frey (1908 -1997) is among the classic photographers of Swiss reportage photography. His oeuvre is, however, less well known than those of this first, somewhat older, generation of photoreporters. This is partly because it has hitherto been insufficiently accessible, and it is probably also partly connected with Frey‘s unpretentious style: his carefully composed, objective reportages are less dependent on fleeting and dramatic photographs than on his unfailingly eye for the inconspicuous – for everyday life that makes people what they are. Theo Frey endowed his photographs with social commitment and a deep sympathy with the lives of ordinary people. His main work originated in the late 1930s and 40s and is primarily dedicated to rural life in Switzerland. From the 1950s on, he worked mainly for charitable institutions, and his role as a reportage photographer faded into the background.
When Theo Frey introduced a balance of his work in his book Rückblende. Fünfzig Jahre Bildberichte in 1989, he presented an image of a photographer whose main concern was the creation of contemporary historical documents. Today, a decade after his death, it would seem to be time to relativise this self-presentation. For although photojournalism – he worked for the Zürcher Illustrierte, the Föhn, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and numerous smaller family magazines – provided him with a living, he early on sought commissions that enabled him to escape from current events. In 1938/39 he realised a large-scale project for the Swiss National Exhibition – a series of portraits of 12 communities that demonstrated Switzerland‘s cultural diversity. At the beginning of World War II, Frey was co-responsible for the creation of a "Photography Detachment" as one of Switzerland‘s first official army photographers, and it was in connection with engagements of this kind, which later also included a long-term commission for the Swiss Mountain Aid, that he developed his specific documentary style.
From today‘s point of view, it is the "unjournalistic" and somewhat austere images that capture the attention, images created in calm and concentrated observation of the world, full of the traces and signs that tell, undramatically, of the passage of time. The sensitivity with which Frey composed his works is particularly evident in his still lifes and interiors: photographs of lovingly decorated living room walls or coincidentally arranged kitchen utensils give an inkling of tribulation and want, but also of the hopes and dreams of the people connected with them.
Theo Frey never described his work as art; his social and political conscience made him sceptical of purely formal and aesthetic games. But he knew very well that his "documents" owed their power and significance to incisive creative design. "Although I was always first and foremost a documentarist, I was a documentarist who, whenever possible, approached things from the aesthetic side."
Theo Frey‘s photographic estate contains over 100,000 negatives (6x6 and 35mm) 3,500 contact sheets, 21 books of stuck-in reportages, thousands of working copies and hundreds of press and exhibition prints. Frey‘s archive was acquired by the Federal Office for Culture for the Swiss Confederation in 1989 and in 2006 it was given as a permanent loan to the Fotostiftung Schweiz. At the same time, Theo Frey‘s heirs donated further important material from his estate to the Fotostiftung.
During the past two years, Frey‘s oeuvre was systematically catalogued by Sabine Münzenmaier thanks to support from the Federal Office for Culture. The exhibition organised to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the photographer‘s birth (14 February 2008) presents the fruits of this work. In addition to the well-known photos of mountain farmers and their families and the legendary "Rütli Report" from 25 July 1940, the exhibition comprises numerous previously unpublished pictures that are thoroughly on a par with Frey‘s "icons", including photographs commissioned by the army between 1940 and 1945, which are now kept in the Swiss Federal Archives in Bern. One of the exhibition‘s special attractions consists of numerous sheets of cardboard bearing small format contact prints that enabled Frey to gain an overview of the huge archive and which provide a profound and authentic insight into his views of the world and his competence in terms of design.
Peter Pfrunder
With the generous support of KEYSTONE
Publication accompanying the exhibition:
Peter Pfrunder (ed.): Theo Frey, Fotografien. With texts (in german) by Theo Frey, Martin Gasser, Klaus Merz, Sabine Münzenmaier and Peter Pfrunder. Limmat Verlag, Zurich 2008. 240 pages, approx. 200 ills. CHF 68.-, Euro 42.- 



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