An avant-garde photographer and a documentary filmmaker at Walt Disney’s, Ernst A. Heiniger has fallen into obscurity. Mounting a major retrospective, the Swiss Photo Foundation in Winterthur is paying tribute to the artist.
Retoucher, photographer, graphic designer, cameraman, film director, Ernst A. Heiniger succeeded at every kind of camera-generated image-making. Throughout his career, from the 1930s to the 1980s, thousands, if not millions of people got to know his pictures. And you may have, too, especially if you visited the Swiss Museum of Transport in Lucerne between 1984 and 2002, where you would have seen his Circle-Vision 360° film Impressionen der Schweiz [Impressions of Switzerland], which was projected on a loop.
His unusual life journey began in 1929. Aged twenty, Ernst A. Heiniger set up shop as a retoucher. That same year he saw “Film und Foto” in Zurich, an international touring exhibition that brought to light a photographic avant-garde characterized by crisp images, bird’s-eye and low-angle perspectives, both unusual at the time, as well as abstract closeups and multiple exposures. Deeply influenced by what he saw, Ernst A. Heiniger was no longer content to simply improve on other people’s pictures and started taking his own photographs. Talented, and a perfectionist to boot, he helped pioneer New Photography in Switzerland.
Heiniger’s interests quickly expanded to graphic design, and he collaborated with some great figures in the field. The pairing of graphic design and photography gradually led him to publish photo books. In 1936–37, he published Puszta-Pferde [Puszta Horses] which brings together images from a long reportage on wild horses in Hungary. It was one of the first modern photo books in Switzerland and a publishing success with a print run of some 23,000 copies.
Heiniger’s photographic practice, combined with retouching, graphic design, and publishing opened the doors to advertising and communication. He participated in major advertising campaigns including the Swiss Telecom’s democratization of the telephone. It was in this context that, in 1942, Heiniger shot his first short films. Ten years later, Switzerland organized a world photography exhibition. Ernst A. Heiniger and his still and moving images were ubiquitous. He thus caught the eye of one Walt Disney. The latter hired Heiniger as a cameraman for a short documentary about Switzerland, part of the “People & Places” series of “infotainment” shorts shown before Disney feature films in American movie theaters.
This was the beginning of a long collaboration that took the Swiss artist to the four corners of the world and culminated in 1959, when two short films shot by Ernst A. Heiniger, Ama Girls and Grand Canyon, won an Oscar. These two shorts are featured in the exhibition, alongside other films and numerous photos, posters, books, and working documents from the collection that the Photo Foundation was able to bring back to Switzerland in 2014. Almost thirty years after the death of Ernst A. Heiniger’s death in 1993, the Swiss institution intends to restore him to his rightful place in the collective memory: that of a pioneer of the image.
By Laure Etienne
Laure Etienne is a Paris-based journalist and former member of the editorial team at Polka and ARTE.
“Ernst A. Heiniger: Good Morning, World!”, until October 10, 2021, Fotostiftung, Winterthur.
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