Gotthard Schuh was born in Germany to Swiss parents in 1897. The Schuh family moved back to Switzerland in 1902. Gotthard had a passion for art, and by 1919 he was active as a painter. He traveled and lived in Italy and Germany before finally returning to Switzerland in 1926. It was at that time he began to work as a professional photographer. Schuh would come to be much more renowned as a photographer than as a painter. The first illustration in this article is a sketch of a young girl that Schuh created in 1922. Although it demonstrates his talent as sketch artist, Schuh’s photos are, in my opinion, superior to his drawing.
Schuh joined the staff of the Zürcher Illustrierte magazine in 1932. He also worked as a freelance photographer for other European magazines during the 1930s. Photographic assignments required him to travel throughout Europe, and in March 1938 he began an eleven-month journey through Singapore, Sumatra, Java and Bali.
Javanese Tobacco Worker is the only photo that I am sure is not from Bali in this article. The model was photographed from a low angle, giving a sense of dignity in that the viewer must look up to the model.
Balinese Girl is also photographed from a low angle. This is my favorite of the photograhs in this article. Palm tree and girl combine to make a dramatic photo.
Singapore at the time was part of the British Empire; it was an island city that was a bastion of British military power in the Far East, and was a thriving commercial center. Sumatra and Java are both large populous Islamic islands that were then ruled by the Dutch. Bali was also a Dutch territory, but it is a smaller island, less westernized and less influenced by Islam. Bali retains its pre-Islamic, pre-European traditions more than the other places Schuh visited. Balinese temple dancers are famous around the world for their graceful movement. It is not surprising that Bali was featured in so many of the Schuh photographs.
Tanzende Mädchen is the title for the next three photos. Dances are performed to please the Balinese gods. During the performance, the dancers fall into a trance and are believed to be posessed by the diety. Sanghyang Dedari is one of the most famous of the Balinese temple dances. It is performed only by prepubescent girls, preferably about eight years old.
The following three portraits of girls are typical of Schuh’s photographic style. Note that none of the models are looking directly at the camera.
The last three photographs are also of temple dancing girls. In 1937, shortly before Schuh’s visit to Bali, the documentary Trance and Dance in Bali was filmed by Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. Schuh’s photographs document the same dances, but Schuh appeared to be more interested in the artistic merit of his images.
A book of photographs from this trip Inseln der Götter (Islands of the Gods) was published in 1941. The book is Schuh’s most famous work. Gregor Krause had published a book with photographs of Bali (Bali 1912) and Inseln der Götter is in some ways similar. Krause, however, concentrated on glamour photos of adult women, while Schuh had more youthful models. Schuh died in Switzerland in 1969.