René Groebli (born October 9, 1927 in Zurich) is an exhibiting and published Swiss industrial and advertising photographer, expert in dye transfer and colour lithography. He grew up in the Enge district of the city of Zurich, where he attended the Langzeitgymnasium. After two years, he moved to the Oberrealschule, a science-oriented grammar school, but broke off this education after two years to begin an apprenticeship as a photographer with Theo Vonow in Zurich in 1944. When his teacher moved back to Graubünden, Groebli entered the preparatory course of the Zurich School of Applied Arts, attending from the spring of 1945. Subsequently, he enrolled in the renowned professional class for photography under the direction of Hans Finsler and Alfred Willimann until the summer of 1946. Amongst his fellow students were Ernst Scheidegger and Anita Nietz.
In September 1946 Groebli began training as a documentary cameraman at Central Film and Gloria Film Zürich, graduating in late 1948 with a diploma, though he did not subsequently practice as a cinematographer. In 1947 he won third prize in a competition run by the monthly magazine Camera with his series Karussell. Freelancing for Victor-N. Cohen agency in Zurich, in 1948 Groebli made his first trip to Paris and in 1949 bought his first Leica
From 1949 Groebli worked as a photojournalist and carried out assignments for the Züri-Woche, and later in Africa and the Middle East for the London agency Black Star. The pictures were published in the magazines Life
and Picture Post. His first small folio Magie der Schiene ('Rail magic')
comprising 16 photographs (with front and back cover) was also shot in 1949 and self-published later the same year. It captures the ‘magic’ of steam train travel during the late 1940s. Despite being young and relatively unknown, Groebli was able to borrow enough money to finance the high-quality printing. Technically it is a portfolio rather than a book, with pages unbound and laid in loose, inspired by the Man Ray
and Paul Éluard publication FACILE
(1935) which he purchased on his first trip to Paris in 1948. Photographed with a Rolleiflex
6×6 and a Leica
35mm camera in and around Paris, as well as locations in Switzerland, the often motion-blurred and grainy images convey the energy of steam. An obi-band with German text was produced for the approximately 30 to 40 original preorders, and other copies sold without. He held his first solo exhibition with photographs from the book. He spent three months in Paris where he met Brassaï
and Robert Frank
and spent a month in London.
On October 13, 1951 he and Rita Dürmüller (1923-2013) were married. A second slim picture book Das Auge der Liebe ('The Eye of Love')
, self-published in 1954 through his business “Turnus”, was created in collaboration with his wife Rita Groebli. This small book, though respected for its design and photography, caused some controversy, but also brought Groebli attention. It was assembled from shots made on the belated honeymoon that the photographer and his wife Rita took over two weeks in Paris in 1952 and in the following year for a few days to Marseille, though publication of the photographs was not planned in 1953 Groebli sequenced it for a book, introducing a blank page to stand in for daytime in its chronology. In the Swiss Photorundschau, published by the Swiss Photographic Association, the editor Hermann König traded correspondence with a specialist teacher of the School of Applied Arts where the book had been passed around and argued over, the term "love" in the title being considered by students to be too sentimental given the obvious sexual connotations. Where the photographer’s intention was for a romantic effect, the editor admitted that the narrative was sexualized. In the leading periodical Neue Zürcher Zeitunghe, editor Edwin Arnet objected to the emphasis on nudity. Groebli sequenced his photographs to tell the story of a woman meeting a man in a cheap hotel. The last photograph shows the woman's hand with a wedding ring on her ring finger holding an almost finished post-coitus cigarette. In the perception of audiences of the era, the implication was that the woman had to be either an ‘easy woman’, a prostitute, or an unfaithful wife. However the U.S. Camera Annual review of the work in 1955 pronounced it "a tender photo-essay on a photographer’s love for a woman.”
After the death of photojournalist Paul Senn in 1953 and the killing of Werner Bischof
in Peru in 1954, Kurt Blum
, Robert Frank
and René Groebli were newly admitted to the Kollegium Schweizerischer Photographen. A major exhibition organized by the 'Kollegium' in 1955 convinced critics that a new "Swiss style"
that was indeed moving towards Photography as Expression as the exhibition was titled, and the end of critical (later dubbed 'concerned') photography. However, the association was soon disbanded because of disagreements between Gotthard Schuh and Jakob Tuggener, and Groebli had by then relinquished photojournalism.
In the same year, and with four other Swiss photographers, Werner Bischof
, Robert Frank
, Gotthard Schuh
and Sabine Weiss
, René Groebli was represented with a picture in the exhibition The Family of Man
curated by Edward Steichen
for the Museum of Modern Art
in New York. His available-light photo shows a tight crowd of excited, dancing teenagers, their movement blurred in the style of Magie der Schiene
Groebli launched his own studio for commercial industrial and advertising photography in 1955 in the newly built residential and studio building in Zurich-Wollishofen. At the end of the 1950s, Groebli also had his home and studio converted and enlarged and in addition to two studios and two black and white labs, a dye transfer workshop with several laboratory workstations was added. In 1963 Groebli founded the limited partnership Groebli + Guler with lithographer Walter Guler, renamed 'Fotolithos' in 1968. The workplace in Zurich-Wollishofen was equipped with the latest and best technical facilities and through the 1960s and early 1970s the business employed a staff of up to twelve, with good profits made from servicing the advertising photography industry.
After ten years producing specialist colour photography, dye transfer production and colour lithographs for commercial advertising and industrial photography, in 1965 Groebli published his third photo book Variation
through Arthur Niggli Verlag, Teufen. It presented a retrospective of possibilities of Groebli’s colour photography, though with scant mention of the role of his many employees and business partners. In 1971 he issued a second edition Variation 2
, with updated information on colour technology including Cibachrome.
By the late 1970s, with the more widespread adoption and acceptance of chromogenic methods of colour production less technically demanding and cheaper than dye transfer, Groebli ceased commercial photography and colour production, sold his home and studio and retired, though he still maintained connections with the industry and presented a paper on dye transfer at the 1977 Rencontres d'Arles
. Groebli returned to making personal photographic essays in colour and in black and white, in series titled Fantasies
, The Shell
, Burned Trees
, N. Y. Visions
, New York Melancholia
. Over the decades of the turn of the century, he worked on his image archive and digitized the most important photographs that he had taken over a career of sixty years. Groebli currently resides in Switzerland.