The exhibition Vertical No Limit. Mountain Photography, the first of its kind, is based on the premise that photography invented the mountain landscape by revealing it to the eyes of the world. Photography is heir to a certain idea of the mountains and of the sublime, closely linked to romanticism. Until the 19th century, the mountain was considered to be ‘God’s Country,’ a cursed and surreal place, inaccessible to man. The pioneers of mountain photography made it possible to discover summits that had not yet been conquered and to transform the mountain into landscapes.
With almost 300 prints on view, three quarters of which are from the Musée de l’Elysée’s collection, the museum gives pride of place to images from every period, including many contemporary works. Among the works exhibited here, there are works by Gabriel Lippmann, Francis Frith, Adolphe Braun, Jules Beck, William Donkin, Emile Gos, and René Burri, as well as by contemporary photographers such as Peter Knapp, Balthasar Burkhard, Mathieu Gafsou, Pierre Vallet, Jacques Pugin, Maurice Schobinger, and Iris Hutegger.
The exhibition is organised around four approaches on the theme of mountain photography: 1) Scientific photography with its many prints of glaciers that made the study of rocks and the visual documentation of geology possible; 2) Travel photography, which facilitated the sale of hundreds of prints to tourists as of the 1860s; 3) Mountaineering photography, revealing inaccessible mountain landscapes, and finally 4) Fine-art photography. These four approaches come together as the visitor moves through the exhibition. “The farther we are removed from the circumstances in which a photograph was taken, the more differently we interpret it,” explains curator Daniel Girardin, who has been assisted by Emilie Delcambre and Maéva Besse in the realisation of this exhibition. The exhibition illustrates the formal strategies used by photographers to present the mountain: frontality, verticality, horizontality, aerial views, and distance. It shows the forms imposed by the mountain such as the cone, as well as the details of the matter of which it is composed. It also highlights the technical processes used by photographers: the large formats of the 19th century, panoramas and the very big digital formats used today.
List of the 96 photographers
The photographers presented in the exhibition are: Aurore Bagarry (1982); Howard Barrett (alive around 1880-1890); Guido Baselgia (1953); Heinrich Bauer (1883-1960); Jules Beck (1825-1904); Beringer & Pampaluchi (alive around 1940-1950); Hélène Binet (1959); Louis-Auguste (1814-1876) and Auguste-Rosalie Bisson (1826-1900); Fred Boissonnas (1858-1946); Jakob Bosshard (alive around 1920-1930); Thomas Bouvier (1962); Adolphe Braun (1812-1877); Hans Brun (1874-1946); Friedrich Buehler-Rist (alive around 1920-1930); Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010); Marion Burnier (1982); René Burri (1933-2014); Emile Busset (1861-1931); Alain Ceccaroli (1945); Charles (1852-1937), Auguste (1862-1930), Georges (1864-1939) and Marie Charnaux (1854-1932); Luc Chessex (1936); Olivier Christinat (1963); Nicolas Crispini (1961); Thibaut Cuisset (1958); Yvan Dalain (1927-2007); Gustave Dardel (1824-1899); Gaston De Jongh (1888-1973); Marie-Jésus Diaz (1944); William Frederick Donkin (1845-1888); Gertrud Dübi-Müller (1888-1980); James Eccles (1838-1915); Oscar Eckenstein (1858-1921); William England (1830-1896); Leo Fabrizio (1976); Thomas Flechtner (1961); Franco Fontana (1933); Francis Frith (1822-1898); Arthur Gabler (?-1899); Mathieu Gafsou (1981); Auguste Garcin (1816-1879); Roland Gay-Couttet (1925-2002); Philippe Giegel (1927-1997); Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey (1804-1892); Emile Gos (1888-1969); Yann Gross (1981); Elisabeth Hawkins-Witshed (1860-1934); Ern A. Heiniger (1909-1993); L. Held (alive around 1890-1900); René Henry (1905-2000); Iris Hutegger (1964); Axel Hütte (1951); Jean-Pascal Imsand (1960-1994); Marcel Imsand (1929); Stefan Jasienski (1899-1990); John Jullien (1818-1887); Charles Kern (1905-1986); Peter Knapp (1931); Louis Kurz (1854-1942); Gabriel Lippmann (1845-1921); Gabriel Loppé (1825-1913); Maurice Lugeon (1870-1953); Emile Lüscher (alive around 1928-1942); Von Friedrich Martens (1806-1885); François Mechain (1948); Domenic Mischol (1873-1934); Etienne(1832-1918) and Louis-Antonin Neurdein (1846-1914); Emil Nicola-Karlen (1840-1898); Gustave Oddoux (alive around 1900-1910); Jean Otth (1940-2013); Nicolas Oulianoff (1881-1977); Andreas Pedrett (1892-1977); James Perret (1877-1959); Jacques Pugin (1954); P.Z. (Photoglob Zürich); André Roch (1906-2002); François Schaer (1967); Rodolphe Schlemmer (1878-1972); Maurice Schobinger (1960); Schroeder & Co.; Vittorio Sella (1859-1943); Michel Séméniako (1944); Ruedi Senn (1939); Charles Soulier (1840-1876); Albert Steiner (1877-1965); Annelies Strba (1947); Hans Steiner (1907-1962); Marga Steinmann (alive around 1930-1947); H. Y. Summons (alive around 1920-1930); Georges I Tairraz (1868-1924); Geirges II Tairraz (1900-1975); Pierre Vallet (1953); Paul Vionnet (1830-1914); Corinne Vionnet (1969); Bruno(1867-1927), Harry (1869-1906), and Arthur Wehrli (1876-1915); Anton Winterlin (1805-1894); Eugène Würgler (1880-1945).
Interview with Daniel Girardin, chief curator of the museum and curator of the exhibition
According to your research, when did the interest in the mountains first appear?
Daniel Girardin: The interest in the mountain – its invention – took place in ages during the Age of Enlightenment and at the beginning of the 19th century. The first expressions were literary. Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777) wrote Die Alpen in 1729, a highly successful epic poem, considering that thirty editions were printed during the author’s lifetime alone. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), in La Nouvelle Héloïse that he published in 1761, formalised the elements that constitute a “beautiful landscape” in a pre-Romantic vision of medium-altitude mountains and the idealised way of life of their inhabitants. He initiated an “Alpine” trend that continued to develop with tourism, a term that first appeared in 1841, followed by the practice of “alpinism,” a concept that did not appear until 1876.
In the 19th century, what were the difficulties for the pioneers to photograph the mountain?
Daniel Girardin: From the very beginning, photographing the mountains represented a major artistic and aesthetic challenge, in addition to the enormous technical difficulties involved in taking pictures. The equipment was heavy and fragile, and the light extremely intense for the very long exposure times, a phenomenon exacerbated by the snow. In the 1850s, photographers who used the wet collodion process had to bring their mobile laboratories with them in order to develop their images on the spot. Auguste Rosalie Bisson was reported to have carried some 250 kilos of equipment with him! There were real expeditions that required a high degree of organisation and that were necessarily very expensive.
More than three-quarters of the prints on view come from the collections of the Musée de l’Elysée. How did you create such a body of work over the years?
Daniel Girardin: We do indeed have an impressive collection of mountain photographs, almost 4,000 prints. Part of them belonged to the Iconographic Collection of the Canton of Vaud, which was entrusted to the Musée de l’Elysée upon its creation as a photography museum in 1985. As of 1986, we began to purchase major collections, notably all of the original prints that Francis Frith made in Switzerland between 1865 and 1875, a total of some 600 prints. Our collections also include all of the works commissioned by the museum for the 700th anniversary of the Swiss Confederation in 1991, representing several hundred prints and including works by Jean Otth, Michel Séméniako, Alain Ceccaroli, Luc Chessex, and Nicolas Faure. Likewise, the revival of mountain photography with the advent of digital technology led us to buy contemporary works, which are very present in the exhibition, as witnessed by the highly unique creations of Jacques Pugin, Maurice Schobinger, Annelies Strba, Thomas Bouvier, Aurore Bagarry, Mathieu Gafsou, Léo Fabrizio, and Pierre Vallet, among others.
What is the specificity of contemporary mountain photography compared to the past?
Daniel Girardin: Today’s photographers are more concerned with an artistic point of view, that is, a particularly aesthetic vision. There is always a clear intention to give meaning to images, either in relation to the history of photography itself, or by taking advantage of all of the creative possibilities offered by digital photography, particularly in the printing of images. To a large extent, contemporary creation has much in common with the concerns of the first photographers, concerns that can be easily bypassed today.
– All content courtesy of Musée de l’Elysée. Used here by kind permission.