In Switzerland, flying and photography have long been partners in crime. Commercial photography was integral to the business of the country’s national airline, Swissair (which went bankrupt in 2002). In the 1920s, Walter Mittelholzer, a Swiss photographer and aviation pioneer who founded one of Swissair’s predecessors, discovered aerial photography to be a more stable source of income than passenger flights (at that time, in the early decades of the 20th century, a luxury reserved for the very wealthy).
Swissair Aerial Photographs, a new book examining the airline’s expansive archive of images, pulls from 135,000 aerial photographs of landscapes, towns, mountains, and industry in Switzerland taken by Swissair photographers between 1918 and 1999. Mittelholzer, who published several bestselling books of aerial photography before his death in a mountaineering accident in 1937, was the founding photographer behind Swissair’s photo service, and the airline’s archives contain some 18,000 negatives of his work. These images, as well as images taken by Mittelholzer’s successors, were sold for use in brochures, as posters, for surveying purposes, and more.
The photography featured serves as a bird’s-eye view of a period of great change for Europe. From the book’s introduction:
Going through the material, what is most striking is how forcefully and vividly these images convey the extent to which Switzerland’s landscapes, towns, and villages have changed over the past century, in the course of which the face of the country has been transformed more radically than ever before in its entire history. This makes the Swissair photographs bearers of the collective memory and hence an exceptionally valuable part of the country’s cultural heritage that deserves to be more widely known.
Over the years, in addition to picturesque mountains and pristine rural valleys, Mittelholzer and other aerial photographers captured the changing landscape of post-war industrialization–the rise of suburbs and urban sprawl, the construction of highways and infrastructure and factories–and the decline of farming and reshaping of forests and wilderness. As a collection, they tell a larger story of development and environmental change, predating the existence of extensive high-resolution satellite imagery of Earth from above. See our slide show for more.
Get the book here for $65.