“Swissair Souvenirs. The Swissair Photo Archive” – while the title may be 100% correct in its content, it is at least a little misleading. That is say, you don’t need to be Swiss or an aviation fanatic to enjoy this book and get something out of reading it; though it of course doesn’t hurt if you do happen to be one of the two. For the book is exemplary in its presentation of the potential of the photography medium and its documentary, narrative and aesthetic qualities, still often so underestimated even today. Anyone who is able to warm up to themes such as economic, corporate, technology, social, design, architecture and fashion history will be met with a feast for the eyes when they open this book. Adding an additional facet, the volume also highlights the somewhat arcane truth that the history of photography and that of civil aviation are in fact inextricably linked.

Swiss aviation pioneer and co-founder of Swissair, Walter Mittelholzer, was originally a photographer. He discovered his interest in aviation after deciding he wanted to shot photographs from the air. Many are amazed when they found out that the core business at “Ad Astra Aero AG”, the airline he operated in the 1920s (which merged with Basel-based “Balair” to create “Swissair” in 1931), was not passenger traffic at all but sales of aerial photographs. In 1931, he even established a subsidiary “Swiss Photo AG” to assume all aerial photography business; this remained part of the company until 1997. There was, by the way, a corresponding business unit at Germany’s national carrier Lufthansa – to give just one other example.

The photographic collection at Swissair, a company that is revered in its homeland as a flying symbol of the nation and up until its “grounding” in 2001 was considered one of the most prestigious airlines in the world, comprises approx. 290,000 images in total. Around 11,000 of them come under the category of aerial photography. The actual Swissair Archive contains around 180,000 pictures. Chronologically, the collection spans from the adventurous beginnings of civil aviation in the 1910s, via the Golden Age of Aviation in the post-War years to the rise of mass aviation and major international airports at the end of the 20th century. Following the airline’s insolvency, the photographs ended up in the photo archive at the ETH Library in Zurich, where they have been archived and specially processed since 2009. The team here aims to have around 35,000 photographs digitalized, documented, and published online by 2013.

Almost 300 images were selected from this precious treasure chest of company history for the “Swiss Souvenirs” book. Together they document the history of the company and indeed of aviation in general in all its conceivable facets. This takes off with the different models of planes used by Swissair over the decades, some airborne with breathtaking backdrops such as the New York skyline or the Alps, some on the ground. The book continues with the airports, whose development reflects the history of civil aviation itself. We are shown waiting lounges and check-in areas, duty-free stores, hangars and workshops, restaurants as well as groups of Sunday day-trippers that once flocked to airports en masse like pilgrims. Of course, they haven’t forgotten the images of stewards and stewardesses, who have shaped the image of respective airlines since day one. Here you see them in their uniforms, how they change over the years, in the cabin, providing in-flight service, during training and emergency drills.

Glimpses behind the scenes also provide incredibly exciting insights: in the offices of corporate management, the reservations and data processing centers, the in-house laundry, the company canteen, and the lost and found office. You see the technicians at work inspecting the aircraft, the mechanics doing maintenance work on the turbines, the pilots in the cockpit and during internal training sessions, even the cleaners working away in the terminal. The book also highlights the role of the baggage handlers, loading and unloading the aircraft as well as the technical and logistical side of things, which not least includes the many emergency vehicles, fire engines and Swissair shuttle buses at the airports. And while images of sumptuous Swissair pralines or an appetizingly arranged Swissair children’s meal brings back rather pleasant memories, images of crash landings and accidents remind us of the more risky side of air travel.

The photographs are preceded by a short, introductory essay, recapping the history of Swissair and illuminating the special significance of the photo archive in relation to both social developments and the history of photography. Here the author Ruedi Weidmann emphasizes that it is the numerous photographs, which document ordinary, day-to-day business for Swissair staff and everyday life at the airport, that makes this fund of images so unique; and he is quite right on this point. For it is thanks to the sheer simplicity and unpretentious directness of these photographs, which were clearly intended for internal use only, that they evidence such a high measure of authenticity and thus succeed in mesmerizing the present-day reader.

Each complete with the archive number and a brief image caption (in places one might have wished for a little more background information), the photos in “Swissair Souvenirs” aren’t shown in chronological order. Rather, and to the book’s benefit, the editors decided to order them according to their content and formal qualities. The designers at Büro Hi based in the Swiss city of Lucerne also contributed a great deal to the high quality of this volume. They have created an unspectacular yet extremely fine and suggestive photographic composition from these images, which effortlessly succeeds in maintaining the suspense for over 200 pages. And that is an achievement in itself.

Swissair Souvenirs. The Swissair Photo Archive
Ruedi Weidmann. Edited by Michael Gasser and Nicole Graf
192 pages, 90 color & 198 b/w illustrations
Text in German and English
Publisher Scheidegger & Spiess, Zurich, 2012
EUR 58

A kaleidoscope of aviation
by Mathias Remmele
May 24, 2013
A Boeing 747-257 B (Jumbo) in the painting which was used from 1971 until 1980 in Zurich-Kloten. Photo © ETH-Bibliothek