After Nature

Swiss Photography in the 19th Century
04.11.2022 – 29.01.2023

After photography was proclaimed a French invention in 1839 in Paris, the new medium quickly conquered all of Europe. Although the race for technical improvements started in the cultural centres, the heavy cameras were soon also taken to the villages and the countryside, into remote valleys and up the mountains. In Switzerland, the emerging tourism industry played a key role in the new photography trade. Not only the interest in spectacular landscapes, but also the growing demand for portraits, early industrialisation and major technical projects all contributed to the medium’s boom.

This first overview of 19th-century Swiss photography sheds light on the pioneers’ outstanding achievements, as well as on special aspects called for by society, such as early mugshot photography. It also examines interactions between visual techniques that existed at the same time, including painting and printmaking. Thanks to research in countless archives and collections all over the country, hitherto little-known visual material has been unearthed. The selection shown here takes into account not only photography’s aesthetic qualities, but also its specific uses. Almost 60 public and private lenders have contributed works from their collections to enable an overview of the first 50 years of photography in Switzerland. Many originals that were stored in scattered locations have been brought together for the first time, producing a clearer picture of individual protagonists and important interrelated themes.

The exhibition is divided into seven sections: The first two deal with the emergence of a completely new medium: How was photography able to establish itself in relation to conventional visual techniques? In what period were images fixed on coated sheets of copper? When and where were prints made on paper? The other five sections are about the influence of tourism, the importance of portrait photography, commercial aspects, artistic approaches and the representation of progress. Many of the exhibits are extremely fragile objects that can only be displayed in dim light, for preservation reasons.

A co-production realised by Fotostiftung Schweiz, Museo d‘arte della Svizzera italiana (MASI, Lugano) and Photo Elysée (Lausanne).