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Unique photos of a picturesque Switzerland

In the 19th century, when tourist travel across the Atlantic was not yet a mass phenomenon, stereophotography allowed interested Americans to experience Switzerland in three dimensions. A new illustrated book published by "Christoph Merian Verlag" presents this fascinating technique using historical photographs.

Translation of the review of the book "Stereographic Switzerland" published on the Swiss website by Peter Schibli on 10/29/2021

Coloured photograph of the Lake of Uri near Flüelen (Uri), circa 1908, American Stereoscopic Co. All photos not specially marked: © Swiss National Museum.

Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, the Matterhorn, the upper Grindelwald glacier, the Tamina Gorge in Bad Ragaz, Basel's market square, the Quai Bridge in Zurich, the Lion Monument in Lucerne.... Until fifty years ago, trips to Switzerland across the Atlantic were reserved only for wealthy Americans or military personnel. Ordinary people, if they were interested in Europe at all, only got to know the Bernese Oberland, the Grisons, the Valais or the picturesque Swiss towns thanks to photos.

The Bernese Zeitglockentrum circa 1896, "Underwood & Underwood".

The first impressions of the Alpine republic had reached overseas at the beginning of the 19th century by means of compositions such as "March of the Swiss Soldiers", the overture to "William Tell" or the shepherd's melody "Ranz des Vaches". Tales by the travel writer James Boswell, the poet William Wordsworth or the British Lord Byron ("The Prisoners of Chillion") ensured a growing interest in the idyllic landscapes, mountains and towns.

Chillon Castle on Lake Geneva, circa 1901. "Underwood & Underwood".

From 1839 onwards, various US companies specialising in heliography developed stereoscopy, a photographic technique whereby photographs are viewed through a kind of binocular, creating a three-dimensional effect. In the second half of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century, whole armies of photographers travelled all over Europe and Switzerland. They delivered hundreds of thousands of breathtaking photographs with picturesque motifs: groups in traditional costume, craftsmen, children, street scenes, castles, churches, town houses, famous four-thousand-metre peaks, even the Bern "Zibelemärit" were immortalised photographically and printed stereoscopically on cards. Among the best known are the "Boxed Sets" of the company "Underwood & Underwood", which went on sale from 1897.

The Matterhorn photographed from Riffelberg, circa 1901. Gelatin silver print notched for the Whiting View Company's 'Sculptoscope'. Negative licensed from Keystone View Company.

In the warmth of the living room on this side and the other side of the Atlantic, one enjoyed the idyllic scenes, the curious costumes, the mighty mountains and glaciers. The majority of the shots showed a rural, traditional Switzerland as well as the life of the Swiss people, marked by poverty and natural hazards. Like Albrecht von Haller's poem "The Alps", the stereographic photographs aroused the interest of first the British and later the Americans for tourist trips to the Alpine republic. The triumphal march of stereophotography and the incipient international tourism ended abruptly with the beginning of the First World War and the Great Depression.

Prof. Donald Tritt. (Photo private)

The American-Swiss Donald Tritt, whose grandfather Joseph Gustav Tritt had emigrated from the Simmental to Ohio in 1866, began collecting stereophotographs with views of Switzerland in the 1970s. The professor of clinical psychology was interested in the country of his ancestors. He wanted to know what Switzerland had looked like in the 19th century, when his grandfather had emigrated to the USA. In 1975, a meeting of the "National Stereoscopic-Association" took place near Columbus (Ohio), where Donald Tritt acquired "Boxed Sets" with 100 valuable recordings of the company "Unterwood & Underwood". Further purchases followed in the next few years.

The 'Holmes' stereoscope of "Underwood & Underwood" (New York et al.), 1911.

When Tritt's collection reached a critical size, he began to think about a suitable place to store it. In 2008, the "Swiss Center of North America" was founded in New Glarus (Wisconsin) for this purpose. The institution is intended not only as an archive for Swiss cultural property, but also as a place for genealogical research as well as lively cultural exchange. In 2012, Tritt decided to donate his photo collection and an old stereoscope to the Swiss Center.

There, the photos were stored in the archive basement until they were discovered by Jarryd Lowder in 2017. Together with Center Director Beth Zurbuchen, the US photographer developed the idea of publishing the best photos in an illustrated book. The Swiss National Museum in Zurich (the former National Museum) expressed interest in purchasing the important collection. Those responsible for the "Swiss Center" agreed to do so. In February 2020, the stereographic photographs were transferred from the USA to Switzerland. The Swiss National Museum then mounted an exhibition entitled "Stereomania" from 23 July to 17 October 2021.

Jarryd Lowder and Beth Zurbuchen at the opening of the exhibition at the Swiss National Museum. Photo: Peter Schibli

The book "Stereographic Switzerland", recently published by Christoph Merian Verlag, provides an excellent insight into the unique stereo image collection of the Swiss-American Tritt. The fascinating technique from the early days of photography is described in detail, comparable to today's "augmented reality".

The volume contains exceptional, never shown historical photos from Switzerland in the 19th century. Thanks to an enclosed pair of stereo glasses, the plastic 3D effect can also be experienced.

The "Boxed Set Switzerland" with 100 stereo photographs by L.C. Skeels, Stereo-Travel Co. / Keystone View Co.

In a separate contribution, the curator of the Zurich exhibition, Aaron Estermann, describes the significance of 3D photography for Switzerland: "As the first photographic mass medium, stereophotography played a key role. Its widespread distribution codified Swiss stereotypes. By marketing it as mental travel, it was not only a substitute but also an incentive and advertisement for physical travel." The foreword to the illustrated book is by the current Swiss Ambassador to the United States, Jacques Pitteloud.

"Stereographic Switzerland", Jarryd Lowder (ed.) 2021, Merian Verlag, 184 pages, 164 partly color illustrations, with stereo glasses, German/English

ISBN 978-3-85616-960-2.

Publication date mid-November 2021

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