Switzerland’s former national airline Swissair might have been once world renowned for its high standards of service and customer relations, but one might not have known that photography was a driving passion of its co-founder Walther Mittelholzer and the main reason that led him into civil aviation in the first place. After enrolling in the Air Force during World War I, Mittelholzer learned to fly and make aerial photographs — simultaneously wanting a ‘bird’s eye view’ of the world.
These images that he sold proved at first to be even more of a commercial success than his first airline. Based in Zurich, Ad Astra Aero AG was founded in 1919 to fly tourists over the Alps. When Ad Astra Aero AG merged with Belair to form Swissair in 1931, Mittelholzer and his co-director Balz Zimmermann continued a strong photography wing of their company to help market the airline and increase the popularity of Swiss civil aviation.
The recent publication, Swissair Souvenirs, from the ETH Bibliothek and publisher Scheidegger & Speiss, showcases a number of these photographs that chart the life and image of Swissair’s global brand. Swissair Photo AG, the subsidiary photography firm, with 15 employees, produced thousands of images which were used in photo books, postcards and enlargements. On a larger scale, they systematically documented Switzerland’s countryside and cities, providing important topographic information for the building of roadways, power plants and other major infrastructure. It's parent company, Swissair, had its own photographers, apart from Swiss Photo AG, for the more slick style seen in its advertisements, brochures, posters, the legendary Swissair calendar and the on-board magazine Swissair Gazette.
The range of photographs dating from 1910 to 2001 is stunning. When Swissair declared bankruptcy in October of 2001, the company’s photographic archive was saved from the assets by The Foundation Luftbild Schwiez and became the property of the ETH Bibliothek in Zurich where it is now in the process of being digitized. Swissair Souvenirs makes up but a couple hundred among the hundreds of thousands of images yet clearly suggests not only the technical developments of civil aviation but how the experience of flying and its professions shifted into the modern era. Flight attendants modeling modern uniforms, check-in counters, and close-up shots of a variety of pralines from the dining menu are interspersed with training images of ditching procedures, images of crashed aircraft details, employees planning air routes and studying weather maps, and mechanics attending to and maintaining equipment. The strong affiliation and pride between Swissair and the citizenry of Switzerland was partly due to how popular the airline became in the global aviation market compared to the diminutive size of the country — which is why its demise is considered one the of the worst debacles in Swiss economic history. The profitable company once referred to as the “flying bank” slid from its global heights after poor corporate management, increased competition and limiting referendums on their services to the newly formed European Economic Area. Its seventy-year life receives a well-deserved remembrance with this extensive online archive and fascinating book.
More information about the ETH Bibliothek Swissair Archive can be found here.
Jeffrey Ladd is a photographer, writer, editor and founder of Errata Editions.