In his postface, Teju Cole notes that Switzerland has been the subject of photography from the dawn of the medium. The photographer must therefore redouble his inventiveness and keep in mind preexisting images in order to portray this world in a fresh new way. And this is precisely what Teju Cole has accomplished while treading in the footsteps of Italian photographers of the 1970s, such as Luigi Ghirri and Guido Guidi who specialized in identifying the characteristics of a region even as they gave it a contemporary flavor.
Like his predecessors, Teju Cole likes to picture a world within a world: a painted landscape within a real one, a map within the territory. His book opens with just such a mise-en-abime: a photographic print of an Alpine mountain range pinned to a wall with a thumbtack. This is an invitation to a voyage of sorts, to his own voyage, his personal escapade into the Alpine territory. He recalls “many afternoons of drift and solitude, in cities, in villages, or ferries, on hiking paths, in the landscape, and in mountains.”
The mountains are the subject of fascination in Cole’s book. They are everywhere, shaping the territory and lending it its specific character. Here we see houses constructed as if in response to the immensity of the landscape, over there terraces overlooking deep valleys, streets climbing up or descending precipitously… Teju Cole relishes in capturing the mountains’ embodied presence, their outline repeatedly reproduced in images of cities or in scale models.
He thus highlights human-made structures which, faced with the awesome power of the Alps, seem like flimsy frames, meager, laughable little things: for instance, the orange safety mesh meant to protect roads from falling rocks; or cable cars running on thin wires that seem tethered to the sky… These are products of the human delusion of grandeur.
The book also pays tribute to untamed nature in a country dominated by order. Foregrounding the presence of the mountains the way Teju Cole does in his photographs reminds us of nature’s capacity to engender chaos. Time and again, the Swiss experience cataclysms: avalanches, landslides, and mud flows… The natural chaos is met with human order, with a desire for harmony, which takes a peculiar turn in this country.
With his subtle brand of humor, Teju Cole underlines this dichotomy. He sees it in the tiny boat sailing peacefully across the surface of the lake at the foot of a mountain; in the quiet café terrace neighboring busy pedestrian traffic; in the bourgeois comfort, embodied in a small street-corner fountain, which speaks to the absurdity and vanity of the Swiss lifestyle as well as to its cultural dimension. For, architecture, which might represent the peak of civilization, is here a corollary of the primal brutality of the mountains.
By Jean-Baptiste Gauvin