Emil Schulthess - an inspiring Swiss photographer

Midnight Sun, Hekkingen, Norway, June 1950

Emil Schulthess - an inspiring Swiss photographer

Globetrotter and explorer

I first saw the fascinating panorama of the midnight sun rising and sinking poetically on the horizon in my schoolbook for geography while I was a child. Many times over the years, in various popular scientific journals, I have come across this impressive photo series from 1950 in Norway – without knowing who had actually created it. So during the preparation of this text, I came across this 24-part photo series like an old acquaintance whose name one does not know, but whose reappearance produces a familiar feeling. Now the puzzle was finally solved for me: the panorama's creator is the Swiss photographer Emil Schulthess. For me, the continual recurrence of the motif is an indicator that this winged altar of the sun god Helios is definitely part of the collective visual memory. In this panorama we encounter a stylistic triad which runs through the photographer's entire oeuvre: the aesthetic, the scientific, and the emotional.

Potemkinsche Treppe, Odessa, Ukraine, 1968
Sonnenuntergang, Sepulveda-Boulevard, Los Angeles, Kalifornien, 1953
Harbin, China, 1964/65
Expedition «Deep Freeze IV», Antarktis, 1959

Fascination of the Unknown

The Swiss photographer Emil Schulthess, born in 1913, has set off on many journeys into the furthermost reaches of the Earth on the trails of explorers such as the Antarctic pioneer Robert Scott. Driven by the urge to bring the last empty spaces on the map "into the light". His first journeys led Emil Schulthess to Africa and USA in the 1950s. Destinations in Asia and South America followed, as well as participation in an expedition by the US Navy into the Antarctic. Many people can no longer imagine it, in this age of satellite-based cartography, but it still exists even now – terra incognita. Not only on land, but especially in the sea. After all, around 70% of the globe is covered by water – the majority of which remains unexplored. Almost daily, new stretches of land and underwater worlds are still being found, not to mention animal species, approx. 86% of which are still undiscovered according to recent studies. This, which applies for us today, applied much more so for this photographer, who died in 1996.

Emil Schulthess was an adventurer, and always a scientist, but also an artist. Like every photographer he was fascinated by light. Schulthess, however, cultivated almost an obsession with its natural source: the sun. Whether the motif be the sun itself, or only its rays, he has a penchant for using the fireball as a stylistic device. Whether it be cars in Los Angeles disappearing, ghostlike, in a red sea of light from the sinking sun or the halos and coloured diffractions in the ice crystals of the Antarctic – Schulthess had a gift for capturing light. In all of this, the native of Zurich always achieved impressive picture compositions. This may also have been thanks to his training as a graphic artist. On the other hand, he acquired his basic photographic knowledge later on as a guest student in Hans Finsler's photography class.

His unbounded interest in the world and its nature and the animals and people living in it is captured with masterly vividness. As well as various photo books it was mainly his publications in the legendary Swiss culture magazine "DU", of which he was one of the founding editors, that made his name and offered him a forum for his pictorial reportages from all over the world.

Canal Street, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1953

Canal Street, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1953

The Technical Eye

Schulthess is often described as a technology-obsessed tinkerer. During his life, he harboured a fascination for special cameras and sophisticated optical arrangements that he had made himself. It was especially with his circle-shaped pictures, created with a fisheye lens, and also with his photo panoramas, that he came to prominence. His 360-degree panoramic picture "Top of Switzerland", which was created for the 1970 World Exhibition in Osaka, is particularly worthy of mention here. Schulthess is also regarded as a pioneer of colour photography with artistic flair. But he was always less concerned about personal expression in his pictures than with scientifically meticulous documentation.

Emil Schulthess Fotografien 1950-1990

Emil Schulthess – A Retrospective Exhibition Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur 7 September 2013 to 23 February 2014


»Emil Schulthess – Fotografien 1950-1990« Published by Fotostiftung Schweiz. With a detailed biography by Alexis Schwarzenbach and a foreword by Martin Gasser, Limmat Verlag, Zurich, 296 pages, 173 pictures, four-coloured, duplex, hardcover.

Available from: http://www.fotostiftung.ch/de/e-shop/buecher/

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