Turning bucolic Switzerland into a dark, mythological landscape has often struck me as a little impolite. After all, my Swiss grandmother taught me to sing goofy, patriotic folk songs while hiking the mountains, and to think of this beautiful country with simple, upbeat pride. Maybe that’s why I’ve generally shied away from photographing my motherland with black and white film, which easily turns any subject into something dark and foreboding.
But it wasn’t so long ago that Switzerland, like much of rural Europe, was in fact poor, dark, and, mythological — a far cry from the affluent and pristine country we know today. Until Rousseau and then the Romantics rehabilitated their reputation, the Swiss alps were viewed as a hellish landscape inhabited by demons. In the high mountains, where villages were cut off from the lower valleys for months at a time during the winter (see the terrific Swiss movie “Alpine Fire”), farmers kept totemic masks made from gnarled branches and cow’s teeth over their doors to ward off the evil spirits that visited their homes during fierce winter storms. There are any number of traditional Swiss festivals that still include frightening monsters and ancient mythologies (see Carsten Peter’s photography book, “Alpendämonen,” or “Demons of the Alps”). This was not just culture as entertainment — this was a response to the fears of everyday living, to the spirits howling in every gust of wind.
Mary Shelly famously wrote Frankenstein on the shores of lake Geneva, drawing inspiration for the dark novel from her experience in the nearby mountains. Wind and rain, thunder and lightning, and barren, rocky glaciers provide the dramatic landscape for a story of confrontation between man and monster.
Even Tolkien, who traveled to Switzerland in 1911 on a wave of British tourism that began with the Romantics, found inspiration in the Swiss Alps for his mythological Middle Earth. He explored Wengen and Grindelwald — just across the deep Lauterbrunnen valley from Gimmelwald (see my photos) and was so taken with the region that, according to at least one author, some of the names that populate Middle Earth have their beginnings in this landscape.
My friend Erika suggested these black and white images of Switzerland are kind of Grimm’s fairy tales meets the Blair Witch Project. I’ve never had the stomach for horror movies so I can’t speak to the Blair Witch comparison, but I like the Brothers Grimm association. Scratch the surface of any bucolic Swiss landscape and you find all the dark woods, evil stepmothers, witches, wolves, and trolls you could hope for.