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Aerial photography Those magnificent men and their spying machines

The Swissair Aerial Photography Archive contains stunning images of Switzerland's natural and man-made beauty taken between 1918 and 2011.

Nowadays, we probably take aerial views for granted – anyone who’s been in an aeroplane or has access to online maps knows what their city, town or even house looks like from high above. 

So did those pre-technology Swiss who lived up mountains, looking down on their valley-dwelling neighbours. But for those on the central plains, the first aerial photographs must have been something of a revelation.   

Swiss aviation pioneer Walter Mittelholzer recognised the fascination of aerial photography and was one of the first to exploit its commercial potential. Having gained aerial photography experience during the First World War – snapping enemy positions and troop movements – after the war he founded an airline which merged to become Swissair in 1931. 

In 1934, he founded Swissair Photo AG specifically for marketing aerial images. Mittelholzer died in a climbing accident three years later, aged 43, but the company thrived on demand for bird’s-eye views, which ended up on walls, in brochures, as postcards or as a source of general information. 

Swissair was grounded in October 2001 – a result of a failed over-expansion strategy and the economic downturn after the 9/11 attacks – but the 135,000 images in the Swissair aerial photography archive were moved to the imaging archive of the libraryexternal link of the federal technology institute ETH Zurich. 

In 2014, “Swissair Aerial Photographsexternal link” was published in German and English, showing in remarkable detail (and from around 1960 also in colour) how Switzerland’s fields and farms and scattered factories have largely disappeared under the suburban sprawl of housing developments and motorways. 

(Photos: ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv/Stiftung Luftbild Schweiz, Text: Thomas Stephens/swissinfo.ch)