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Switzerland captured in images? How quickly clichés spring to mind the moment you start thinking about such an undertaking. In his new picture series, photographer Andreas Herzau proves he has enough experience to be able to play around with the viewers’ expectations: they will find the well-known; yet at the same time, his particular perspective gives rise to a panorama view of Switzerland today, that, while highly recognisable, goes beyond what is considered typical.

Herzau visited Switzerland time and again over a period of five year. He photographed the cities, but also the mountains and valleys, dotted with small settlements located off the beaten track. Tradition and modernity, national holidays and beauty pagents, mountaineers and bankers, mountain goats and greyhounds: Herzau’s images deal with the contradictions of the Swiss self-image, while also reflecting his role as a foreigner. If you pay closer attention to the pictures, the photographer’s ambivalence becomes palpable.

He is not concerned with photo journalism in a documentary sense, but rather with comparing his own, often clichéd ideas with the reality he discovered. He presents the reader with a country that he appreciates for its achievements – even though he soon recognises a struggle with his own expectations. Despite being a nation with great financial well-being, strengthened through a long tradition of liberal democracy and political neutrality, Switzerland shows very strong defense reflexes. So it is hardly surprising that motifs capturing militarism and reactionary national pride also surface, alongside the national flag that subtly makes its way into many pictures.

Herzau’s imagery is direct. Virtually unnoticed, he gets up close to the people he portrays; the motifs are often truncated, with fast-paced dynamics developing especially in the colour pictures. “For me, photography is less about seeing than reading and understanding how a society functions,” the photographer explains. “However, his “sociology with photographic means” in no way comes across as lecturing, and is not invested with exhaustive integrity; rather it is a surprising, high-speed ride through a small country, whose inconsistencies often appear hard to understand. It is towards these points of fracture that the photographer prefers to direct his attention.

It is worth noting that one of the triggers for this work was René Burri’s now legendary book Die Deutschen ( The Germans ), which was published in 1962 – the year Herzau was born. The idea for Helvetica emerged as a result of his engaging with Burri’s book. “I thought that the time had come for a counter visit.” Burri would surely have found pleasure in it. Ulrich Rüter

Andreas Herzau, Helvetica.
With poems by Eugen and Nora Gomringer. 104 pages, 70 colour and black and white photographs. 34.0 x 22.5 cm

Andreas Herzau

Born in 1962. As a photographer, high school teacher and author, he grapples with photography from artistic and theoretical perspectives. His large, monographic works on Germany, New York, Moscow and Istanbul expand the limits of classic, reportage photography. They reflect an inimitable imagery, that thrives above all on contrasting cuts and image sequences. Herzau’s work has received, among others, the European Press Award. He has been a member of the laif photo agency since 1999, and lives in Hamburg.

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