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BOOKS

18.01.2022

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The Swiss mountains have been enriched by a rather covert attraction: a camera obscura, located at over two thousand metres in altitude. Fortunately, when a road maintenance base was being constructed up there, it was not only thought of in terms of its own function, but also expanded to include an idea by photographer Guido Baselgia: an exciting combination of photography, architecture and landscape, with a clear focus on insights, rather than outlooks. The photographer's new book goes far beyond simply documenting the building's construction; it is a black and white, pictorial epic, capturing the spectacular high mountain landscape at the Bernina Pass.

Built in 2019, by Bearth & Deplazes (the office of architects Valentin Bearth, Andrea Deplazes and Daniel Ladner), the rough concrete structure's primary function is to secure snow clearance. The Bernina Pass, which is used heavily for both tourism and business, represents the main traffic artery between Engadin and Valtellina, and is kept open all year round, even though snow lies there for eight months out of the year. The main structure, elegantly curved into the slope, is reminiscent of the wall of a dam, “as if it had to withstand the ever increasing mountain pressure resulting from the rapidly progressing thawing of the permafrost,” as contributor Reto Hänny says, describing his first impression in the book.

This part of the building, housing workshops and shelter for a fleet of vehicles, is topped by a round grit and salt silo, with a slim tower embedded in its side. The slimmer tower has a stairway, which gives access to the top part of the larger one. A surprising experience welcomes visitors, as they step into the room at the top of the silo: the space is almost totally dark; once the eyes adjust, however, the overwhelming effect of a huge camera obscura becomes apparent. A wonderful image unfolds, projected through a tiny hole in a concrete cylinder: the exterior scene is reflected on the interior walls. Inverted and upside down, mountain slopes, barren rock formations, snowdrifts, the countryside surrounding the base, a section of the Lago Bianco reservoir, and clouds, all become visible. A camera obscura is the basis of a photographic camera; it unites the mediums of photography and architecture. Philip Ursprung, one of the book's contributors, comments, congenially: “It is a pleasure to see how the laws of optics become visible. I can experience what is continuously happening in my own eyes. I can watch myself seeing.”

The wonderfully-assembled photo book, introduced here, combines Guido Baselgia's photographic research with a documentation of the building's construction. Using a large-format analogue camera, he explored the interplay between nature, landscape and its domestication, at the Bernina Pass. In addition to the photographs, the book reproduces the camera obscura images from inside the tower, and reviews the architectural work of Bearth & Deplazes, with texts, pictures and blueprints.

Indirectly, the project also reveals the transformation of the Alps. There will be less snowfall in the future, and, as a result of the shorter winters, there will be an increase in interest for alternative attractions. A camera obscura seems to be a welcome and novel tourist diversion. Accordingly, this building becomes a place of perception and reflection. The images in the photo book convey a felicitous invitation. (Ulrich Rüter)

Guido Baselgia / Bearth & Deplazes, Bernina Transversal
(Produced by Verein Erlebnisraum Bernina Glaciers)
Text by Reto Hänny and Philip Ursprung.
132 pages, 76 duplex photographs and 7 blueprints. 27.5 x 31 cm. German, Italian and English. Park Books

All pictures on this page: © Guido Baselgia, Malans
Bernina Pass maintenance base, 5.3.2020, 18:10, –10 °C, high wind
Bernina Pass maintenance base, 5.3.2020, 17:30
Silo hall, layout, 2.4.2020, 10:00
Bernina Sur ils Lejs, 6.3.2020, 08:30, –8 °C, high wind
Bernina Pass maintenance base, silo tower 7.3.2020, 08:00
Incoming light II, part 3, camera obscura, sun path 12:30–17:22, 19.3.2020, equinox

Guido Baselgia

Born in 1953, and brought up in Engadin, Switzerland, Guido Baselgia has been defined and repeatedly inspired by the landscapes of the Alps. During the eighties, he was mainly dedicated to reportage photography around the world; but, in the nineties, he turned to exploring the landscapes of his home country. Baselgia’s work has been shown in numerous publications and exhibitions; and has received awards, including the Central Swiss Culture Prize in 2006, and the Graubünden Canton Culture Prize in 2020.

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