Werner Bischof’s Diary

An extract from the Swiss photographer’s diary describes a dawn ascent of the Alps and highlight his lyrical relationship with the landscape, and his existential and humanist interests.

  • Photography: Magnum

"How serene and great nature is, quite removed from this world - the moon casts its pale face on the glacier below us - a mighty flow of ice with holes and crevasses; blackish blue abysses signifying nothingness. So soft - so gentle, ennobling all, like a gentle hand the moonlight glides across the icy cold sheets, the shadows are not voids, they are full of life.

In the blue-black sky a star shines unnaturally bright – Venus, the sparkling dome descends upon the Lauteraarhörner as we make our way, infinitesimal in this immense basin, surrounded by ice and snow. Two beings joined by a rope, silent, unspeaking, each lost in his thoughts. The sharp spikes of the crampons start to bite and without effort the first steep slope lies behind us.

The first splinters of ice fly into my eyes, gleams of silver. I sense the power of the mountains, it is not the cold night air alone, nor the sound peculiar to ice axes cutting footholds – it is the space, the dimension about me, the freedom I need to live…

A contact sheet showing Werner Bischof's photographs of mountains (courtesy of Magnum Contact Sheets, published by Thames & Hudson ISBN 9780500544105).

The warming sun feels good. We are only a few meters below the cornice of the summit. What splendor will unfold before us when we look into the next valley, as yet unknown to us. Will it be a gentle snowfield! Will it have steep, rugged rock walls! We do not know…everything about this is wonderful: the anticipation, the enchantment of surprise, unbounded happiness for the person who sees and appreciates the mountains, who grows tired from looking, not from walking.”

This description of a dawn ascent of the Ochsen from the Strahlegghutte was found in Werner Bischof’s diary, dated 19 August 1940. Nature came to Werner Bischof’s rescue, and photography. On long mountain hikes, often alone, he relaxed from a total of 800 days on active duty during WWII.

His observations reveal the photographer’s sensitive eye, and his longing for peace and harmony too. To him the mountains were a kind of “home”.

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