Viaduct near Pérolles FR. Picture taken in 1926. Photo: ETH Library / Image Archive

The flying photographer

In the early 20th century, Walter Mittelholzer’s aerial photographs turned him into a media star. The St. Gallen native combined flying and photography into one lucrative line of business.

Andrej Abplanalp

Andrej Abplanalp

Historian and communications chief of the Swiss National Museum.

He was a pilot, author, entrepreneur, media star, photographer and co-founder of Swissair. Mittelholzer was a man of many talents and wasn’t afraid to exploit them. Thanks to his acute business acumen and plenty of self-confidence, he not only produced books, reportages and films, but also captured countless landscapes from a bird’s-eye view. Yet not content with Switzerland, Mittelholzer was drawn to the big, wide world.

In 1926, he was the first person to fly in a seaplane from Zurich to Cape Town and flew over Mount Kilimanjaro in 1930. A world first! The flying photographer always documented his adventures well and marketed them even better. Because the principle of “time is money” dominated the media world even at this time, Mittelholzer sent images and texts to magazines and newspapers in Switzerland while he was still on the move. He wasn’t just a speedy supplier for the press, he was even able to react to lighting conditions or retake blurred pictures thanks to a darkroom in his aeroplane. There is no point denying that Mittelholzer’s journeys to Africa also had colonial overtones. In his images and travel reports, he always distinguished between black and white, uncivilised and civilised and underdeveloped and progressive. Mittelholzer wasn’t alone in this way of thinking – it was the prevailing opinion at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was only the Abyssinians, to whose emperor Mittelholzer delivered an aeroplane in 1934, who he regarded as equals.

Mittelholzer was ultimately hailed a national hero in 1931 as a co-founder of Swissair. With his international flights, he increased public awareness of civil aviation, thus expediting the founding of a national airline. Mittelholzer died in 1937 in a mountain accident in the Austrian state of Styria.

Kilimanjaro flight. Walter Mittelholzer in front of the Fokker, 1930. Photo: ETH Library / Image Archive

Further posts