There was a time before mobile phones, a time when press photographers were the eyes of an entire nation. Many of the images they captured are now forgotten. For example, the portraits of Swiss men and women who had reached the age of 100 years or more in 1940.
Aaron Estermann studied history, media studies and visual communication, and is curator for historical photography at the Swiss National Museum.
In 1940, there were eight women and one man in Switzerland who were 100 years old or older. So it’s little wonder that their birthday celebrations attracted a lot of attention. It wasn’t just relatives and friends who wanted to be part of these rare events; the press also came to the party, so to speak. Photo agencies sent their photographers all over the country in search of these everyday heroes and heroines – and readers lapped up their stories. Even then, people had a desire to see themselves, and not just celebrities and public figures, in the glare of the popping flashbulbs.
People wanted to hear anecdotes: Marie Louise Pitiot from Le Locle (Canton of Neuchâtel) remembered, at the age of 15, watching in awe as the first female figure skater twirled on the frozen river Doubs. She herself was probably the first female florist in the Canton of Neuchâtel, taking over the business from her father after she had nursed him into old age. Stories that told of continuity and lives lived unpretentiously were popular: Alois Gabriel from Ennetbürgen (Canton of Nidwalden) lived his entire life in the same house, built just two months before he was born.The black-and-white portraits show faces marked by age – with the deep wrinkles that we like to read as traces of the past. Surrounded by flowers and well-wishers, the birthday girls and boys are often seated in armchairs they’ve received as gifts from their home cantons. Up to the beginning of the 2000s, people in the Canton of Neuchâtel were spoilt for choice: a comfortable armchair, or a stylish wall clock? Everyone got tax exemption and personal congratulations from government officials as well. And that was for their 99th birthday! You were considered to have become a ‘centenarian’ once you entered your 100th year.
Another uplifting feature in many of these photos is children. They appear as a chubby-cheeked contrast, but also as a ceremonial and media validation of progress: of the family – humanity – history. Even today, those kids haven’t yet reached a hundred years of age. They’ll get there in ten years or so. And the media? It’s only in exceptional cases that they turn up now. And no wonder: with a current total of more than 1,500 centenarians in Switzerland, the achievement has lost its novelty value – and, given the significant number compared to 1940, it would probably be impossible to give detailed coverage on all of them anyway.
The press photo agency ASL
Actualités Suisses Lausanne (ASL) was founded by Roland Schlaefli in 1954, and until its closure in 1999 was the leading press photo agency in western Switzerland. In 1973, Schlaefli also took over the archive of Agentur Presse Diffusion Lausanne (PDL), founded in 1937. The holdings of the two agencies comprise approximately six million images (negatives, prints, slides). In the broad range of subjects covered, there is a focus on federal politics, sport and western Switzerland. The agency opted not to take the step into the digital age. Since 2007, the archives of ASL and PDL have been held by the Swiss National Museum. The blog presents, in a loose chronology, images and photo sequences that particularly stood out when the collections were being recatalogued.
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