Come on in and look around the homes of our Federal Councillors!
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. Among these are the ‘home stories’ portraying current and former Swiss Federal Councillors in their homes.
Aaron Estermann studied history, media studies and visual communication, and is curator for historical photography at the Swiss National Museum.
The home story is a classic of photo reportage. Its purpose is to depict celebrities and high-profile public figures in their private surroundings. The format first made an appearance with the advent of glossy print media, and is still hugely popular today. The reader’s curiosity is piqued: a peek into a neighbour’s living room is interesting enough, but it’s even more exciting if it’s a celebrity’s private space. In the 1960s, the small Lausanne press photo agency Mondial Press sent its photographers to visit a handful of Federal Councillors. In their bags they had colour film. That wasn’t something to be taken for granted in those days, because colour photographs were only used occasionally in the written press. And when they were used, then it tended to be in advertisements. ‘Advertising’ – that’s a great catchword generally in the context of home stories: the fact that our nation’s leaders granted the photographers access to their private homes was in fact also in their own interests. A few photos was a good opportunity to raise their popularity rating among the reading public – for the particular minister as a person, and also for his ‘brand’ of politics.The first thing you notice when looking at the pictures is the similarities. The Federal Councillors present themselves in the bosom of their families as husbands, fathers and grandfathers. And although most of the images come from home, from middle-class living rooms, in many cases the results are not too dissimilar from studio shots. The family members, neatly arrayed in their Sunday clothes, pose in two orderly rows. The Federal Councillors invariably appear in suits and ties. This rigid composition predominates; it’s never too personal and casual. We’re still a long way from a Simonetta Sommaruga, who was photographed gardening barefoot for Schweizer Illustrierte magazine in 2012. Or a Christoph Blocher, the former Federal Councillor who posed by the pool at his villa in 2013 – in a bathrobe, of course!When the Federal Councillors of the 1960s are pictured engaged in various contrived activities, they are hunched over their desks, poring over a map or a document. Or they’re showcasing their cultural capital by sitting in front of shelves neatly lined with books, or at least having a book, album or magazine within easy reach. Here too, we can discern a continuity with the traditional studio poses, a continuous thread that goes back well into the 19th century.
Roger Bonvin and Hans-Peter Tschudi at their desks.Swiss National Museum / ASL
In those days, the family parlour was staged in the studio with appropriate backdrops and props, from mantelpieces to pot plants. But with the photographer going to the subject now, and not the other way around, rooms and objects enter the field of view that, contrary to all rules of the genre, tell the observer something about the personal preferences and idiosyncrasies of the Federal Councillors and their families.
Books and objets d’art make the parlour a smartly presented room: Friedrich Traugott and Helene Rosalie Wahlen pose with books and a portrait, while Hans Streuli examines a stained glass painting given as a memento of his time as a member of Zurich’s cantonal government.Swiss National Museum / ASL
So at second glance, there is often a great deal to discover. Max Petitpierre poses alone, but his nearest and dearest are also present through the photos displayed on the marble mantelpiece. Through a magnifying glass, we can see that he’s reading ‘Le Christ s’est arrêté à Eboli’, the main work of anti-Fascist Italian politician Carlo Levi. And he’s leaning casually in the corner of the sofa while doing so.
Max Petitpierre, and Roger Bonvin and his wife seated on furniture decorated with a floral pattern.Swiss National Museum / ASL
Roger Bonvin and his wife, Charlotte Bonvin-Hilarides, who are pictured seated at the parlour table for an aperitif, also exude an air of nonchalance. Red cigarette packets peek out from behind the light blue vase: a product placement by the Marlboro Man? The staging is probably a little too inconspicuous for that.
And if you think back to the fuss surrounding the sofa of a certain Federal Council hopeful in 2017, a look at the upholstered furniture may also be of interest. Three former members of the government – Bonvin, Petitpierre and Chaudet – display the same taste: it seems Federal Councillors have had a liking for floral-patterned seating since long before Ignazio Cassis!
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.