T h e
Mo i ré e f f e c T
Bookhorse & caBineT Books
Published by Bookhorse & cabinet Books
8004 Zurich, switzerland
cabinet Books181 Wyckoff street
Brooklyn, nY 11217
first editioncopyright © Lytle shaw 2012
all rights reserved
edited by Lex Trüb, Jeffrey kastner, sina najafi
Designed by Lex Trüb
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T h e M oi ré e f f ec T
for John shaw
s c e na r i o
1 a Mysterious Package 13 2 Plate one 17 3 swiss air 24 4 The Moiré archive 34 5 The Master’s Voice 39 6 Weissfluhjoch 46 7 awsümbildungs 49 8 Bowels of the Goetheanum 57 9 The Upper engadin 6410 The Palazzo salis 7011 an apprenticeship in climbing 8212 above the Mineshaft 8713 flight to appenzell 9014 cat Burglar 9615 The eiger nordwand 10216 Plate Two 10717 The rebar Pattern 11218 swiss Panorama 116
The Moiré effecT
What a magnificent picture does nature spread before the eye, when the sun, gilding the tops of the Alps, scatters the sea of vapors which undulates below. Through the receding veil the theater of a whole world rises into view. Rocks, valleys, lakes, mountains and forests fill the immeasurable space, and are lost in the wide horizon. We take in at a single glance the confines of diverse states, nations of various characters, languages and manners till the eyes, overcome by such extent of vision, drop their weary lids, and we ask of the enchanted fancy a continuance of the scene.
—albrecht von haller, Die Alpen (1732)
a MYsTerioUs PackaGe
in the spring of 2001, i was sent on assignment to Zurich by Cabinet magazine to document the life of the swiss photographer ernst Moiré. Cabinet was planning an issue on “failure” and the case of Moiré seemed espe-cially apt, since he had narrowly missed making several significant technological contributions to the history of photography (his lifelong goal) and was remembered only for the blurry “moiréd” photographs his partner, Willi ostler, misprinted and blamed, famously, on him. This was what prompted the almost total withdrawal from society that characterized Moiré’s later life; it is also what makes documenting the photo grapher so difficult, since both he and the swiss govern ment con-trived to doctor, remove, or generally disrupt the paper trail that would bring Moiré’s life into sharp focus. Doing the best with what was available, i published an article in 2002 (reproduced as chapter 2), which ended with the central, and what seemed to me then irresolv-able, mysteries of Moiré’s life. More than most of my scholarly articles, Moiré’s story seems to have struck a chord with readers, espe-cially europeans: a German historian of photography wondered why Moiré had been left out of prominent histories of the medium; a swiss graphic designer invited to help me inquire further about his forgotten countryman; finally a Dutch conceptual artist even proposed doing a documentary film on Moiré. But i
the moiré effect
demurred for want of evidence: “The more i push, the further he recedes,” i warned. for the evidentiary ground on which such a film would be built was slip-pery at best, and hemmed by bottomless voids. and so i didn’t relish the thought of forcing others, strang-ers, to retrace my precarious steps. nevertheless, i remained fascinated by Moiré because my brief article had forced me to simplify and condense his story. in april of 2010, however, a mysterious package, lacking return address, arrived at the door of a cabin i had recently completed in a remote portion of new hampshire. Mysterious in part because only three or four of my closest friends had the address—and i was only staying at the cabin for a week. But more myste-rious in its contents: a series of halftone page mockups that immediately sent a shiver up my spine. for they included photographs that appeared to be Moiré’s. i had known about them from other materials in the archive, but had assumed these photos lost. The pages were arranged in Moiré’s characteristic grid, like speci-men typologies, and focused particularly on swiss farm-houses built of masonry corners, vertical timber infills, and slate tile roofs. in between and around the mar-gins were brief commentaries in a sans serif font. The typologies also included bridges, electricity towers, and mountain drainage devices. such images, in them-selves, might not have been enough to convince me that the work was Moiré’s, but the pages also con-tained fair copy corrections in what i recognized as Moiré’s hand: “a condensation of native alpine materi-als, sorted to maximum strength,” he had added next to one farmhouse. on another he wrote, enigmatically,
“When gravity wins, no one hears.” What was this?
a mysterious package
What would it mean for gravity to “win”? had Moiré spent too long in the alpine sun on his fieldtrips? in any case, nothing prepared me for the final three images: the same farmhouses, but now moiréd. it is true that i had run across a couple of such images in 2001 when i was working in the Zurich archive. But these, it seemed, were but bitter monu-ments the photographer had made, late in life, to his
“legacy”—reprinting a series of his famous effects as if to underline, now in his period of verbal silence, his special contribution to the history of photography. knowing what i did about Moiré’s tireless pursuit of technological innovations, and his career of narrow misses, these images had pained me when i first saw them. They crystallized his bitter though accurate understanding of his contribution to history. not fit-ting into my brief magazine article, though, i left them out. But there was something much stranger about these new images: that they were dated 1895—that is, before ostler’s failed commission. Why, then, would Moiré print several of these page layouts if, after all, they represented simple mistakes—mistakes for which he was not yet infamous? Were they but identical mistakes? in any case, why had he retained them? What, more generally, was the purpose of this book, and why had it never been published? Perhaps his remarks on gravity could help me. But lacking any context—the location and terms of his commission, his client, the exhibition or publica-tion for which the photographs were destined—the statements were of little use. Maybe the photos them-selves could aid me; they might, on closer inspection, at least reveal location clues? i scoured for evidence,
the moiré effect
but Moiré’s was a proto-modernist practice of iconic frontality—contingent information simply did not enter into his frame. The swiss filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once said that when you set out to make a fiction, you also make a little bit of a documentary, and vice versa. This seemed not to apply to Moiré. i had spent several hours with a loop, thinking how archaic this method of searching was, when suddenly i spotted letters on what i had previously seen as a tree branch, but was actually a sign: “s … T … a … M … P
… a.” i scrolled Google Maps across the atlantic, up through the Mediterranean and onto switzerland, where i then zoomed in and typed the word. There were actually several towns in switzerland named stampa. Great, i’d stumbled on a swiss springfield right when i needed the most proper of proper names! But going back through my Moiré dossier i was grad-ually able to rule out towns one by one until a single stampa remained, in the far southern corner of Grau-bünden—in the Val Bregaglia, just below the engadin valley. The classic work on this region was christoph simonett’s 1965 Die Bauernhäuser des Kantons Graubünden. simonett mentions a canton regional Build-ing archive in chur. Perhaps they could help me trace the photographs; failing that, i could also head directly to the Val Bregaglia. While i had at first refused the offer of help from the swiss graphic designer—a man named Lex Trüb—these photographs had changed my mind. i thus contracted Trüb, made arrangements, and booked my flight immediately. on the plane, i reviewed my article of 2002.
ernst Moiré among his siblings.
Mystery has always surrounded the life of the swiss photographer ernst Moiré (1857–1929). not least be-cause, though frequently photographed throughout his life, it is almost impossible to see him. indeed, the blurry photographs of Moiré possibly point to the origin of (and certainly exemplify) the technological problem of two dot matrixes misaligning during print-ing and resulting in a flawed reproduction, now com-monly know as “the moiré effect.” or, perhaps, these photographs do not index the first human to produce the moiré effect at all, since we cannot be sure who they depict. What we do know, first, is the swiss govern-ment’s account: that a photographer named Moiré was regarded, in the switzerland of the 1920s, as impervious
the moiré effect
to photography; second, that this bizarre disappear-ance became a source of nationalist pride (Moiré was ap plauded for his technological Ludditism by anti-modernist elements within swiss folk culture, just as his supposed visual “neutrality” was seen, more gener-ally, as socially exemplary); and third, that a collection of photographs—ostensibly of Moiré, and always with one illegible figure—is housed in Zurich’s municipal archives. opposing this position stands counter-testi-mony from Moiré’s relatives (embarrassed, perhaps, to have their name still associated with this famous technological failure), which may implicate the swiss government itself in Moiré’s photographic illegibility. it was to investigate this case of meta-failure that the editors at Cabinet sent me to Zurich. There i would document a documentary abyss. Living inside the Zurich archive for two months, i gradually pieced together the following biographical outline. an ernst Moiré was indeed born, in 1857, in the capital of the swiss confederation’s smallest canton, Zug, within view of the Bernese oberland. Moiré’s primarily french ancestors made their way from Geneva to Lucerne, where we find his father, Pierre Wolfli Moiré (a postal clerk and scientific tin-kerer) playing a small role in the attacks on Jesuit priests that precipitated switzerland’s democratic revo-lutions of 1847–1848. The subsequent inquiry into these attacks, however, was hampered by the lack of postmarks on the conspirators’ letters, for which Pierre was held accountable. exiled to Zug, Pierre seemed to drop from sight: records of his later activities are scanty, possibly because he instructed ernst to vaporize his correspondence.
plate oneaside from carefully recorded chemical experiments in his father’s improvised lab, the main records of Moiré’s early education are decayed prints from his alpine photographic expeditions to the Jungfrau with his Uncle rudolf, on which the two would document both geological and architectural curiosities, accompa-nied (we learn from verses inscribed onto the prints themselves) by readings of albrecht von haller’s classic of swiss proto-nationalism, Die Alpen. Moiré seems to have excelled at Zurich’s Technical institute, win-ning both the Uli fleiss Laboratory award, and the Gottfried Taur field Photographic awards—while, however, being chastised for his habitual bureaucratic errors, especially his failure to sign test and registra-tion forms, a problem that would plague Moiré through-out his career. strangely, nothing in Moiré’s childhood or college records suggests his imperviousness to pho-tography. But Moiré’s complex relation to authorship and representation does begin to emerge at this time, especially in his copy of the influential color theories of the poet charles cros, each of whose 272 pages bears no fewer than seven of Moiré’s own signatures, in widely varying styles. This pattern would continue in his highly secretive post-university experiments in Zug. considered in the history of photography, Moiré’s string of near patent misses is stunning: in March of 1879, he invented a photogravure process parallel in all essentials to klíc’s (published that year), but failed to address his patent form. More tragically, Moiré’s pio-neering use, in outdoor photography, of gelatin-silver bromide instead of wet collodion (a process he had discovered as a fourteen-year-old, on a trip with Uncle rudolf) did not become known until after charles
the moiré effect
Bennett had popularized the process in 1879. The most crushing patent failure, however, was autochrome, whose development Moiré had followed closely since his reading of cros. from the beginning, the three color filters used in the process had relied on fine grains of potato starch, dyed orange, green, and mauve. The dying process, especially the use of zinc phosphate to produce the yellows, was both toxic and slow. Moiré’s introduction of mature sweet potatoes was as elegant as it was simple. Though Moiré was in fact able to pat-ent the sweet potato process, the untreated status of the potato itself rendered the process, under Zug can-ton law, a craft and not a science, thereby allowing the frenchman Louis Ducos du hauron, and after him the Lumière Brothers, to popularize their own three-color systems in photographic technical journals. Moiré was crushed. Worse, after this protracted string of failures, he found himself in desperate finan-cial straits. Which accounts for his new partnership with his college friend Willi ostler in a more conven-tional photographic studio. Because ostler’s uncle, Jürg, was the canton commissioner of architecture, they landed a long-term, lucrative project document-ing alpine architecture. still, Moiré seems not to have been able to give up his hopes of discovering a new photographic process. as early as 1882, Moiré had experimented with high-amperage flash bulbs in night photography. By 1896, the craze for portraiture had reached such a peak that Moiré believed, were he able to invent an outside flash mechanism that could merge figures with the romantic night-time mountainscapes most admired in portrait painting, that he could make a definitive entrance into the technological history of
Low-level test flash of Lili.
photography, and a mountain of swiss francs. But on 3 august 1896, tragedy struck. Moiré writes to his father: “Lili [Moiré’s bride] and i had left Zurich for a weekend in Zermatt, where the Matterhorn backdrop would insure the dramatic night portraits i wished to produce. after two unsuccessful low-level flashes, i increased the amperage. Lacking my spectacles, i mis-read 100 for 10. The effect was instantaneous and devas-tating. Lili grasped for her eyes and spun arcs on her back on the chalet’s terrace while i, after smashing the offending bulbs into innumerable shards, helplessly pawed the tiles around her blind twirls.” after two months in Zermatt monitoring Lili’s condition, Moiré was infinitely relieved to see signs of progress (though Lili would always wear thick bifocals after the event, and could never drive a car).
the moiré effect
Meanwhile, in Zurich, Willi was forced to move for-ward with the book documenting the government architecture project without Moiré’s invaluable tech-nical assistance. a novice at printing, Willi misaligned the plates and produced a sequence of blurry images, which were immediately rejected by the stern client. in a moment of panic, Willi suggested to the government agent who had descended on his shop that the business was dually owned (a “fact” he was successful in proving by ernst’s faulty records), and that the responsibility for the quality of the prints was “in Moiré’s hands.” By the time ernst returned to Zurich two months later,
“the moiré effect” was all over the papers. after 1896, Moiré rarely appeared in public. in fact, it was not until 1927 (two years before his death) that Moiré became known as a recalcitrant photograph-ic object. This because of a handful of halftone prints (ostensibly) of the photographer included in an exhi-bition at the alpine Museum in Bern called “Mind over Matterhorn,” which documented para-scientific phenomena among the Mountaineering swiss. here, Moiré’s whole biography gets told through a consistent photographic absence. We see Pierre, Uncle rudolf, Willi, Jürg, Lili, and many other of Moiré’s friends and family, flanked by an eerie near-absence—a figure almost legible, but subject to a kind of technical poltergeist. in-terpreting this absence as willed, the exhibition linked Moiré to emma kunz and the late rudolf steiner, who embodied strains of holistic and anti-scientific sentiment within swiss popular medicine. Because he refused to write (and even sign his name) after 1896, Moiré’s own response to the exhibi-tion is not known. nor did Lili comment on her hus-
band’s infamy until 1941, two years before her own death, when she wrote an open letter to the new swiss commissioner of architecture. inexplicably unpub-lished, this letter emerged only in 1998, accompanied by documents that justified the suppression as a mea-sure to insure faith in the swiss central government during the surrounding war, when both french and German elements of the population suspected the government of aiding the opposing side. Lili describes an afternoon in november of 1896, three months after the explosion of “the moiré effect” in the Zurich newspapers: “ernst had taken the train to Zug to gain distance from the maelstrom that had hold of his name. i remained in Zurich to oversee our household. returning from the Limmat vegetable quay, i noticed two men emerging from our attic dormers with stacks of framed photographs. Till then, rude government officials had visited only our studio, not our flat on Münstergasse. i cursed the intruders from two blocks away. Whether my suddenly frigid neigh-bors—eyeing the spectacle from their windows—were in support of the theft, or had merely chosen to ignore me, i do not know. Their daily glares told me only that they, too, felt cheated, as swiss, by the failure of herr ostler’s government-subsidized project, now attributed to my dear ernst, of whom every photo-graph was gone when i arrived. now the scoundrels have shown why.” how Lili, with her weakened eye-sight, was able to notice two small figures sixty yards away adds one final mystery.
Published in Cabinet Magazine, summer 2002.
When anything new struck him as coming up, or anything already noted as reappearing, he always immediately wrote, as if for fear that if he didn’t he would miss something; and also that he might be able to say to himself from time to time,“She knows it now, even while I worry.” —strether in henry James’s The Ambassadors
The houses were nestled cozily along a hillside, each with a broad roof and a light green lawn, the whole patterned but not regularly gridded. To the north a few larger industrial buildings flanked the residential zone, each discretely integrated into its site—no sprawling parking lots, no drive-through restaurants, no chain-link car purgatory, no box-store banlieue. The whole built landscape actually approached Donald Judd’s fantasy that “industry and business are the making and distribution of goods and … should be just that and no more.” in the Us, one is inclined to poke fun at such thinking. But like strether in his increasingly slippery attempt to rescue chadwick from the clutches of europe, the view from the plane had gone right to work erasing some of my hard drive, and i was begin-ning to feel like a naïve american open to a surprising turnaround in the old world. We hadn’t even landed.
Tuning into the arrangement of these swiss towns, i allowed myself now to marvel at the kitchen gardens, down along the river. These added a third, more minute scale (and a range of new colors) to the immediately legible organization of the town. “Just that and no more.” What struck me was how close this reality was to a diagram, to an exemplary model. of course i knew such tools as fictions: i had grown up with archi-tectural models and come to be something of a con-noisseur of their seemingly necessary departures from lived experience and built form—of how their prom-ises undid themselves, that is, in actual space, in the real-sized world. But apparently one had to go in search of such awkward moments in switzerland, for they were visible neither from the plane, nor from the car on my way into town. one might think, then, that a culture that could produce such diagrammatic reality wouldn’t need to play with toy trains, wouldn’t need the compensation of a minute, masterable world when the actual world bent itself so seamlessly to its will. Perhaps model trains were obligatory instructional devices: not merely practical lessons in technics, but also spiritual clarifi-cation chambers. The equivalent of a guru nook in a 1970s american household. in any case, the taste for model trains seemed to be dying out. Lex told me that it was a hobby cultivated primarily by men over sixty. Those, i began to speculate, that had caught the very tail end of swiss modernization—with its last dramas of a heroic daily life, a life that required particular kinds of images to keep up its momentum. Lex had been waiting for me at the Zurich air-port—car parked directly in front of the terminal, as if
the moiré effect
we had stepped into the 1960s. a former professional snowboarder, he was still lean and angular. During the off-seasons of his life on the mountains, he had had an Endless Summer period of traveling the world for ideal surfing conditions. he was now much more settled, married with a one-year-old daughter. i barraged him with questions about his press as he drove us into central Zurich, where we dropped off my bags at my hotel and then zipped over to his studio. Together with his partner Urs, Lex designed books and catalogs for the european, and especially the swiss, art world. his studio was a large second-story space in the inner courtyard of a city block—the kind of studio that had become impossible in new York: open, ample, casual, a desk for every project. There i sat on an over-stuffed couch and flipped through their recent books—each quite different from the next, seeming to extend from the concept of the book itself, though linked by fourteen-point type and wide margins. Most of the work was done on a risograph, which looked like a high-end Xerox machine. Lex tended to punctuate his sentences with the word “hey,” which lent a life-affirming intensification to his speech; the catch was that emphasis often fell on down beats or rhetorical troughs where i wasn’t expect-ing it. Were these micro-explosions perhaps a literal translation of the emphasis patterns that character-ized switzerdeutsch, distinguishing it from German? after ducking and swerving at the first few, i came to enjoy and anticipate them, even crafting my own sen-tences to draw forth these “heys” from him at the least expected moments. But that was a bit later.
swiss airJust then, in his studio, i was trying to convey my im-pressions about switzerland from the plane: the allure of swiss modernization, the collective project that seemed to drive Moiré. no wonder he had felt such a strong tug. Whether or not the heroism of modern daily life in switzerland still needed selling, it was what one noticed first on entering swiss air space, quietly woven back into ways of being and into styles of build-ing neither flashy nor self-aggrandizing but still utter-ly foreign in their ability to approach the diagram: the functional building without excess or remainder—without contingency, abuttal, proximate debris. “Just that and no more.” Without, in short, what sometimes seemed like the basic and inescapable condition of perception—a periphery or frame that could always undo a building’s project if it had not already been un-done by some glaring failure in its basic construction. recently, i admitted to Lex, i had found myself giving in to this expectation, and even cultivating it a little. so it was instructional, if i could still use a word like that, to fly into a country where such perception did not seem to exist, where one could look straight on and not constantly drag the camera around the ironic margins. “We have some, hey, pretty terrible buildings here, you know!” Lex’s gentle grounding of my wide-eyed naïveté reminded me how ridiculous i must have soun-ded. Luckily, though, the conversation swung to my research plans. he had already gathered materials on Moiré, on swiss photography more generally, and had suggestions about where else to look: the first stop was the Landesmuseum. i was off before we revisited the topic of swiss architecture.
the moiré effect
apparently i was getting ahead of myself. What idiot thinks that you can’t find abuttal and squalor in switzerland? i had just walked through Zurich’s red light district on the way from Lex’s studio, after all, and there was no question that it was seedy. and beyond such obvious examples there were, more to the point, construction projects that failed both in themselves and in their immediate environments. right here in the museum, across the street from the central train station, an exhibit of swiss photography from 1840 to 1960 featured close-ups of paving problems on alpine roads: small landsides of buckling and cracked asphalt. Brief halts on the road to frictionless modern move-ment. and this by a photographer born all the way back in 1864, rudolf Zinggeler-Danioth. Was this a specialty of Zinggeler-Danioth’s? Was he known as an aesthete of buckling pavements and perhaps dislodged roadside or tunnel masonry? one could grant these the status of exceptions. or, i thought, returning to my old bent, one could understand them as so many attempts to study early failures for inoculation against subsequent ones. in fact, even the educational focus on failed engineering was rare. More characteristic were the dramatic results of successful engineering—especially at high altitudes. By 1900, for instance, the Wehrli Brothers (harry and Bruno) had produced a series of iconic images of just this unarrestable swiss modernization. in my favorite from the exhibition, a train speeds over a masonry bridge in the middle ground, puffing black smoke. in the foreground another bridge—both straddling an alpine river—carries a road that snakes through the photograph, under the first bridge, around a cluster of
buildings, and then under two even larger arched masonry bridges in the background. The most distant of these in turn leads our eye up a manmade embank-ment, at the top of which another road runs along the hillside toward dramatic mountains in the distance. Wait thirty seconds, the photograph says, and another vehicle will rush over another of these bridges. The point here seemed to be not just that the swiss could get a train through this landscape, not just that they could dominate such hostile transportation zones, but rather that they could reticulate them with an infi-nite network of roads and suspended railways, turn-ing eroding mountainsides and rushing alpine streams into a frictionless circulation system, a festival of poten-tial movements. it seemed unfortunate, here, that the stream had not yet been canalized into a vertical lock system. But there was still time. as powerful as such a photograph is, there was something about this engineered terrain that required greater height and distance—a definitive liberation not just from the immediate ground plane, or even the extru-sion of that plane into a precipitous mountain peak from which one might survey the surroundings. no, ultimately, appropriate depiction of swiss habitation and transport required that one break free entirely from the lowly earth in all its forms. it required the inven-tion of another image-making machine: the airplane. here the great innovator was Walter Mittelholzer, who pioneered aerial photography, or Luftbildfotographie, and whose life was cut short by a climbing accident in the hochschwab in austria in 1937. This was the kind of modernist hagiographic death, however, that con-firmed his commitment to extreme sports, extreme
the moiré effect
technology, and the extreme views that could come out of their combination. The first to cross africa in a plane, an early explorer of the north Pole, Mittelhol-zer did not only write exotic tales based on his travels. he also focused on his native country, producing in 1928 the book Alpenflug, and cofounding in 1920 ad astra aero, which later became swiss air. as befits such a personality, his image repertoire is split in two: those of him (in front of his prop plane; in mid-air in his biplane over the Bernese alps, standing at atten-tion, which is to say practicing discipline while cool-ing out for a second the massive powers that might
a Wehrli Brothers view of swiss modernization.
swiss airsuddenly precipitate a new series of miraculous actions) and those by him (aerial photographs he took of the towns and cities of switzerland). still used today, these detached, floating views came to typify a new kind of visual mastery associated with the plan. earlier in the day, before visiting the exhibition, i had actually bought a book of aerial photographs in a used bookstore without consciously registering why i was so attracted to this mode of understanding swiss settlements. La Suisse vue d’avion, probably from the early 1960s, was a collection of oversaturated, almost edible-looking, Technicolor views (in fact produced by Mittelholzer’s company, swiss air): the falls of the rhine; the oxbow at Bremergarten; the great dam on lake Gruyère; an audacious bridge over the sitter river; the switchback route at the Maloja pass; the port of Basel; the Zurich train yards; assorted plowed or recently harvested fields; winter landscapes in the Thur valley; lake towns in Ticino; views of the princi-pal swiss cities; and, finally, a series of colonies d’habitation, one in the suburbs of Zurich, another at Wattwil. it was these, paradoxically, that most struck me. at Wattwil, identical brown houses, with peaked roofs that extend into small garages, are organized around a slightly squished oval road. The inner lawn is the color of a fresh avocado interior. Darker greens, purples, and yellows punctuate hedges, gardens. again, empirical reality has been herded inside the security of the diagram. and, above all an attractive diagram: the swiss made suburbanization seem like a viable project. how did they do it?
the moiré effect
Wattwil in La Suisse vue d‘avion.
a tap on the back from one of the docents broke the spell: “You would like to speak to the curator … Dr. shaw, i present Dr. Dieter Bachmann.” “congratula-tions on the exhibition, Dr. Bachmann. i particularly appreciate seeing the Wehrli Brothers’s views and Walter Mittleholzer’s plane photography.” a tall grey-haired man in a white suit—chief curator of Aufbruch in die Gegenwart: Die Schweiz in Fotografien 1840–1960 — best owed a paternal smile of satisfaction on me, through thick spectacles “Well, Bruno and harry Wehrli were pioneers—they took photography out of the middle-class parlor and into the transforming landscape. … You are working on a project about swiss photography, Dr. shaw?” a school group was making its way out of the room and i waited a moment for their squeaky sneakers to subside before answering. “Yes, Dr. Bach-mann, and while i love what you’ve included in this exhibition, i’m particularly interested in ernst Moiré.”
swiss airThe paternal glow vanished and a glacial chill rear-ranged his features. “i don’t believe i’ve heard of this photo grapher. You say he’s swiss?” i knew Moiré had been resented for some time for botching a government commission, but this was 114 years later. so i was not quite prepared. “Yeeeaaahhh,” i began slowly, waiting for him to jump in and relieve me. But after the word stretched to what became an embarrassing length i was forced to continue. “he worked publicly from the 1870s until the late 1890s, then went underground un-til the end of his life. But he was pretty well known in his day: alpine architecture, bridges, tunnels. a bit like the Wehrli brothers, in fact, but even more of an anticipation of russian constructivism and new ob-jectivity.” “Mr. shaw, if that were so i would certainly know of him.” i excused myself as politely as i could and, with his hard stare still burning a hole in my back, walked out the courtyard of the Landesmuseum and across the Limmat into the old section of town.
The Moiré archiVe
Must I, by the way, reproach myself for being most deeply affected by human influences when they reach me through the vibrations of inherited things?
—rilke, letter from the Palazzo salis, soglio
The smell of knorr soup wafted out onto the pedes-trian street. There at Münstergasse 26, as i had seen it in 2001, was Moiré’s house, still overlooking the Markt-gasse square, still lacking a plaque. But emphatically there. When i climbed the stairs at the city archive in an hour or so, i could count on his papers arriving in a grey rectangular archive box, marked Moi on the out-side in all caps, and stored against the southern wall of the reading room. What if i simply asked Dr. Bachmann to accompany me to the archive? or perhaps i could return tomorrow to the Landesmuseum with Xeroxes of a few key documents: i knew the machine on which i could do it, in the hallway just beyond the reading room, where a topographic painting of the city hung, somewhat impervious to view, since one couldn’t back up sufficiently to take it all in. The machine’s copies were 30 cents and the archivist would count my change afterwards. But perhaps i was framing the problem incorrectly.
the moiré archiveMy article did mention the fact that the swiss govern-ment had descended upon the photographer’s house, stolen his page layouts, and “moiréd” him out of his-tory. But in the context of my previous research this had seemed primarily an act of revenge for ruining the publicly funded commission. Thus it appeared as if the responsibility for hushing up Moiré’s name had to do first with Moiré’s own embarrassment (hence his withdrawal from public), second with his family’s re-luctance to have their name associated with a famous technological failure, and finally, only incidentally, with the swiss government’s reediting of images of the pho-tographer. But the curator’s studied ignorance seemed to point to a different, stranger, ultimately more active role for the swiss government. Was it possible that the swiss state sought not just to punish Moiré, but in fact to unname him—to turn his proper name into a kind of brand without an origin, an effect, not an empirical person, and certainly not a swiss person? To have developed the banking system that has, from time immemorial, laundered endless sums of tainted money, even directly conspired in helping the nazis hide their war loot—these are moral problems that can be generalized, blurred beyond the resolution at which it’s easy to point fingers at specific humans. swiss banks process money, such a line of thinking goes; who can control all of the social implications of currency? so a few clients are reprehensible. With time and distance, their features merge into the general image of money’s circulation, slightly dirty but unavoidable. and so this abstract cynicism launders the image of swiss banks too. This is naturalized blurriness—expec-ted and ultimately relieving. But to have pioneered a