The summer months in the Alps are traditionally the busiest on the passes – but visually, wintertime in the mountains holds a far greater appeal. While the pass roads go into hibernation and their snaking contours only appear as silhouettes beneath a blanket of snow, the corners and bends of the cleared and open Alpine crossings stretch like black ink marks over the white landscape. During my winter trip in the mountains I often don’t know what’s in store for me and my camera around the next corner: the monochrome whiteout or the ultimate calligraphic contrast. It is this seasonal paring-down to the very essence – the curves as a part of the Alpine topography, the black strip of asphalt in its purest form – that constantly reminds me of the artistic achievement of the architects and engineers.
And then it begins to snow. At first the flakes fall gently on arid pastures, icing the tips of the dazzlingly yellow larches, the granite-grey rocks and the serene, dark lakes. But the flurries quickly become thick and heavy until you can barely see the next corner, and the switchbacks that were snaking their way up the mountains so distinctly just a moment ago have disappeared under a crisp, white blanket. With the first snowfall tranquillity settles over the Alps once again. The tourists in their campervans have long returned to the valleys – and so have the blaring racers and sports cars of cornering zealots. And the muted jingling of cow bells floating out of the fog will soon fall silent, too. It is this time, between the first snow and the start of the winter sport season, that the mountainscape shows its true character: inhospitable and harsh, lonely and still, in its monochrome monotony of white peaks, white valleys, white wisps of fog, dark conifer forests and inky black rocks defying the senses. Interestingly, most of the images in magazines, books and advertising campaigns portray an Alpine world in midsummer, with flowers carpeting the mountain meadows, or a winter wonderland quilted in snow – and the skies are a deep blue, no matter what season. The weeks and months of the metamorphosis, with its cloudscapes and snowscapes, obviously go against the media ideal of the Alps and thus are not as well documented visually. Gerhard Richter’s Davos 1981 painting Monstein is one of the few but all the more dramatic portraits of these bridging months, when the sun filters through the clouds as a diffused light.
“For me, there is no difference between a landscape and an abstract image,” Richter once said. And indeed, up here above the tree line when the snow slowly erases the contrasts, the observer’s boundaries become blurred between reality and abstraction. Here and there under the snow, hints of the serpentine corners can be seen – yet most of the Alpine passes now go into a hibernation from which they will only awaken in late spring. Before snowploughs and sun finally bring the black ribbons of tarmac to light again in May or June, we have but a short time to enjoy the beautiful switchbacks alone before the sheet-metal cavalcade pushes its way back up the mountain. But for many of the major mountain passes, from Gotthard to Stelvio, the summer months are in fact the exception, the divergence from their frozen physical state. Since most of the mountains in the Alps are riddled with tunnels through which drivers can easily reach every valley and ski area, there are only a handful of passes that are kept free of snow during the winter months. Bearing in mind the physical test of endurance required to build them, this makes the engineering feats of road construction seem all the more astonishing. It’s a paradox that we pay particular attention to the modular prefabricated houses and impermanent bungalows of modern architecture, while the most enduring architectural marvels of that time – the high mountain roads and the countless tunnels and bridges – are unquestionably regarded as commodities. When fog wraps its fingers through the forests, when the first snow swathes the rocks and meadows, or when the spring sun turns the Alpine landscape into a white and brown patchwork carpet, this is where he finds his authentic motifs. With his anti-cyclical excursions during this rarely-documented season of the mountain world, his pictorial documentation of the most beautiful Alpine passes comes full circle. For a zigzag devotee and vocational traveller such as Stefan Bogner, who is completely captivated by the spectacular road architecture and wild, uninhabited landscapes, it can never be enough. Thus, this book concludes with an extra icy flurry: a winter journey to the end of the world. After all, where else can it be as dark, archaic and cold in December and January as in Iceland, the mythical volcanic island at the edge of the Arctic Circle? A road circumnavigating the island through ice, snow and eternal light represents an achievement in the art of road construction, to which sinuous beauty we would like to pay homage once again with this book.