THE SECRET LIFE OF MOUNTAINS

The Broader Picture
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Azure with cloudlessness, violet with drifting snow, gun-metal with rain, near black with night, off-white with nothingness, yellow-gold with dusk - or orange with beauty, a dropping sun singeing the edges of the clouds like a dancing flame ...

Jean Odermatt has seen all these Swiss landscapes, and thousands more. The Alps have obsessed him since childhood. He grew up on the relatively gentle slopes of the Vierwaldstattersee, but it was the harsh, high Gotthard region lurking behind the lake - "the quintessential mountain pass" - that really captured his imagination. At first he wanted to conquer the mountains technically: as an engineering student he spent hours drafting plans for a tunnel; but the government beat him to it. So Odermatt set his sights higher, and decided to try to master the unknowable Gotthard in a different way - with photography.

He had never held a camera until 1983, but since then he has taken 180,000 photographs of the Gotthard. From more than 500 points within an area eight miles square, Odermatt has recorded terrain and horizons at every time of day and year, and in every kind of weather. It's been a labour of love and a test of endurance and ingenuity. The Gotthard is well tramped over by tourists and training soldiers in the summer, but between October and June it is buried in barely negotiable snow. No one goes there then. Undeterred, Odermatt decided to spend the winter of 1985-86 up in the mountains, to find out what the bitterest season does to them and their skies. To save himself from freezing in future years, he built a station at an altitude of 3,000m and installed an automatic camera that could withstand snow, storms and extreme changes in temperature.

His continuing project combines scientific rigour with sheer aestheticism; the result is an extraordinary document of the mountains. None of the images is definitive. That would be impossible: though Odermatt records the literal time that each was taken, together the images form a series that is as infinite as its subject seems eternal.

'Skyscapes' by Jean Odermatt is published by Scalo, and distributed in the UK by Thames & Hudson, at pounds 33.50.

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