Swissair Posters

The Making of …

Swissair’s first posters featuring aerial photographs appeared in the spring of 1971, the last, in early 1996. They helped shape the airline’s visual identity until October 2, 2001 – that day of shame when the Swiss vocabulary was enriched by the word “grounding”.

Swissair Posters

Swissair began in May 1971 with eight posters: Africa, Argentina, Brazil, California, Canada, North Africa, the Philippines, and the USA. They were created by world famous photographer and designer Emil Schulthess. Prior to this, he had searched for suitable motifs in my archive of aerial photos. Art director Fritz Girardin, responsible for the posters, commissioned Schulthess to do the job, above all because of the latter’s outstanding professional style. Cunningly, however, he was also counting on the bonus of Schulthess’ name, which was to help him and his superior, Bert Diener, responsible for corporate identity, get the Board to approve the posters, which were indeed very different and very novel compared to their predecessors.

This first series of posters bore the logo designed by Rudolf Bircher and the arrow-shaped signet, both of which had defined Swissair’s corporate identity since 1951. At the time, the offset printing process selected already offered high standard results, yet printing from the 35mm slides presented a challenge nonetheless. Overseeing the printing, Emil Schulthess and his studio colleague, graphic designer Hans Frei, coaxed everything possible out of the process. The posters were an instant hit. The media appreciated the high-wire act between information and abstraction and suggested it was a new form of travel advertising. The respectable color supplement of Zurich’s Tagesanzeiger devoted its front cover to the first eight posters and ran an article, entitled with a quotation from Albrecht Dürer: “Art is in nature, you just have to tear it out” – whereby the seemingly brutal act of tearing just means drawing out. The posters were not intended for public display, but nonetheless they spread with surprising swiftness into the public domain, whether individually or as a series, as wall decorations in interiors. There was hardly a school in Switzerland that did not have a few posters plastered up on the stairs, in the corridors or at least in the geography classroom. For my school-aged children (and therefore also for me), this was no sweet success: The eternal question that was received with embarrassment each time: “Aren’t they your Dad’s pictures?” annoyed them intensely. The original plan was to have an open series of 12 to 18 posters, but this soon became 20.

With a view to the incoming fleet of aircraft and the firm’s pending golden jubilee in 1981, Swissair commissioned artist and designer Karl Gerstner from Basle to produce a paintjob for the airliners. Gerstner responded with an extensive communications concept, a graphic-cum-typographic rejuvenation of the fuselage and subsidiary parts. He advised the company to enter the market as a single brand, from the outward appearance of the planes to the graphic design of the most trivial printed matter. Today this would be termed “branding”. Gerstner’s solutions serve as role models even today. He designed the written logo using a freely available font, for the signet he chose the national emblem, the Swiss Cross in a vermilion rhomboid. Vermilion became the Swissair color per se. By 1979 the posters appeared with the new logo in the highlight font chosen by Gerstner, futura bold. However, there is no point in looking for the signet on the posters of the second series. But why was the rhomboidal Swiss Cross, emblazoned across the tails of all the aircraft, absent from the posters? Fritz Girardin, who was responsible for putting Gerstner’s ideas into action, no longer remembers the discussions that led to the signet not being used. He only draws attention to the fact that putting the Swiss national emblem on a poster entitled “california”, “brazil” or “west africa”, would most likely only have caused confusion.


Initially, 4,000 to 5,000 copies of each poster were printed, but some of them went through several subsequent print runs. Reprints were always produced in line with the latest design standards. The second series with the new logo increased the total by 14 new motifs. Furthermore, 18 posters from the first series were reprinted having donned the new graphic style.

It goes without saying that producing the images in all the continents was a dream job. I had free reign in terms of scouting motifs; I also had to consider destinations that were not, or not yet, connected to the flight network. On some occasions we tried out unusual forms of collaboration which lowered costs and at the same time increased our yield in terms of advertising effect. Commissioned to produce a poster for Australia, I flew around the island continent. Ansett Airlines, Swissair’s partner in Australia, offered me as many free flights as I wanted on their domestic network, in return for the right to later present all the poster candidates I’d suggest to Swissair in their in-flight magazine. When I had spotted potential sights from airliners on standard routes, after landing I chartered a small plane to make them out more clearly from a lower height.

I regularly presented the candidates to Fritz Girardin and Emil Schulthess in the latter’s studio. These sessions en petit comité still astonish me even today. Hardly a word was uttered. There were no differences of opinion, it seemed discussion was unnecessary – as soon as a picture appeared on the screen it was a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. Schulthess would put a yes slide on the yes pile without saying a single word so obvious was it to us all that this was where it belonged, or he sometimes accompanied it with a hitting remark from his vocabulary of praising words: “an ace!” From the outset, we fully agreed on the selection criteria for the images: countries and continents to be featured in posters were not to be so much shown by an  aerial view as evoked by association. The visual reformulation of a well-known landmark—of an easily identifiable monument, say—was treated scornfully as only a last resort. The focus was always more on finding than inventing. We soon realized, though, that sometimes even the most fortunate of finds, a satisfactory picture in terms of graphics from the destination country in question was simply not good enough. All of us, whether we have been there or not, have an idea of what we think Brazil will be like, for example, but this Brazil of the soul may well contradict a motif which has actually been found there. Every find had to prove itself in an emotional field of expectations, something which is hard to describe with any precision in words. Since this field changes with time, it was necessary to be flexible. The Los Angeles city freeways on the US poster in the first series were initially received with great enthusiasm: Freeways like this could, even according to traffic experts, maintain the viability of large cities as places to live. But the hangover soon followed the euphoria. The users of the spaghetti made from concrete now spent a lot of time in traffic jams reading the bumper stickers on the car in front of them: “ Remember the time when sex was dirty and the air was clean.”  Swissair withdrew the poster.

We had little fear of contact in our choice of candidates. Japan, which usually entices tourists with kimonos and cherry blossoms in its advertisements, could really be evoked with the aerial picture of a large tanker being built in the docks. I only remember two occasions when we lost heart. In Lower Mesopotamia, in Iraq, I had tracked down a landform created by erosion, not dissimilar in shape to a dragon. Its eye-catching value meant that it was destined to become the subject of a poster. However, as soon as we pictured the details of the destination or region – the Middle East – printed above the dragon-like image, the intrinsically harmless picture became an accomplice of subliminal fears and gave it a threatening effect – hardly the idea behind travel advertising! We rejected it. A second candidate we rejected, was an image showing the hillfigure of the Cerne Abbas Giant in England,   We did so with respect for the prudish attitude to be expected from Management and the public. Irrespective of what bumper stickers said – sex was still not quite as clean as the air once had been.

I later had the satisfaction of seeing the priapic Giant printed in the book The Past from Above (Frances Lincoln, London 2005) as picture # 210 and the dragon from Iraq in the book Weltbilder (Images of the Earth) (Schirmer/Mosel, Munich 2004) as picture # 64, unencumbered by poster scruples.

In 1996, Swissair launched a third and last series of posters with aerial images. In a new print run, three posters from the second series were reproduced with  the rhomboidal Swiss Cross added to the caption. At the same time, the advertising department produced ten posters with new motifs from my photo archive and even here they used Gerstner’s logo with the signet of the Swiss Cross in a rhomboidal shape. In the mean time, graphic precision and typographic pizzazz were no longer what they had once been. Purist Gerstner would not have shown much enthusiasm for the font chosen to depict the destination, the countries and continents. Those nurturing his heritage had long since ceased to work for the company. Fritz Girardin retired in 1985, and Emil Schulthess died in 1996 after a long and difficult illness.


Writing this report on the making of the posters occasionally seemed like an archeological dig. Along with Swissair, its central archive also went under in 2001. In collecting evidence, two articles from numbers 180 (1975) and 237 (1985) of the magazine “Graphis” proved very helpful. Of the greatest help however was Fritz Girardin, whose recollections filled the gaps in my own, and from time to time, also corrected them. I owe him my deepest thanks for both the creation of the posters and the archaeology involved in unearthing their making.

A staggering flight

I remember. Sudan, 29 January 1963.
My first photographic flight. I have hired a Cessna 172, together with a Swedish pilot, in Khartoum. I want to document the temples, pyramids and fortresses of ancient Nubia between the Fourth and Second Nile Cataracts above Wadi Halfa. At Soleb, close to the Third Cataract, a team under Michela Schiff Giorgini is examining and restoring the great sanctuary of Amenophis III. As an archaeologist, Signora Schiff Giorgini fully deserves her reputation: as a hostess in a desert camp she has no equal. For her, a Martini without an olive is unthinkable. The first pilot to land in her camp will find a bottle of whisky waiting in the fridge. As we are approaching Soleb, I uncautiously tell my pilot about this oasis of creature comforts and the prize awaiting whoever lands there first. Now there is no holding him back. The archaeologists on the ground use sheets to indicate the wind direction on the bumpy runway, but the thirsty man finds the fridge and bottle without any further assistance. We are hailed like Lindbergh after his Atlantic crossing. The inhabitants of the surrounding villages flock to see their first light aircraft. An hour later, the Cessna, now long overdue, takes off and staggers – there is no other word for it – the last two hundred kilometres to its destination. In Wadi Halfa the police arrest the drunken pilot and impound his plane.

Beware of piranhas

I remember. Near Manaus, 3 March 1979.
We are flying over the green sea of Amazonia in a Cessna 182 fitted with floats. Earlier in the day I photographed the confluence of the Rio Negro and the Amazon for an Air France advertising campaign. The four of us – me, the pilot, who is a Canadian missionary, and, in the rear seats, a French couple, Marc and Chloé – are now on an ethno-archaeological reconnaissance flight over the areas inhabited by the Waimairi and Akroairi Indians. In its policy towards the native Indians, the Brazilian government has never cared to show its hand, and so our missionary-cum-pilot has preferred not to notify the authorities about our flight but to slip away beneath the radar of the airport of Manaus. We are forced to be entirely self-reliant. No one knows where we are. Suddenly Marc taps my shoulder and asks me to inform the pilot in English that Chloé has been taken short. It is urgent. ‘Chloé has to pee.’ The man of God at the controls takes it all in his stride, selects an atmospheric tributary, lands on the water, brings the Cessna to a rest on a sandbank and releases his fishing rod from its mounting, intending to take advantage of our unplanned pit stop to do a spot of fishing. Discreetly we men turn our backs on Chloé and the Cessna while she does what she has to do. The Cessna unfortunately takes this opportunity to do something it is not supposed to do, breaking free from the sandbank and drifting slowly into the river. Stranded on a sandbank in the middle of a river almost certainly teeming with peckish piranhas, with no links to the outside world and not even missed by our fellow human beings: our situation could hardly be more unpleasant. But our fisherman-pilot keeps his head and, casting his line with well-aimed accuracy, catches the aircraft as it drifts away, then slowly, ever so slowly, draws in his catch. Never before has the tensile strength of fishing lines given me such pause for thought.

In praise of old age

I remember. Nanjing, mid-June 1987.
I have been asked to photograph China from the air for an Australian publisher working in collaboration with one of China’s state-owned publishing houses. I have to rely on the machine placed at my disposal by the armed forces. There are no chartered planes in the Middle Kingdom. I first see the machine at a military airfield in Nanjing, a Soviet Antonov AN-2 from the 1940s that was rebuilt in China. A double-decker with a radial engine, it was the largest single-motor double-decker in the history of aeronautics and looks for all the world like a gigantic crop-spraying plane. It is certainly an old-timer. It is no wonder that my heart sinks and my voice rises in pitch. ‘This thing must be thirty years old.’ ‘No, no,’ my companions reassure me. ‘More … older.’ Their answer reflects the Chinese respect for great age, which apparently guarantees increased reliability even in airplanes.

In other ways, too, I have problems with the veteran AN-2. The armed forces’ ideas on safety are very lax. They expect me to stand in the open doorway during the flight, leaning slightly forward in order to be able to see out of the plane, but without an adequate safety harness. Suddenly I remember a clause in my contract: ‘Life must always remain subordinate to the best photograph.’ Until now I had assumed that it was the translation that had turned the Chinese original’s well-meaning concern for the photographer’s life and limb into an expression of ominous nonchalance, but in spite of this I risk standing during a brief flight over the mausoleum of Sun Yat-sen. Safely back on the ground, I insist on a seat for all future flights. My wish is my companions’ command, and I am duly given a seat for the next flight – a kindergarten stool perched perilously close to the gaping door of the plane. It is badly anchored to the floor, and in the foetal position that I am forced to adopt, I can scarcely see further than my knees. On landing, I therefore express an urgent request for a more solidly built chair for an adult, a chair more appropriate to the task in hand, more resilient, more welcoming, more comfortable and, finally, conducive to a relaxed posture. My translator, never at a loss for a flowery expression, evidently does an excellent job when passing on my catalogue of demands, for on the next flight I find that the kindergarten stool has been replaced in the open doorway by a feudal and formidable club armchair, almost certainly a solution unique in the annals of flying. But I refuse, of course, to be a pioneer: the heavy chair is so badly lashed down that if the plane were suddenly to change direction both the chair and its occupant would slide into space.

My employers finally saw sense and placed a large helicopter at my disposal, so that the armchair did not fly after all. But turbulence is a recurrent nightmare of mine, with the armchair from the Chinese officers’ mess alternating in my dreams with three jeroboams of Burgundy.

...more about that another time.

(from the introduction to the book The Past from Above: „From the Private Log of an Aerial Photographer“)