The Swiss nomad

An exhibition at Villa Ciani recounts the work of Swiss photographer Peter W. Häberlin, which would never have come to light had it not been for the photographic book Yallah, with texts by Paul Bowles.

In 1933, a 21-year-old Swiss man set off from his home in Canton Thurgau to walk to Africa. He passed through mainland Italy, stopping at Capri and Positano, before proceeding on to Palermo, where he embarked on a ship to Tunis. Walking and hitching lifts in lorries, he travelled from Tunisia to Morocco. In Algeria, he saw the desert and stopped at the oasis of Biskra before heading farther south to the city of Touggourt. During this journey — followed by another four between 1949 and 1952 — he created a reportage of outstanding beauty and his pictures are currently on display at Lugano's Villa Ciani.

Peter W. Häberlin (1912-1953) was an unusual man. Family duty initially pushed him into an apprenticeship as a pastry maker but, after doing his military service, he realised that his homeland, Switzerland, was too small for him and photography became his future.

After returning home following his first trip, Häberlin studied sculpture and photography in Hamburg before World War II forced him to move to Zurich and its applied arts school. There, he studied under Hans Finsler, who organised the Zurich school's photography course in 1932 and ran it until 1957.

After leaving the school, Häberlin started contributing to Zurich-based magazine Du , which at the time was publishing photographs by Werner Bischof, René Groebli and Otto Pfenniger. Although marked by prolonged absences, this job is the only one that has left specific traces in his archives — an indication of his restlessness.
Top: <i>Mosque</i>, In Salah, central Algeria. Above: <i>In Salah</i>, central Algeria. Peter W. Häberlin, Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur
Top: Mosque , In Salah, central Algeria. Above: In Salah , central Algeria. Peter W. Häberlin, Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur
Only in the travel dimension did Häberlin feel complete and, as Alessia Borellini explains in one of the exhibition's catalogue essays, his nomadic existence has a dual significance: "There is, of course, the physical journey that prompted Häberlin to travel the routes in the Algerian desert at least five times during his lifetime, but there is also his inner journey on which he sometimes followed similar trajectories, sometimes advancing and then going back over experiences, feelings and thoughts — because an inner journey is, by definition, free from constraints of time and space."
<i>Quartier réservé</i>, Ghardaia, northern Algeria. Peter W. Häberlin, Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur
Quartier réservé , Ghardaia, northern Algeria. Peter W. Häberlin, Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur
As you can imagine, this Swiss photographer had little interest in the systematic pursuit of professional success, at least as it is normally seen by many. Häberlin's work would never have come to light had Yallah not been published in 1956, three years after his premature death at just 41 years of age. This photographic essay of pictures taken on his African travels contained a text by the American writer Paul Bowles, author of The Sheltering Sky . The New Yorker published a review of Yallah in 1957, remarking how these were the images of a Swiss man who had died in 1953 at the age of 41 and who was undoubtedly one of the great photographers of his time.
This Swiss photographer had little interest in the systematic pursuit of professional success, at least as it is normally seen by many
<i>A marabout’s domed tomb</i>, Timimoun, central Algeria. Peter W. Häberlin, Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur
A marabout’s domed tomb , Timimoun, central Algeria. Peter W. Häberlin, Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur
The Sahara. Peter W. Häberlin. Fotografie 1949-1952 exhibition pays tribute to the concept of the journey and should not to be missed, featuring 128 unique B/W pictures that combine views of the Sahara desert with villages in northern Cameroon and domed tombs in central Algeria. Häberlin's most intense images, however, are the portraits of children and young women. Laura Bossi
<i>Sifting grain</i>, Colomb-Béchar, northern Algeria. Peter W. Häberlin, Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur
Sifting grain , Colomb-Béchar, northern Algeria. Peter W. Häberlin, Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur
Through 10 March 2013
Sahara. Peter W. Häberlin. Fotografie 1949-1952
Villa Ciani, Parco Civico
Lugano, Switzerland

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