The Alps today are different mountains from when the first 19th-century photographers hoisted heavy plate cameras up their craggy sides. Glaciers are in retreat, ski resorts are firmly lodged into slopes, and human infrastructure crawls back and forth steadily up their inclines. In 2000, German photographer Olaf Unverzart made his first expedition with his own large-format camera to witness the state of the Alps today. The images from this 12-year project are now published in ALP, released this October by Prestel.
Unverzart is not an alpinist or a landscape photographer interested in romanticizing sweeping beauty. Instead, he wanted to document the human influence on the Alps, and the enduring power of the mountains against this encroachment. Taking on his own solo expeditions armed with his tripod, film, camera, maps, and binoculars, he explored the interventions of construction and rare untouched valleys.
ALP, with text in both English and German, has a history of alpine photography by curator and author Sophia Greiff, along with an essay by mountaineer Tom Dauer. Dauer writes that “the reality and greatness of Olaf Unverzart’s art is this: although people can be seen in only a few of his photographs, they are always present.”
A rock slope scarred with embedded metal or roads tunneling through mountainsides need little commentary about human presence. And when people do appear in the photographs, they are tiny against the grey stone and mottled ice, an infestation more than a dominating force. Yet even with all the concrete and metal scars, the mountains retain their dignity, smashing machines with avalanches, and standing stoic even after being conquered, as Unverzart shows in his Nordwände series of mountain portraits on the last six major challenges of mountaineering in the Alps, all now accomplished. “Pain and tragedy dwell in many a mountainside, ” Unverzart writes in ALP. “The feeling of having to take these pictures is also my justification for returning again and again.”
ALP by Olaf Unverzart is available from Prestel.