Ella Maillart – photographs

November 21, 2017

Every now and then I get out my collection of large-format books of photographs from the Swiss traveller’s journeys in the East and marvel at them; I’ve just revisited them.

Ella Maillart was an amazing woman in many ways; a sportswoman, skier and sailor at Olympic level (Paris 1924) at a time when few women were doing such things; a solo traveller in all sorts of interesting and dangerous places – the Soviet Union in its early days, China during the Japanese occupation and civil war, and the Middle East and India generally. I don’t think she counts as an explorer, but her travels took her on many dangerous routes, probably rarely if ever trodden by outsiders. She observes, participates and records with understanding and without judgement or superiority.

I have become more intrigued by her Swissness; as I gradually tracked down and read all her books, and collections of photographs, I came to see how she had a completely different perspective on many things. Switzerland was not affected by the Great War, which meant her childhood experiences were rather different from those of most Europeans. I formed the impression that Swiss neutrality let that nation look on shocked and horrified whilst the rest of the continent tore itself to pieces in mutual slaughter, but equally allowed its nationals to move around ways not available to citizens of other countries. Similarly, the nation watched horrified as Europe drifted inexorably towards the action replay of 1939, and Maillart took the decision, being in a position to leave Europe behind, to head east once again; indeed by then her voyages had become increasingly interior and spiritual, and most of the second world war years were spent in India…

This time around, it was her photographs I was revisiting; black and white photos from the days when the art was far more primitive in the sense of dependent on the skills of the artist, rather than the technology as it is today. True, she had a state-of-the-art camera (a Leica) but it’s her selection of subjects – people and places – that enchant. There is a timelessness about many of her images, a sense of being a part of a permanent past where things didn’t change, and for many of the people and places that was true in those days. I was particularly struck by the faces – the inscrutability – of those who were possibly being photographed for the first time in their lives and must have had no conception of what a camera was, or a photo could be…

The books of photos are all good, all hard to track down now; there is some overlap between them, and useful commentary and context, too.E

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