Arts & Culture » Arts Stories & Interviews

In Peter Schreyer's Switzerland, modernity creeps in between the chalets and placid cows



Stop. Take a deep breath as you walk into the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at the east end of newly narrowed Holt Avenue. In the first gallery on the right, take some time to look, really look, at the silver gelatin prints in which Winter Park documentary photographer and Crealdé School of Art executive director Peter Schreyer's eye searched his native Pieterlen, Switzerland. The captured scenes have both personal meaning to him and subtle connections to us here in Central Florida.

In a career that includes founding the Hannibal Square Heritage Center, Schreyer's impact on Central Florida's art scene is well into its third decade. Emigrating in 1978 to escape Switzerland's stifling sameness, he landed in the Sunshine State. With Swiss precision, he has documented the turmoil and constantly changing scene that is America: migrant farm workers, African-American seniors, rural landscapes before they succumb to the bulldozer. Schreyer gazes at the overlooked and elevates our desultory Florida vernacular, confronting us with people and places few of us would otherwise choose to see.

Yet here, he sees Switzerland with perhaps an American eye. "Passenger Train Stop at Night, Pieterlen, Switzerland" would be overlooked by your average Swiss waiting for the train. Steel rails gleam dully, and an empty glass box across the track glows under the unstarred night. Here, Schreyer manages to capture the legendary romance that Americans have with European train stations, a drama waiting to happen.

Elsewhere, the camera captures power lines, chain-link fences and graffiti. This isn't exactly The Sound of Music Switzerland. Highly detailed, carefully framed compositions of delicate charcoal and silver shades sink with somber depth into the mind. "Town Center With Historic Schoolhouse" is perhaps the most poignant, a place from his elementary school days reinhabited. Who wouldn't see his own elementary school today with a certain bittersweet emotion?

Paired with his Pieterlen photos, Schreyer's recent Florida work likewise simmers with a diffuse melancholy. He permits nary a soul to be seen in any image (except for two portraits). "Dusk on Lake Apopka" beautifully captures the contemporary vernacular – two mobile homes nestle on the shoreline; the still lake is a mirror of Florida's magnificent twilight sky.

Schreyer has found a Switzerland that has begun to change, modernity creeping in between chalets and placid cows. He's also found a kind of Swiss stillness here in Florida, whether it's in the stolid, open faces of hard-working Crackers or a vintage child's toy tractor posed against gray, weatherbeaten real-deal tractor tires looming in the background ("Pounds Tractor Dealership, Winter Garden, Florida").

So, it turns out, you can go home again. Schreyer sees Switzerland as an American, and America as a Swiss; at home in both, he's opened a kind of a tesseract between these two worlds. Without manipulating the viewer, he has chosen, framed and documented conditions startlingly similar between the two – and yet the Switzerland of his images seems remote, still and unreachable. As a documentarian, he deals with you straight up: no funny business, no artful darkroom tricks, just archival images recording a sense of place. Your impressions, therefore, are completely your own.

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