This Spring, Sylvia Michel filmed a video of her dog (Rasta) in the Zermatt valley surrounded by dandelion fields and the magnificent Alpine landscape. When she posted the clip on her Instagram channel, captioned “A white dog walking in paradise,” who would have guessed the video would go viral? Today it has over 50 million views and was even featured on USA Today’s YouTube channel.
At 45-years-old, Michel is much more than an Instagram celebrity. In 2018, she won the Swiss National Award at the world’s biggest photography competition: the Sony World Photography Awards. Her winning photo was taken at night and is entitled “Erleuchtet.” The photo features a solitary, illuminated, snow-covered pine tree, timidly poised beneath a starry Alpine sky. “As someone who’s entirely self-taught, I often doubted my own photography skills. Winning a prize as coveted as this was a sort of blessing; it really helped reinforce the fact that I’m on the right path.”
Many Irons in the Fire
Sylvia Michel started taking pictures as a young teenager. “They’re nothing like what I shoot today,” she specifies. “Everything was analogue back then. I had a simple point-and-shoot camera and knew very little.” As time passed Michel’s career took center stage. She had her professional start in hospitality, she mixed music in bars and clubs, and then she worked for a Swiss radio station for fifteen years. Her weekends were spent planning music for weddings where she began taking pictures of flowers, the bridal party, and their guests. Little by little, photography became more of a focal point in her life. That’s when she decided to take the leap: she rented a studio, bought some professional equipment and made the transition to fulltime wedding and portrait photographer.
The Beauty of the Mountains
Michel’s transition into photography would continue with the help of a dog- that famous white dog that was featured in her viral Instagram video. Rasta loves the snow and Michel would accompany him for long walks, going ever higher into the mountains… until they won her over. “When I’m on a mountain summit looking down over the entire valley below, I am simply happy. It’s an intense moment of pure joy.”
Michel goes on these adventures with her camera on hand, as her favorite shots are almost always spontaneous. “When the fog or the clouds roll in, you have to act quickly. When nature gives you that chance to capture her magic, you have to be ready. There have been moments where I’ve been so moved by nature’s incredible performance that it’s brought tears to my eyes.” So what inspires her most? Taking dramatic, out-of-the-ordinary photos that reveal nature’s beauty to people who would not normally notice it. She hopes her photos invite spectators to stay for just a moment and take it all in.
The Magic of the Night
Her first visit to Zermatt was a revelation. She was fascinated by the Matterhorn and it inspired her to begin experimenting with nighttime photography. Michel was so intrigued by the mountain, she found herself waking up in the middle of the night to simply stare at it… and then attempt to immortalize it. “I paced my balcony like a tiger in a cage,” she said, “trying to capture the Matterhorn with my camera. But I didn’t have the right lens and I knew nothing about what exposure I should be using.”
Today, Sylvia Michel’s nighttime photography isn’t improvised at all. Once she’s locked down a very specific idea, Michel anticipates her shooting angle in advance, plans out the necessary equipment, and chooses her moment in accordance with the weather and the seasons. “Photos of the Milky Way are rarely spontaneous. Nothing can be left to chance. To get them just right, you need to wait for a new moon, ideally between March and October, when the sky is its most beautiful,” she confirms.
Sylvia Michel is fascinated by the night’s silence and the profound peace that comes with it, particularly in places that are bustling with activity during the day. “Stelli Lake for example, is completely swarmed with visitors during the day but is just as beautiful at night. The funny thing is that capturing that moment is a paradox- every photo I take makes other people want to have that experience and take their own version of that same photo.” And yet for now, Sylvia Michel is still one step ahead of the crowds. She finds her passion in that “in-between”- that moment of calm that’s sparked by the magic of simple existence.