Thomas Crauwels

The lowlander making his name in the mountains

Laurent Grabet
Thomas Crauwels

Hailing from the flatlands of Belgium, Thomas Crauwels discovered photography and the beauty of the Swiss Alps at the very same time. He has now fashioned a career by combining the two.

Though Belgium is not exactly famed for producing mountain photographers, that has not stopped Thomas Crauwels from pursuing just such a career. Born in a village near Waterloo, the 34-year-old moved to Geneva in 2009, after falling for a Swiss girl. A computer engineer by trade, he then fell head over heels in love again, this time with the beauty of the Alps.

“I can still remember the sense of wonder I felt when I first took the Route du Valais,” recalled Crauwels. “As someone who had not been anywhere more exotic than the seaside by age 25, I was totally blown away by the sight of the mountains stretching down to the lake.” Before long, he became an avid hiker, devoting his weekends to exploring the Jura and Chablais before stumbling across “real” mountains, as he puts it: “I saw them from far away. Mont Blanc, which you can see from Geneva, really stood out for me. The fact that it’s covered in snow all year round intrigued and appealed to me.”

Smitten by the Alps
Crauwels is fascinated by snow, that strange state of water that gently envelops the world and elevates trees and fields to a different plane. Memories of the rare and special snowy days of his childhood come flooding back to him. “I used to take the day off so I could be the first to make tracks in the forest,” he said. A year after his arrival in Switzerland, he bought a reflex camera: “All I wanted to do was take photos that would make my friends back home want to come here and go out walking with me.”

His motivations took a more artistic turn when he decided to push on one day to a mountain hut. When he saw what was up there, it was love at first sight: “When I got to the foot of the first glacier I had ever seen in my life, I knew there and then that what I wanted to photograph was high mountain landscapes, with the sense of eternity that they project.” As he became more familiar with the peaks, the budding photographer came to realise that bad weather only added to their beauty. He began poring over weather forecasts and tracking storms and unsettled weather. He also explored the area around Torgon, in Valais, in an effort to get closer to the mountains, which he describes as his “models”.

The majesty of mountains
Crauwels’ “mountain portraits”, as he describes them, possess a painting-like quality. Most of them are in black and white or monochrome, and focus on matter, light and contrasts rather than people, who are rarely present. When they are, they are merely there to highlight the vastness that surrounds them. “I love rare and fleeting moments, like when a snowstorm smothers the face of a mountain and magnifies it for an instant, before everything melts away,” he said. “Or when the mist clings to a ridge to reveal serrations that were hidden to the eye.”

Now an experienced hiker and something of a mountain dweller too, Crauwels bivouacs for several days at a time amid the landscapes that inspire him, with his trusty Nikon D810 by his side. “I’ve always had the feeling that I’m on holiday when I’m in the Alps,” he said. His favourite photo right now is an eye-catching shot of the Dent d’Hérens. In it a cloud breaks away to reveal a ray of sunlight falling on the mountain. “It projects a dramatic ambiance that I absolutely love,” he said. “You can’t expect to go home with the photo you’ve envisaged in your mind. It’s more realistic to try and capture an interesting atmosphere.”

Putting pen to paper
Crauwels has had his fair share of success already, winning a number of prizes since 2015 and staging a series of exhibitions too. His photos are on display this winter at the Hotel Nevai in Verbier, the Hotel Basecamp in Zermatt and the Galerie Regards Art Photos in Crans-Montana. He is also working on a book that takes the Matterhorn as its theme and which will be published by Lammerhuber of Austria in the winter of 2018/19. “It’s a mountain that fascinates me and I’ve been working on it since 2013,” he explained. “I don’t want to climb it just yet, though, because I’m worried it might lose its mystique for me.”

While he has yet to make a living entirely from his art, the Belgian, who admits to feeling more and more Swiss, is a man on a mission: “Deep down I feel as if I haven’t got here by chance. The Alps are changing. They’re being destroyed by global warming and I’ve seen with my own eyes how much the glaciers have shrunk in the last seven years alone. Maybe the reason why I’m here is to capture that beauty for posterity before it vanishes.”