Vintage mountain photography/ Vittorio Sella

March 28, 2018

Vintage mountain photography/ Vittorio Sella

We love collecting vintage mountain pictures, the ones with deep black and white contrasts, the ones that were captured with cameras that are weighting much more than today’s cameras and mobile phones.  With this article we want to start the series of articles introducing the pioneers of mountain photography.

Several years ago in Tbilisi we have got acquainted with Italian photographer and climber Vittorio Sella who was born in end of 19th century.  We were inspired by his works and started searching for information about his works and life. Sella grew up with photography and mountains. His father, Giuseppe Venanzio Sella, not only photographed as a serious amateur but published the first Italian treatise on photography – Plico del Fotografo (Turin, 1856). Vittorio Sella’s uncle, Quintino Sella, founded the Club Alpino Italiano in 1863. Vittorio‘s education included languages (English and German) as well as drawing. He received lessons from the painter Luigi Ciardi and exhibited a charcoal mountain drawing and a painting already in 1882.

Living in Biella, the small Italian village, Vittorio got to watch mountains every day. Precisely, the Alps provided Sella’s first challenges as climber and photographer. Having his first attempts with a camera in 1879, he was in love with mountains and started his key career as a climber and a photographer in 1882.From this year Sella was a part of several expeditions all over the world. 

One cannot be not impressed while considering the timing, the climbing conditions and climbing gear of those times. Here are the most memorable ones:

  1. 1882 March - Sella and his guides achieved the first winter ascent of the Matterhorn;
  2. 1889 – Caucasus. In this expedition Sella and his companions made the fifth ascent of Mount Elbrus (5642m), Europe’s highest mountain.
  3. 1890 Caucasus
  4. 1896 Caucasus
  5. 1897 - first great mountaineering expedition to Alaska, with Sella as official photographer. Sella was invited by the Prince Luigi Amadeo di Savoia, Duke of the Abruzzi (1873-1933)- his patronage- and It led to the „conquest“ of Mount Saint Elias (5489m).
  6. 1906 – Uganda. The Duke of Abruzzi invited Sella to join him on an expedition to Uganda in 1906. The aim was to explore the Ruwenzori, also known as the Mountains of the Moon, whose snowy peaks rise from tropical forests. No one had climbed the higher peaks before 1906. Abruzzi’s expedition not only climbed but mapped and photographed the peaks.
  7. 1909 Karakoram mountains in the Western Himalaya. Abruzzi next led a seven-month expedition to the Karakoram mountains in the Western Himalaya. The climbing team failed on K2, but reached approximately 7470m in the ascent of Chogolisa, the highest that any human had yet climbed. As said by Paul Kallmes, here in Karakoram ‘Sella produced a portfolio of images that stands alone for its time – a striking record of the Karakoram, arguably the finest visual representation of a mountain range that has ever been done’.

We loved how Gasherbrum IV. Child remarks about Sella in the photo album and lists three extraordinary things in his panoramas:  first, he had ‘crammed more information into his image than the eye normally sees, and the effect was startling’. Secondly, ‘Sella’s camera had captured a sense of movement – the relentless ancient ritual of ice, the thirty-five mile long Baltoro glacier, chiseling away the mountain flanks and conveying the rubble at a speed of a few feet a year.’ Third, Sella had photographed the mountains as an experienced climber: an expedition nearly 50 years later used this panorama and other Sella photographs of Broad Peak like ‘road maps to plot their way up its 10,500-foot west face’. 

Vittorio Sella was a huge inspiration to the works of Ansel Adams, especially the early ones.  Once Ansel Adams said that Vittorio's photos is „a spiritual response in the inner recesses of our mind and heart“ . We will write about him in the next article.

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