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Vittorio Sella: Photographing Mountains

16th November 2023.

Born in the small Northern Italian town of Biella in 1859, Vittorio Sella’s photographs are truly awe-inspiring. His father, a serious amateur photographer, taught him the rudiments of photography and had published the first Italian treatise on the subject: ‘Il plico del fotografo’ (1856). However, it was on the eve of his father’s death that Sella became acquainted with the photographer Vittorio Besso, who gave him the first camera he would use to photograph a mountainous subject. In 1879, Sella took this 30 x 36cm camera and created a circular panorama of the Alps from the summit of Mount Mars. Subsequently, the link between mountaineering and photography was securely forged for Sella.

Sella had inherited his love for mountains from his uncle, who as well as being a statesman, was also a mountaineer, founding the Club Alpino Italiano (Italian Alpine Club) in 1863. Although renowned for his photography, Sella achieved many mountaineering ‘firsts’, especially for his winter exploits. Yet, it was his successes in high-altitude photography that was, and still is, particularly impressive.

Aiming to execute the first photographic portfolio of the high alpine reaches, Sella embarked upon mountainous expeditions every year between 1879 and 1895. During these, he produced more than a thousand images of mountains: an extraordinary feat considering the intense technical and climactic conditions. Yet, Sella’s travels also took him further afield. By the end of his life, Sella had climbed and photographed some of the most challenging summits across four continents. Although much of the world had been mapped and explored by this period, some of the highest and most remote mountains (summited by Sella) had not previously been scaled, let alone photographed.

Sella combined the scientific and geographical grandeur of mountains with an aesthetic admiration for them. Harking back to 19th century Sublime and Romantic sentiments regarding the philosophy of nature, Sella’s photographs bring to us ‘not only the facts and forms of far-off splendours of the world, but the essence of experience… in the inner recesses of our mind and heart’ – Ansel Adams.


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