The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London, is currently hosting an exhibition of photos by Ansel Adams. In a perceptive and characteristically trenchant review in the Evening Standard, art critic Brian Sewell lauds Adams but opts for the less well remembered Vittorio Sella, “whose work preceded and exceeded his achievements.”
Vittorio Sella (1859-1943) was a mountaineer photographer born in Biella in the foothills of the Italian Alps. He made a number of significant climbs in the Alps, including the first winter ascents of the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa, and the first winter traverse of Mont Blanc.
Sella took part in several expeditions further afield, including three to the Caucasus (where a peak now bears his name), to Mount Saint Elias in Alaska, to the Rwenzori in Africa, and the 1909 expedition to K2 and the Karakoram. The latter three expeditions were in the company of Prince Luigi Amedeo, Duke of the Abruzzi. Sella continued to climb into his old age and made his last attempt on the Matterhorn at seventy-six. The attempt failed when one of his guides was injured in an accident.
The high quality of Sella’s photography was in part due to his use of 30×40 cm photographic plates, in spite of the difficulty of carrying bulky and fragile equipment into remote places. He had to invent equipment, including modified pack saddles and rucksacks, to allow these particularly large glass plates to be transported safely. Many of the photographs Sella took were of mountains which had not been previously recorded and so have historical as well as artistic significance.
In 2000 the American publisher Aperture brought out Summit, a large-format, beautifully printed, Sella monograph. On the cover was a breathtaking telephoto image of the summit of Siniolchu as seen from the Zemu glacier in Sikkim. It was taken in 1899 and the peak stands out dramatically against the kind of deep, dark sky already associated with Ansel Adams.
The preface to Summit included material Adams wrote for the Sierra Club Bulletin in 1946. “The purity of Sella’s interpretations move the spectator to a religious awe. Sella has brought to us not only the facts and forms of far-off splendours of the world, but the essence of experience which finds a spiritual response in the inner recesses of our mind and heart.” The American photographer admired Sella for “The exquisitely right moment of exposure, the awareness of the orientation of the camera and sun best to reveal the intricacies of form of ice and stone, the unmannered viewpoint… there is no faked grandeur; rather there is understatement…”
From one master of lofty heights to another, this is high praise indeed.