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Frozen in Time: The Mountain Photography of Vittorio Sella

Preview by Lizzie Guilfoyle

PIONEERING mountaineer and photographer Vittorio Sella (1859-1943) recorded his journeys to the mountains of four continents in a series of spectacular images described by both climbers and photographers as the greatest mountain photographs ever made.

Frozen in Time is a selection of these stunning works spanning three decades that will be on display at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art from June 25 to September 14, 2008.

Sella was born and died in Biella, in the northern Piedmont region of the Italian Alps, not far from the peaks of Mont Blanc and Monte Rosa. His father had written the first Italian-language treatise on photography in 1856 and his uncle Quintino Sella, the statesman and, briefly, Italian Minister of Finance, founded the Italian Alpine Club.

In 1882, when he was 23 years old, Sella wrote to Dallmeyer, the English camera maker: “I beg you to undertake immediately the camera for the 30 × 40 centimetre plates described in my letter; I beg you to make it in the best mahogany, with every care possible, as I will use it for taking views in the high Alps… Here we have splendid weather, and I burn with impatience to start photographic excursions.”

He used this cumbersome camera until 1893 when he took up a Ross & Co camera with 24 × 18 cm plates and also began to use two Kodak cameras for ‘instantaneous’ and stereoscopic photographs.

Having undertaken such feats in the Alps as the first winter ascent of the Matterhorn in 1882 and the first winter traverse of Mont Blanc in 1888, Sella set out on the mountaineering and photographic adventures that were to consume him for many years.

His travels took him on expeditions to the Caucasus in 1889, 1890, and 1896; to the Saint Elias range in Alaska in 1897; to Sikkim and Nepal in 1899; to the Ruwenzori in Uganda in 1906; to the Karakoram and Western Himalayas in 1909; and to Morocco in 1925. In 1935, at the age of 76, he made his final attempt to climb the Matterhorn, abandoned only because of an accident which injured one of the guides.

Sella could not have captured the grandeur of the mountains in the way he did had he not been as skilled a mountaineer as he was a photographer. Photographs of great peaks taken from valleys below foreshorten them but by climbing an opposite mountain, Sella gives a true picture of their immensity and beauty.

Through Sella’s images we can appreciate and enjoy the mountains in a way that until then only other climbers could have shared. For example, when taking the pictures that make up his extraordinary Panorama of the Baltoro Glacier in the Karakoram range on the borders between Pakistan, China and India, Sella and his porters carried his heavy Ross & Co camera to 17,330 feet.

Sella had a deep curiosity about the natural world and the photographs he took on his travels encompass not only the spectacular mountains but also the native flora and fauna as well as the people he encountered and their customs. In 1946, the distinguished photographer Ansel Adams, who was one of Sella’s greatest admirers, wrote a memorial tribute to him in the Sierra Club Bulletin:

“The memory of Vittorio Sella is closely embraced by the moods of the world’s great mountains, many of which are known to us chiefly through the beautiful imagery of his lens. Mighty K2, shrouded in gray plumes of the Monsoon, the thundering avalanches of Mount St Elias, remote Ruwenzori glittering over the hot plains of Africa, and the noble crag of Ushba towering above the ancient Caucasian lands – these are revealed in all their sheer majesty in Sella’s masterful photographs.”

During his lifetime, Sella was highly acclaimed and his photographs were published and widely exhibited in the United States and Europe. His work was shown at the annual exhibition of the Alpine Club in London and his last solo exhibition in London took place in 1890 at the Royal Geographical Society, which the same year awarded him their prestigious Murchison prize in recognition of the photographs he took in the Caucasus.

Amongst the many other prizes, medals and honours he was awarded were the Royal Photographic Society medal in 1894 and the Cross of St Anne, conferred by Tsar Nicholas II in 1901. Sella is still well known in the photographic world as well as among the mountaineering community, and the Estorick Collection will offer visitors in London the first opportunity for more than a century to appreciate the magnificent achievement of his pioneering photographs.

The catalogue for the exhibition is being written by Mark Haworth-Booth, Visiting Professor of Photography, University of the Arts London, and curator of the first-ever Ansel Adams exhibition in Europe (shown in 1976 at the Victoria and Albert Museum). He said, “I have had the privilege of studying Vittorio Sella’s prints and negatives at first hand – the experience made me bracket his achievement, at its best, with that of the early Ansel Adams. Between them, Sella and Adams made most of the truly exhilarating mountain photographs.”

Frozen in Time: The Mountain Photography of Vittorio Sella comprises some fifty of Sella’s extraordinary vintage photographs and multi-plate panoramas borrowed from the Fondazione Sella which owns the Sella Museum, established in 1948 at the laboratory in his home town of Biella.

As Ansel Adams wrote: “Knowing the physical pressures of time and energy attendant on ambitious mountain expeditions, we are amazed by the mood of calmness and perfection pervading all of Sella’s photographs. The exquisitely right moment of exposure, the awareness of the orientation of camera and sun best to reveal the intricacies of the forms of ice and stone, the unmannered viewpoint – these qualities reveal the reverent and intelligent artist.

“In Sella’s photographs there is no faked grandeur; rather there is understatement, caution, and truthful purpose… 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.”

All those who love mountains and are interested in photography will be awed by the grandeur and beauty of Sella’s timeless images.

Admission: £3.50, concessions £2.50, free to under-16s and students with a valid NUS card, library (by appointment only) £2.50 per visit.

Times: Wednesday to Saturday – 11am to 6pm; Sunday – 12 to 5pm; late night – Thursdays until 8pm.

Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, 39a Canonbury Square, London, N1 2AN.

For more information call 020 7704 9522 or visit the website.