Sujoy Das | Photographs 1986 - 2023

Vittorio Sella: Mountain Photographer

vittorio sella
The Telegraph
Kolkata Thursday , October 29 , 2009 | THE MAN WHO CAPTURED THE TRUTH Sujoy Das remembers the legendary mountain photographer of Italy, Vittorio Sella, on his 150th birth anniversary

14th September 1899. A forty year old Italian photographer is standing on the Zemu Glacier in Northern Sikkim at an altitude of around 15,000 feet below the massive north east face of Kangchendzonga. It is five o’ clock in the morning, dark and bitterly cold. His large tripod is sunk in almost three feet of snow. It has been snowing for almost four days. From the north, a chill wind is blowing across the Green Lake plain biting into his tweed jacket. But Vittorio Sella, the legendary mountain photographer, is undaunted. He mounts his large forty pound plate camera on the tripod and slows pans it away from that sheer face of the third highest peak in the world. Sella carefully frames his photograph, inserts the film plate and waits for dawn. And, as the first light touches Siniolchu, one of the satellites of Kangchendzonga, Sella presses the shutter to capture possibly the finest view of one of the most beautiful mountains in the world.

The year 2009 marks the one hundred and fiftieth birth anniversary of Sella and in all probability will go unnoticed. Sella is virtually unknown today but in his time he was one of the most celebrated photographers in Europe.

Born in 1859 in the village of Biella, Italy, Sella photographed mountains in four continents: the Russian Caucasus, the Saint Elias Range in Alaska, Mount Ruwenzori in Africa, Kangchendzonga in the Himalayas and K2 in the Karakoram. His father was a textile merchant and young Vittorio worked in his father’s factory for some time as a chemist until his passion of mountains and photography got the better of him. Sella’s passion for the mountains was possibly transmitted to him by his uncle Quentin Sella who was the founder of the Italian Alpine Club. From 1880 to 1893 young Vittorio climbed and photographed in the Alps completing the first winter ascent of the Matterhorn in 1882 and the first winter traverse of Mount Blanc in 1888 for which he received an award from the Royal Geographical Society, London.

Sella’s work in the Alps caught the attention of the Duke of Abruzzi, himself a keen mountaineer and explorer. In 1897 Sella was invited by the Duke to an expedition to Alaska where he photographed the Saint Elias range of mountains. He participated in two further expeditions with the Duke. In 1906 he went to the “mountains of the moon” Ruwenzori in Africa and in 1909 to the Karakoram where he documented K2 and Chogolisa.with rare finesse. The expedition to Chogolisa set a new altitude record of 7500 metres (24,600 feet) which remained unbroken until the British expedition to Everest in 1922. Unfortunately, the Duke was forced to turn around just 150 metres below the summit due to bad weather. Sella’s photograph of the Duke and his guides climbing the Chogolisa icefall with enormous seracs about to topple over their heads remains one of the classics of mountain photography.

In 1899 Sella embarked on his most ambitious expedition accompanying the British mountaineer Douglas Freshfield on the first ever circuit of Kangchendzonga. The trip which took four months of walking and climbing to complete successfully mapped the region around Kangchendzonga for the first time and with Sella’s brilliant photographs serves as an archive for future generations of explorers even today. The expedition was struck by very bad weather which caused unseasonal snowfall in the Zemu valley and despite all odds Sella was able to continue to photograph right through the snowfall.

Many of the great mountains in the world were first photographed by Sella: K2 swirling in monsoon clouds, avalanches careeing off Mt St Elias, the peak of Ruwenzori shining over the great African plains, Jannu in moonlight towering over the Chunjerma pass on the Nepal – Sikkim border.

In 1935 at the age of 76, Sella made one last attempt to climb the Matterhorn which proved unsuccessful. He died in Biella in 1943 at the age of 84.

In his memory, the Italian Alpine Club set up the Vittorio Sella Hut at an altitude of 2588 metres among the mountains of the Grande Paradiso range. The hut is frequently used today by both climbers and photographers.

Sella’s work has been printed in a large format book “Frozen in Time: The Mountain Photography of Vittorio Sella” which is possibly the most important reference work for his photographs. Lodovico Sella, a descendant of Vittorio has set up the Sella Foundation in his hometown Biella which has the largest archive of Sella’s negatives and photographs.
The legendary landscape photographer 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. 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.”
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