Daily Picture Show

An Alpine Adventurer And His Mountaintop Darkroom

If there were a Venn diagram of the meticulous Ansel Adams and the audacious mountaineer George Mallory, the overlap would be a somewhat obscure Italian named Vittorio Sella. Born in 1859, Sella was one of the most brazen Alpinists of his time; he was the first, for example, to do a winter climb of the Matterhorn. But Sella also inherited a fascination with photography; his father had penned the first treatise on photography in Italy. And as the master of a highly specified niche, Sella might now be considered the grandfather of adventure photography. Still, it's easy to take his photographs for granted.

  • Highest peak of the Rouies as seen from the Cardon Glacier, Aug. 3, 1888
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    Highest peak of the Rouies as seen from the Cardon Glacier, Aug. 3, 1888
    Vittorio Sella/Fondazione Sella, Courtesy of Panopticon Gallery/Decaneas Archive
  • Moraine Lake on the Baltoro Glacier above Urdukas, 1909
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    Moraine Lake on the Baltoro Glacier above Urdukas, 1909
    Vittorio Sella/Fondazione Sella, Courtesy of Panopticon Gallery/Decaneas Archive
  • Traversing the Hitchcock Glacier on the return from Mount St. Elias, Alaska, 1897
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    Traversing the Hitchcock Glacier on the return from Mount St. Elias, Alaska, 1897
    Vittorio Sella/Fondazione Sella, Courtesy of Panopticon Gallery/Decaneas Archive
  • Alessandro Sella, Joseph Maquignaz, and Gaudenzio Sella on the Wetterhorn, July 19, 1886
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    Alessandro Sella, Joseph Maquignaz, and Gaudenzio Sella on the Wetterhorn, July 19, 1886
    Vittorio Sella/Fondazione Sella, Courtesy of Panopticon Gallery/Decaneas Archive
  • Crevasse on the Glacier Blanc, Grand Sagne and Ecrins, Alps, August 13, 1888
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    Crevasse on the Glacier Blanc, Grand Sagne and Ecrins, Alps, August 13, 1888
    Vittorio Sella/Fondazione Sella, Courtesy of Panopticon Gallery/Decaneas Archive
  • From the Southern Ridge of Staircase Peak, 1909
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    From the Southern Ridge of Staircase Peak, 1909
    Vittorio Sella/Fondazione Sella, Courtesy of Panopticon Gallery/Decaneas Archive

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At the time, neither mountaineering nor photographing were easy. In addition to a large-format view camera, Sella was hauling an entire darkroom on his back — chemicals and plates in his personally designed bags and rucksacks. And after seeing his photographs, it's obvious why he went through all the trouble. Sella was one of the few people in the world to witness these sublime landscapes first-hand, and it's no surprise that he wanted to document them.

Today, Sella's photographs are historic documents as much as they are works of art. They show glacial retreat in central Africa, historic climbs and unseen landscapes. Boston's Panopticon Gallery will be paying homage to the photographer with an exhibition starting next month.

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