A pioneer's view from the top

Vittorio Sella's mountain shots set the bar high

“The Duke of Abruzzi and guides climbing through the Chogolisa Icefall’’ demonstrates what Ansel Adams called “the mood of calmness and perfection pervading all of Sella’s photographs.’’ “The Duke of Abruzzi and guides climbing through the Chogolisa Icefall’’ demonstrates what Ansel Adams called “the mood of calmness and perfection pervading all of Sella’s photographs.’’ (Panopticon Gallery)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / September 26, 2010

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Vittorio Sella’s father wrote the first book in Italian about photography. Sella’s uncle founded the Italian Alpine Club. So it would seem all but genetically determined that Sella (1859-1943) should become the foremost mountaineering photographer of his time. What wasn’t determined, genetically or otherwise, was his being such a fine photographer, period.

Sella’s self-described goal was “to reproduce faithfully the atmosphere of the [mountain] panorama even more accurately than it can be seen by the eye or retained by the mind.’’ That’s no small task under any circumstances. It’s that much harder with the sheer difficulty of just getting in place to take the photographs. In that regard, being a mountaineering photographer is not unlike being a war photographer. And the task is positively Herculean when it involves, as it did for Sella, having to carry a camera-tripod combination weighing 40 pounds and employ highly fragile glass-plate negatives, each of which weighed 2 pounds.

“Heights of Observation: The Photographs of Vittorio Sella,’’ which runs at the Panopticon Gallery through Nov. 8, excitingly demonstrates how well he accomplished his goal. It’s easy to see why no less an authority than Ansel Adams praised “the mood of calmness and perfection pervading all of Sella’s photographs.’’

The images here span a quarter century. Yet the last one feels no less fresh, and excited (in Sella’s steady, unflappable way), than the first one. There’s a constant sense of discovery here — Sella’s own, as well as the viewer’s. Every time he took a picture, it feels as though it could have been the first time.

“Heights of Observation’’ has nearly 50 photographs by Sella, along with a portrait of him. As bookends, there are also several large-scale mountain images taken by the late Bradford Washburn, the legendary longtime head of the Museum of Science, Boston, and another admirer of Sella and his work.

“In the mountains, there you feel free,’’ T.S. Eliot writes in “The Waste Land.’’ This magnificent topography conveys such a sense of grandeur, liberation, exaltation — but with a capacity for oppression, too. Most of the Sella prints here are relatively small — 13 inches by 19 inches — which is just as well. They’d be oppressive otherwise.

Mountains and mountain climbing possess a romance, a magic. Names like Matterhorn and K2 (both of which Sella climbed and photographed) have a mystique to them, a kind of insane majesty. Yet majesty without precision is, visually anyway, so much bombast. There’s nothing bombastic about these images. Partly that’s owing to Sella’s splendid eye for detail. It’s also owing to our knowledge of how hard won is the privilege he earned us to see these locations.

Looking at Sella’s images, one can easily understand the urge to try to climb these peaks — if not the decision then to do so. In “The Duke of Abruzzi and guides climbing through the Chogolisa Icefall,’’ we confront a strange, otherworldly landscape, with icicles like bared fangs and clouds that look as substantial as the snow-covered crags they loom over. The mingling of snow and cloud in “Camp below Broad Peak on the Godwin Austen Glacier’’ presents a mingling of snow and cloud that’s a white beyond white.

“Intrepid’’ barely describes Sella’s travels. “Heights of Observation’’ includes images not just of the Alps and Dolomites, but also the Caucasus, the Ruwenzori, the Himalayas, even Alaska. Sella was interested in more than just mountains and climbing them. The show includes several photographs he took of local inhabitants. Much as the mountains themselves draw him, it’s ultimately the interaction between individual and landscape that holds the most interest.

The two climbers visible in “Highest peak of the Cimon Della Pala, Dolomites,’’ look hilariously puny. Their relative tininess makes their successful ascent seem simultaneously all the nobler and sillier. The incommensurability of man and mountain is underscored in “Camp V below the west face of K2 from Savoy Glacier, Karakoram.’’ The tents Sella shows provide an intermediary measure of scale. As a result, the small size of the people seems all the more startling.

Usually, people are visible in Sella’s photographs. They’d be superfluous in “Mount Speke with lobelia forest in the Bujuki Valley,’’ the contrast between lush vegetation and snowy summit is that startling. They’d be superfluous in a different way in “K2, from the Southern Ridge of Staircase Peak.’’ There the mountain itself takes on the character of a person — or, more accurately, perhaps, deity.

Mark Feeney can be reached at

HEIGHTS OF OBSERVATION: The Photographs of Vittorio Sella

At Panopticon Gallery, 502c Commonwealth Ave., through Nov. 8. 617-267-8929,