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Grolier Club Exhibitions

Vittorio Sella

Vittorio Sella (1859–1943) was born in Biella, in the north of Italy, into a family of mountaineers and photographers. Sella inherited both vocations and devoted his life to them. In pursuit of summits around the globe, he captured images of some of the highest places on earth. In 1946, photographer Ansel Adams described him as a “reverent and intelligent artist.” Acknowledging “the physical pressure of time and energy attendant on ambitious mountain expeditions,” Adams was “amazed by the mood of calmness and perfection pervading all of Sella’s photographs.”

Sella honed his craft with some of the first photographers of the Alps and spent the 1880s in his home mountains. In 1889, he began exploring mountain ranges outside Europe. Between 1889 and 1896, he organized three journeys to the Caucasus. His images of those trips attracted the admiration of Luigi Amedeo of Savoy, Duke of the Abruzzi, who invited Sella to become the official photographer for his expeditions. In this capacity, Sella documented the ascent of Mount Saint Elias, in Alaska (1897), and a trip to the African Ruwenzori (1906). In 1909, Sella participated in the Duke’s K2 expedition to the Karakoram, where he made exquisite panoramic images of the Himalayas. Between the first and third outings with the Duke, in 1899, British mountaineer Douglas Freshfield invited Sella on a trip to explore the Sikkim and Kangchenjunga. There, Sella took some of his most memorable photographs, including those of Mount Siniolchu and the summit of Mount Jannu. 

Sella’s legacy represents the synthesis of exploration and art. As a skillful mountaineer, he brought his lenses to high mountain peaks. As an accomplished artist, he created some of the best mountain photographs of all time.


Unknown photographer

Vittorio Sella at age 80, on the balcony of his San Gerolamo Laboratory, Biella Italy, 1939

Courtesy Fondazione Sella, Biella, Italy

Sella_Panorama from Ridge_1909.jpg

Vittorio Sella
Panorama from Ridge between Baltoro and Godwin-Austen Glaciers, 1909
Gelatin silver print

Breashears_Panorama from Ridge_2009.jpg

David Breashears
Panorama from Ridge between Baltoro
and Godwin-Austen Glaciers, 2009
Digital print

“We matched Sella’s magnificent pano in September 2009, one hundred years after Sella had occupied the same photo point in the summer of 1909 as he accompanied the large Karakoram expedition led by the Duke of Abruzzi. It was a very difficult and dangerous photo point to find and occupy. We spent considerable time up high searching for the precise point and clambered atop many false leads. We were tremendously satisfied, and also filled with joy and relief, when we looked around a steep precarious ridge and gazed upon Sella’s cairn standing where it had been erected one hundred years earlier, at the same spot from which Sella recorded his most famous images.”

—David Breashears, Correspondence with Roger Härtl, 2020

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Vittorio Sella

K: View from the Central Moraine of the Upper Baltoro Glacier Showing from Left to Right: K2, Broad Pk., Gasherbrum and Golden Throne, and
L: Telephotograph from Camp XI, at the foot of the Golden Throne showing Mitre Pk, Mustagh Tower and peaks (in feet) 23.524, 23.829 and 23.163

These panoramic photographs were later used for mapmaking. The locations where they were taken are marked on the map below as “K” and “L.”

Sella_Map of Karakoram Range_CORRECT_Feb 9.jpg

Istituto Geographico Militare, Asia: Portion of the Karakoram Range (Western Himalaya). Drawn from the Photogrammetric Survey of the Expedition of H.R.H. the Duke of the Abruzzi, Based upon the Triangulation of the G.T.S. of India (N.W. Himalaya Series) and upon the Survey of Sir W. M. Conway, 1902. Scale 1:100,000

For their topographical work, Vittorio Sella’s expedition used Luigi Pio Paganini’s photogrammetric system, a way of making geographic measurements from photographs. The red lines in this map indicate the tacheometric measurements taken between a station and a point of interest. The letters indicate the station from which a photographic panorama was captured by Sella.

Istituto Geographico Militare_From Rawal Pindi to Baltoro_MAP.jpg

Istituto Geographico Militare, Asia: From Rawal Pindi to the Baltoro Glacier. Itinerary of the Expedition of H.R.H. the Duke of the Abruzzi. From April to August 1909.