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Summit: Vittorio Sella, Mountaineer and Photographer, The Years 1879-1909

Summit: Vittorio Sella, Mountaineer and Photographer, The Years 1879-1909. Essays by Ansel Adams, David Brower, Greg Child, Paul Kalmes and Wendy Watson. Newark, NJ: Aperture, 1999. 125 duotone photographs. 129 pages. $50.00.

Vittorio Sella’s eye, heart and mind danced in the mountains. Scion of a wealthy, cultivated and politically influential Italian family, Sella participated in many of the most important mountaineering expeditions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He developed his considerable skills as climber and photographer in the Alps, but his most extraordinary projects brought him farther afield. Sella took part in Douglas Freshfield’s fabled 1899 circuit of the Kangchenjunga massif; the epic first ascent, with the Duke of Abruzzi, of Alaska’s Mt. Saint Elias in 1897; first ascents in the Ruwenzori’s Mountains of the Moon; and an audacious 1909 probe into the Karakoram that reached 24,500 feet on Chogolisa.

Sella’s art bridges two eras. Behind him lay the main current of European Romanticism, a sensibility that celebrated the sublime majesty of nature. No photographer before or since has better expressed the Romantics’ reverence for mountain grandeur than he. His mountains are nothing less than epic and stupendous, the abode of spirits and gods. But ahead of Sella lay Modernism, which, even as he trekked Karakoram glaciers, was being born in France. Modernists in photography would soon focus on the barest essentials of “the thing itself’ (to use Edward Weston’s term). Sella uncannily anticipated this trend with spare, clean compositions celebrating air, snow, rock—and form.

Nowhere is Sella’s blend of romanticism and modernism better articulated than in the cover image of Siniolchun. As an expression of sheer “mountain-ness,” the shot is incredibly perfect Modernism. Yet Sella also made the mountain seem like a goddess wrapped in bridal tule, romantic as she could possibly be. As David Brower says in the book’s introduction, no mountain should be allowed to be that beautiful.

How is it that mountains can carry such symbolic intensity? How do they become the abode of dream and fantasy, of otherworldly kingdoms buried inside the human mind? There is no answer, of course. But curator Wendy Watson comes up with an intriguing notion in her essay. Playing with C.G. Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious, she suggests that Sella tapped into an “optical unconscious” through a convergence of technical craft and inner spirituality.

One of the most exceptional landscape images this reviewer has ever seen shows Sella standing on the Baltoro Glacier. His camera stares simultaneously at the peaks above Urdukas and a cave plunging through unknowable depths within the ice. Sella has become a kind of Orpheus, traveling both in the conscious world and in the infinite underworld. That picture alone justified Sella’s lifetime of visual exploration.

We are fortunate to partake of that odyssey in this astounding book, an essential volume for any lover of mountain imagery.

James Balog