The Matterhorn, photograph by Vittorio Sella, silver gelatin print, 1885 (Fondazione Sella, Biella, via

The Matterhorn, photograph by Vittorio Sella, silver gelatin print, 1885 (Fondazione Sella, Biella, via

Vittorio Sella

AUGUST 28, 2019

Scientist of the Day - Vittorio Sella

Vittorio Sella, an Italian mountain climber and photographer, was born Aug. 28, 1859.  Sella was not really a man of science, but he was a pioneer in the science of photography, and the subjects of his photographs were primarily mountains, which were certainly objects of great interest to scientists at the turn of the century.  Besides, we are apparently partial to photographic pioneers, as we have featured Julia Margaret Cameron, Robert Howlett, and William Bradford in these posts on previous occasions.

Sella was an accomplished mountaineer, climbing Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa, and the Matterhorn in the winter, being the first to do so.  He later made ascents in Alaska, Africa, and the Himalayas.  What distinguishes Sella from other climbers is that he took along a camera, and a whopper at that, one that used 30x40 cm glass plates.  Hauling plates, camera, and developing equipment into the mountains would have seemed a formidable obstacle, but it certainly didn't prevent Sella from taking some remarkable photographs.  He essentially did for mountains what Bradford had done for the far North, in conditions that were even more difficult.  Not surprisingly, Sella was a great inspiration for many later scenic photographers, such as Ansel Adams.

Sella’s photographs are controlled by the Fondazione Sella in Biella, Italy; you can see 234 thumbnails on their website but will have to pay if you want the images any larger.  Fortunately, there was an exhibition of Sella photographs in London in 2008 and the Daily Telegraph reproduced 8 of them in larger format, which we have drawn on for this occasion.

Our photographs show, in order: the Matterhorn in the Alps, 1885 (first image); the view from the summit of the Weisshorn in the Alps, 1887 (second image); Mount Siniolchu in India, this one a telephoto, 1899 (third image); ice caves on the Aletsch glacier in the Alps (fourth image); and K-2 in the Karakoram range of the Himalayas, 1909 (fifth image).

The last photograph is a group portrait of 1909, with Sella standing at far left (sixth image).

It is a telling tribute to the staying power of Sella’s photographs that the feature image on Wikipedia’s article on Siniolchu is the photograph taken by Sella, 120 years ago (third image). Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to