Born in 1859 in Biella, in the foothills of the Alps, Sella grew up to be a fearless mountaineer and a groundbreaking photographer. He made a number of significant climbs, including the first winter ascents of the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa, and he also took some sublime pictures of mountains – so richly detailed, and so startlingly dramatic in their contrasts between light and shade, that they seem almost hyper-real, even in our Photoshop-fatigued age. Some of Sella’s most striking images were made during the Duke of Abruzzi’s 1909 expedition to the Karakoram, a sub-range of the Himalayas that straddles the border between the present-day nations of China, India and Pakistan and includes the highest concentration of peaks over 8,000m anywhere on earth, including 8,611m K2. Unlike the Himalayas around Mount Everest, which tend to hold a lot of snow near their summits and can therefore appear as featureless white blobs in photographs, the mountains of the Karakoram are so steep and jagged that large areas of their rocky surfaces are exposed even in the depths of winter, giving the photographer much more to work with in terms of texture. But there’s more to Sella’s work than simply being the right man standing beside the right mountains, as Prior explains.
“There were quite a lot of people [photographing the Himalayas] at the start of the 20th century,” he says, “but Vittorio had a really keen eye. Composition was the key – he was able to compose extremely well. What amazes me is that these images were shot back in 1909, but some of them are the defining images of the Karakoram. There was something about the way he captured them that remains unique to this day.”
Prior’s admiration for Sella’s work has led him to embark on the most ambitious undertaking of his career to date. Started last year, and due to be completed in 2017, The Karakoram Project will see Prior make as many as 12 trips to the region to photograph its spellbinding landscapes. Some of the images will be recreations of the pictures Sella took more than a century ago; others will be Prior’s own contributions to the iconography of the area. A book he describes as his “magnum opus” will be the result, and tomorrow there will be a feature-length documentary about the project on BBC2 Scotland, following Prior on some of his attempts to recreate Sella’s shots.
“When we were out there we had details of where he photographed from, and most of the spots were well above the Baltoro Glacier and would have required perhaps a couple of days to get to – certainly on the Chogolisa Icefall it would probably have taken three days to put fixed ropes in – so they were in really very exposed, precarious positions,” says Prior.
“When I say ‘they’, it was usually Vittorio and one or two porters, because of the effort that would have been required to get the camera into these spots.
“What’s amazing about the pictures he took in the Karakoram was that he had a special wooden camera made for that expedition by Dalmeyer in London, and the glass negatives were 11x14 inches.” Prior chuckles at the thought. “You can imagine the weight that a single negative would be. And then, of course, he would expose them and they would come down and process them in a tent. Then they would have had to go into a mahogany case with slots in it and back down the glacier on the back of a porter and back on a ship to Italy. It’s a miracle any of them survived at all.”
• Colin Prior – Mountain Man is on BBC2 Scotland tomorrow at 8pm. A book and exhibition of The Karakoram Project are planned for the autumn of 2017.