A History of Mountain Photography

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Banière - History of Mountain Photography

The history of photography and the mountains goes back almost to the invention of the former:

As early as 1844, the French government commissioned two scientists, Bravais and Martens, to investigate the possibility of photographing in hostile environments, and chose to send them to .Chamonix

And the first photographs of the Alps were daguerreotypes, and therefore unique.
Joseph-Philibert Girault de Pranget (1804-1892) and John Ruskin (1819-1900) were pioneers in this respect, and the latter boasted that he had taken the first photograph of the Matterhorn (or indeed of any mountain) in August 1849.

But it also quickly met with success: the general public was fascinated by the panoramic views of the Mont-Rose massif and then of Mont-Blanc exhibited respectively in London and Paris by Frédéric Martens in the early 1850s. However, it was not obvious that mountain photography was possible, and not only for technical reasons.

Thus, on 19 August 1850, on seeing the first developed negatives of the Scheuchzerhorn, the photographer Camille Bernabé exclaimed: "The Alps can be photographed!

Camille Bernabe, Scheuchzerhorn and Tierberg glacier, view taken from the Pavillon, 19 August 1850 at 3 o'clock in the evening, from Collection of 28 daguerreotypes representing the oldest heliographic reproductions of the Alps
Camille Bernabe, Scheuchzerhorn and Tierberg glacier, view taken from the Pavillon, 19 August 1850 at 3 o'clock in the evening, from Collection of 28 daguerreotypes representing the oldest heliographic reproductions of the Alps

The first mountain photographers had to face many difficulties

The first is the heavy weight of all the equipment required: it takes several mules and several people to carry it up the mountain. The daguerreotype is a complex process requiring specialised knowledge.

As for negative processes, including collodion invented in 1851, they require the negatives to be developed on site. A special tent was therefore set up as a darkroom. The first photographic processes were not very sensitive, which meant that the exposure times were relatively long. This could prove problematic in a changing environment such as the mountains.

In spite of these difficulties, photographers have photographed in the mountains from very early on, and not just from the bottom, or even from summit , even though it is the highest summit in the Alps. In 1859, Auguste-Rosalie Bisson set out to climb Mont Blanc with the aim of taking a photograph from his summit. He did not climb higher than 2800 m, but was able to take several photographs during the ascent

He finally succeeded in 1861 in a new attempt in the company of his brother, Louis-Auguste.
Although Charles Soulier had succeeded in taking the first photograph from summit of Mont Blanc in 1859, the success was nevertheless resounding. Théophile Gautier praised the Bisson brothers' expedition in the Revue photographique in 1862, going so far as to say that photography had succeeded where painting had failed, i.e. in depicting the high mountains, the French poet writing that

"The painter's colours, if he climbed that high, would freeze on his palette" and that "art [...] does not climb higher than the vegetation".

This idea was widely shared at the time.

Auguste-Rosalie Bisson, Alpinists on the ascent of Mont Blanc, 1861, photograph, 39.4 x 23.4 cm, New York, Metropolitan Museum.
Auguste-Rosalie Bisson, Alpinists on the ascent of Mont Blanc, 1861, photograph, 39.4 x 23.4 cm, New York, Metropolitan Museum.

Mountain photography has played an important role in geology.

One of the biggest questions in 19th century geology was how mountain ranges were formed.

The majority of geologists of that time studied the question. And from 1830 onwards, they did so by relying heavily on images. So they naturally made use of photography from the 1850s onwards.

The first mountain photographs were therefore primarily scientific and not artistic.

The Alps from the point of view of physical geography and geology - Aimé Civiale'sPhotographic Travels - is a paradigmatic example in this respect. Civiale travelled through the Alps for ten years in order to carry out an exact and meticulous survey. The result is six hundred photographs and forty-one panoramas.

The (very) low sensitivity of the plates inducing a long exposure time has another major consequence:
it greatly complicates the shooting of panoramas. Fourteen photographs with twelve to fifteen minutes of exposure each, including the time needed for handling and adjustments,

For example, Aimé Civiale needed about five hours in 1866 to produce a 360° panorama at summit of the Bella Tola, between 7am and noon.


The final result is thus far from being a snapshot reproducing what a viewer would see if he went to summit of the mountain in question, but the long look of a whole morning, separated into fourteen different points of view.

However, this saves a lot of time compared to drawing, because in order to produce a good panorama drawing, it was necessary to go up to summit several times - some people even considered it impossible to draw an entire panorama at summit in less than a summer, because of the difficulties inherent in drawing, but also because of the changing weather conditions.

The drawn panorama is therefore synthetic in nature: it assembles different moments of observation into a single view and allows everything to be seen. The photographer, on the other hand, is dependent on the weather conditions and if the sky becomes overcast, summits will not be visible on the final panorama. For this reason, some thought that photography would never replace drawing in this field.

Aimé Civiale, Weisshorn from the Bella Tola (detail of the circular view), collotype, 1866 (1882 for the print), 34.9 x 26.2 cm, Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum
Aimé Civiale, Weisshorn from the Bella Tola (detail of the circular view), collotype, 1866 (1882 for the print), 34.9 x 26.2 cm, Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum

The creation of alpine clubs - the first being the English Alpine Club in 1857 - and the development of mountaineering encouraged the growth of alpine photography, due to the need to publish good illustrations to complement the accounts of club members. Photography was seen as more accurate.

The ability of the camera to show everything is also proving to be a precious asset for illustrating climbing routes and the most difficult passages, advantageously replacing descriptions and drawings. Mountaineering and the gradual increase in the number of people climbing mountains has led to an increase in the number of photos taken at altitude and even at high altitude.

Amateur photography experienced a major development in the 1880s

It was the invention of the instant camera and the marketing of the Kodak camera in 1888 that revolutionised mountain photography.
The latter, handy and light, is ideal for being taken "easily" to high altitudes.

Guido Rey spoke of his Kodak as "a climbing companion that you can't give up".

The 1880s were also the time of great photographers, such as Paul Helbronner, William Frederik Donkin and Vittorio Sella. The latter did not search make scientific photographs, unlike Helbronner.
Sella was also one of the first to travel to the Himalayas.

Vittorio Sella, Glacier Blanc, Barre des Écrins, Centro di Documentazione del Museo Nazionale della Montagna, Torino.
Vittorio Sella, Glacier Blanc, Barre des Écrins, Centro di Documentazione del Museo Nazionale della Montagna, Torino.

Mountain photography underwent a major change in the inter-war period. Until then, the protagonist of the photograph was always the mountain, even if a mountaineer was in front of the lens. Most often, the human presence served to give a sense of scale and the immensity of the environment. In the 1930s, however, the human being became the primary subject of photography: it was more common to show the mountaineers' ropes than the mountains themselves.

Mountain photography became truly democratic after the Second World War

It was accentuated by the invention of colour photography and the big magazines print.
The publication in 1950 by Paris-Match on its front page of a photograph of Maurice Herzog raising his arms to the sky to celebrate the successful ascent of Annapurna, the first summit of more than 8000m climbed by man, is an emblematic case in this respect.

Nowadays, it is not uncommon for a photograph of a mountain to occupy the wallpaper of our computers

Future articles will look at some of the pioneers of alpine photography, including:
Joseph-Philibert Girault de Pranget (1804-1892), Adolphe Braun (1812-1877), John Ruskin (1819-1900), Aimé Civiale (1821-1893), the Bisson brothers, Louis-Auguste (1814-1876) and Auguste-Rosalie (1826-1900), Gustave Dardel (1824-1899), Jules Beck (1825-1904), Charles Soulier (1840-1875), Vittorio Sella (1859-1943), Jules Jacot-Guillarmod (1868-1925).

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