top of page

Mountains in Monochrome

Garfield Peak, Crater Lake National Park

I don’t tend to gravitate toward photographing mountains, and I generally don’t care for other people’s photographs of them. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it is the often sterile looking environment, or maybe that the subject is just too obvious. And then there is the recent tendency for color landscape photographs to be oversaturated, and often exhibiting unnatural light, perhaps due to the pervasive use of HDR (high dynamic range) processing.

But there are exceptions to my shunning of mountain imagery, coming from two black-and-white photographers. When we (or at least we Americans) think of black-and-white mountain photography, the first photographer who comes to mind is probably Ansel Adams. If we disregard his Yosemite Valley images, being images of the sides of a valley, not of mountains protruding above their surroundings, he really doesn’t have that many mountain images. There are a few classics, of the Maroon Bells, the Tetons, and Denali, along with a handful of lesser known images of mountains.

But what about truly alpine terrain, with steep, fluted snow slopes and precipitous rocky heights, presented with black-and-white imagery? Who do we, as photographers, look to as masters of this realm? Two who come to mind for me are Vitorrio Sella (1859-1943) and Bradford Washburn (1910-2007). Sella photographed primarily in the alps and the Karakoram Range, while much of Washburn’s work was done in Alaska. Both turned out amazing images despite working with challenging equipment, in adverse conditions.

I will give a brief bit about each of these photographers here, but it will come nowhere near doing their accomplishments justice. I would recommend finding the following two excellent books if you have further interest in them and their photographs. The quality of printing in both books is quite good.

Photographic technology in Sella’s time consisted of large cameras, in which images were recorded on glass plates that had to then be developed on the spot in the field. Sella photographed with a camera that weighed in the neighborhood of 40 pounds, and each glass plate was 30 cm by 40 cm (roughly 12 by 16 inches) and weighed about two pounds. He began by photographing extensively in the alps, preferring to photograph in the clearer air of winter. This, of course, added to the difficulty of making exposures! Here is a photo of his, of the Matterhorn.

Not just a photographer, Sella was a leading mountaineer of his time – one of his best known accomplishments was the first winter ascent of the Matterhorn and the first winter traverse of Mont Blanc. Sella later traveled farther afield, accompanying Luigi Amedeo, the Duke of Abruzzi, to Mount St. Elias in Alaska, the Ruwenzori Mountains of Africa, and K2, in the Karakoram Range. His last attempt to climb the Matterhorn, at age 76, had to be abandoned when a guide was injured in an accident.

Here are a few more photos of Sella's:

Bradford Washburn had a tremendous number of accomplishments in his life, from ascents of major Alaskan peaks (including the first ascent of the West Buttress of Denali, now the most commonly climbed route on the mountain), to mapping Denali, Everest, and New Hampshire’s Presidential Range, to being the director of the Museum of Science in Boston, Massachusetts. And then, of course, there are his many stunning mountain photographs. Here is his most famous, of climbers on a ridge in the Alps:

Some of Washburn’s earliest photos were taken while climbing in the Alps, but he is most famous for his aerial images, like the one above, taken from airplanes. Much of his work was done using a camera weighing 58 pounds, which he held in his lap. The camera was loaded with 125 feet of film, which yielded one hundred 7” by 9” negatives. He sometimes photographed out the open door of an airplane while sitting on a 10 gallon gas can, with a tether around his waist that was secured to the opposite side of the airplane to prevent him from falling out!

Here are a few more photos by Washburn. The first is of Mount Huntington (the photo here is quite soft - it is stunning in its sharpness and detail in the book of Washburn's photographs), in Alaska. There is an excellent mountaineering book called Mountain of my Fear, by the climber David Roberts, about his experience on this mountain. Roberts also wrote a biography of Bradford Washburn, called The Last of His Kind. The second and third photographs show abstract glacier patterns, a favorite subject of Washburn's.

Not long ago I found myself atop Lao Rock, on the northwest rim of Crater Lake, on a stunningly clear and calm day. Although technically not a mountain (well, it IS a mountain with the top blown off), there are high points along the Crater Lake rim that are named as peaks. In the winter, the drops from these peaks to the lake are manifested with snowy ridges, punctuated by rocky outcrops, giving a fairly alpine appearance. Below are a few views, in the spirit of Sella and Washburn. The scale is nowhere near as immense as in the scenes they captured, and my photographs are not on a par with those of the aforementioned masters, but here’s what I’ve got!

47 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page