During the 19th century, an increasingly rich and leisured middle class could afford to travel, while the age of steam accelerated and democratised transport. Increasing numbers found their way to the Alps and ensured a ready market for visual representations of alpine scenery, ably provided by a stream of artists versed in the romantic picturesque and the sublime, including J.M.W. Turner.
This pictorial tradition was continued by the early photographers. It is interesting that the very first photographs of Chamonix’s glaciers were probably taken by the man who had defined the Victorian aesthetic appreciation of mountain landscape, English art critic, John Ruskin. He took daguerrotypes of the Chamonix valley in 1849 and 1854.
In keeping with the scale of the subject, Friedrich von Martens took large calotypes and panoramas of the Mont Blanc massif in the mid 1850s. Auguste-Rosalie Bisson first visited Chamonix in 1858, by 1860 had established a studio there and in 1861 was the first photographer to reach the summit of Mont Blanc. Bisson Frères were renowned for their large format views.
The much smaller stereoscopic format may at first sight be considered an inadequate vehicle with which to capture the sublime. However, the opposite is true. When you look into a stereoscope, your entire field of vision is filled. The immersive three-dimensional effect can be realistically visceral in its portrayal of the scale and immensity of mountains and glaciers, the vertiginous depths of cliffs and crevasses and human insignificance in the vastness of nature. Stereoviews of the Alps became highly popular, both with armchair travellers and as souvenirs, soon capturing well over 90% of the market for topographical photographs. They were affordable, compact and lightweight, yet had the ability, when placed in the stereoscope back home, to transport the tourist back to their favourite viewpoint.
The first stereoscopic views of the glaciers were taken in 1856. Claude-Marie Ferrier had already taken a successful series of Swiss stereoviews in 1855 and in 1856 visited Chamonix Mont-Blanc, managing to climb to the Grands Mulets refuge (3050m) to take what are probably the earliest photographs at high altitude.
In 1860, Savoie became incorporated into France and soon the dramatic scenery of the Chamonix Mont-Blanc region became the most photographed region in the country outside Paris. Auguste-Rosalie Bisson was the official photographer for the visit of Emperor Napoleon III and Impératrice Eugénie, as they surveyed their new domain. Local photographers Eugène Savioz and Joseph Tairraz were additionally employed by the town to record the Imperial visit. Photographer Adolphe Braun was also present, on the second of several trips to the Chamonix valley.
William England quit his role as chief photographer for the London Stereoscopic Company in 1863 and undertook his first independent assignment, a stereoscopic tour of Switzerland and Savoie under the special patronage of the Alpine Club. Out of the resulting 130 stereoviews, 21 were of the Chamonix valley. He was repeatedly drawn back to Chamonix Mont-Blanc, photographing the area on at least seven occasions.
Nineteenth century Chamonix was immortalised by an endless stream of other stereo-photographers such as Prot, Plaut, Durieux, Villeneuve, Bertrand, Fourne & Tournier, Grillet, Lamy, Garcin, Julien, Charnaux, Jouvin and Varroquier. The turn of the century brought major publishers like Kilburn, Underwood & Underwood, Stereotravel, Realistic Travels, H.C.White and Keystone. In Chamonix, the first photographers, Savioz and Tairraz, were joined by Michel Couttet, whose son Auguste Couttet later became the outstanding local photographer, winning a medal at the Paris International Exhibition of 1899 and becoming an official photographer for the first Winter Olympics, held in Chamonix in 1924.
The early stereo-photographers would have used the wet collodion technique, which required carrying the darkroom with them. During the 1880s, the availability of pre-prepared dry plate negatives would greatly simplify alpine photography.