After four decades of work on assignments that have ranged from climbs in the Himalayas to treks across the frozen Arctic Ocean, Gordon Wiltsie has released To the Ends of the Earth: Adventures of an Expedition Photographer (W.W. Norton).The book is an amazing page-turner of adventure stories and images taken on many great assignments.
Outdoor Photographer: Give us a little background on yourself and explain what drew you to photography?
Gordon Wiltsie: I was born in Bishop, Calif., directly under the spectacular eastern Sierra Nevada. I grew up surrounded by a wonderland of natural creations. I fell in love with photography at age eight and began shooting a Kodak Brownie. I remember following friends into the mountains to test my photographic skills on spectacular cliffs, crags and summits.
Outdoor Photographer: Looking at your work, it seems that your assignments have placed you in harm’s way on numerous occasions.
Wiltsie: At first, this was a result of inexperience, then later, by teaming up with some of the world’s most talented climbers, skiers, jungle explorers and other eccentrics who pushed me to my limits. I need to make an important caveat here, though. My collaboration with these experts works because I’m experienced and competent at my job. I’ve never jeopardized anyone’s safety, but our jobs are very distinct. They're the foremost adventurers in their field who take the greatest risks, and I’m the photographer brought along by magazines and equipment companies who sponsor me to return with the best imagery possible.
Outdoor Photographer: How do you capture the essence of the moment through your images?
Wiltsie: Clearly, a collection of a dozen beautiful pictures doesn’t necessarily make a story. It seldom does. Storytelling comes from communicating an essence and visually engaging the readers so that they feel part of the story and care about it.
Outdoor Photographer: And the human element is often a vital part of adventure stories.
Wiltsie: Yes, the kinds of stories I cover have everything to do with people. I think that the audience is curious about how others react in extreme situations. What are their facial expressions? What goofy quirks make them lovable or possibly even obnoxious? What relationships are going on? That curiosity also needs some variety to maintain the reader’s interest—the thrill of the sport, the majesty of the landscape, the rock-bloodied hands of a climber, a group of howling sled dogs. How people feel about being where they are is what makes an expedition come alive.
Outdoor Photographer: You’ve had some amazing adventures with so many legends, including Norman Vaughan.
Wiltsie: Norman Vaughan was the last remaining member of Richard Byrd’s 1928 expedition to the South Pole. I guided him up a 10,000-foot mountain in Antarctica when he was almost 90 because it was named after him. In 1929, he was a strapping Harvard graduate who teamed with renowned Antarctic explorer Richard Byrd. They traveled more than 1,700 miles through complete wilderness and set up America’s first base on the continent. Ever since, it had been Vaughan’s dream to climb "his" mountain.
The best part of the trip for me was watching Vaughan’s growing elation—and exhaustion—as we got closer and closer to the top. We reached the summit near midnight and tried to light 89 sparklers as birthday candles atop his "cake." We couldn’t get a single one lit.
Outdoor Photographer: You had another amazing adventure in Antarctica climbing an incredible formation—the Razor.
Wiltsie: That was a formation I had to conquer. Even though I lived near Yosemite National Park, I was never successful at climbing huge, overhanging granite walls I went on to become an alpine mountain guide, leading ordinary people up glaciers and peaks in the Sierra. I even guided two 23,000-foot peaks in the Himalaya. Then, during an aerial reconnaissance in 1995, I spotted one of the most dramatic rock spires I had ever seen. It cast a shadow that looked like a knife blade. It was appropriately named the Razor. All I needed were the world’s best big-wall climbers to ascend the beast and create some awesome photography.
Our team consisted of people considered to be the greatest in their fields: the late Alex Lowe—then considered to be the world’s greatest mountaineer; Conrad Anker, who earlier discovered George Mallory’s body on Mount Everest; writer Jon Krakauer; author and filmmaker Rick Ridgeway; Emmy Award-winning videographer Michael Graber; and, of course, myself. Every one of us considered it to be the best expedition of our lives.
Outdoor Photographer: Even though you had started out early in life as an adventure photographer, could you have imagined yourself sharing the ropes with such a unique group of people?
Wiltsie: At the beginning of my photographic career, my dream was to cover exotic peoples and vanishing cultures. At that point in time, however, individual adventure travel was just beginning to become a reality and gain traction with a wider audience. Looking back now, I can’t even remember the number of times I’ve almost been killed in the wilderness.
I recently had an assignment that proved to be far more adventurous and dangerous than I ever predicted. It was a National Geographic story about a semiannual migration in Mongolia. For starters, Mongolians may be the best horse riders in the world, and I was very inexperienced. It was tough, but by the end, I could gallop in the middle of a herd, camera in one hand, reins in the other, and fire off frames at 1/4000 second. I also felt integrated into a culture that has changed little over the past 800 years, since the time when Genghis Khan conquered most of the known world.
Wiltsie: I went to digital capture about a year ago, although I've been digitizing my slides with a Nikon scanner for years and am relatively proficient in Photoshop. To save weight, I chose the Nikon D200, a fabulous camera that closely emulates my Nikon F100 film camera.
My favorite lenses are wide-angles. I have a 12-24mm ƒ/4 that has more than proven itself. My next step up is a 35-70mm ƒ/2.8 that I’ve had for years and may be one of Nikon's best pieces of glass. Then I have an 80-200mm ƒ/2.8 that, again, I’ve had for years, but that's a solid piece of glass, with "heavy" being one of the definitions of solid. After that, I have a fixed 400mm ƒ/5.6, which is light enough to carry and also razor-sharp. Mix in my old 20mm, 24mm, 28mm and 105mm lenses, and I have a great collection of well-traveled antiques.
My biggest complaint is that the D200 won’t properly flash-sync with my old SB-28s, SB-26s or SB-24s. With three family members in college, it’s hard to invest in new camera gear, but a couple of new flashes and long sync cords are at the top of my list.
One final caveat about equipment for expeditions is that you always need an old standby. I never go anywhere without an FM2 and 50 rolls of film. That camera will shoot at any speed without batteries, down to -50 degrees F, and just keeps on ticking.
Outdoor Photographer: How do you protect your gear and yourself from the extreme elements you encounter?
Wiltsie: In my early days of expedition photography, I couldn’t find a relatively waterproof camera case to hang around my neck that gave me instant access to the camera. I designed and sewed my own camera and lens cases. To date, I’ve yet to see anything better.
The other huge concern in extreme elements is condensation. If you take a cold camera into a warm, steamy tent or room, it will instantly fill with water like the pitcher on a Kool-Aid package. That may or may not be okay, but if suddenly a sunset erupts and you go back out into the cold, you can destroy every moving piece. In that situation, take along a slide-lock plastic bag, put the camera into the bag before entering the tent, and you won’t experience any problems.
As for protecting myself from the elements, I dress in multiple layers of modern synthetic clothing. I use strong tents, thick sleeping bags and try not to spill pots of water all over everything. But now we’re talking survival, not photography, and that’s an art of its own.
To see more of Gordon Wiltsie’s photography, visit www.alpenimage.com.