The Call of the Wild
Dangling off a craggy cliff face in the name of work is not a daunting prospect for adventure photographer Gordon Wiltsie. Nick Smith hears his story…
After more than three decades as a professional photographer, Gordon Wiltsie is known as one of the best adventure and expedition photographers out there. Brought up among the wide-open spaces he started off as a keen mountaineer studying chemistry, before a chance meeting with Galen Rowell lead him to his true vocation. He quickly switched his academic interest to the creative fields, but before long realised that he simply wanted to be in the mountains with his camera.
After a ‘long hold-out to film’ Gordon switched to digital two years ago and says he’ll never go back. But it’s not as though he’s a newcomer to digital because he’s been scanning his old transparencies for a decade now, in order to supply them to magazines, and to build up his photographic library – Alpenimage – a famous resource for art directors on the lookout for unusual adventure images.
Gordon has ‘done a lot of work for National Geographic and Geo’ as well as broader cultural photography, and has recently won the 2008 Lowell Thomas Award for best Magazine Travel Photography for his piece in National Geographic Adventure on Russian reindeer nomads called ‘Vanishing Breed’. He has contributed to many books, and his most recent is To the Ends of the Earth: Adventures of an Expedition Photographer.
Nick Smith: When did you realise you were going to become a photographer?
Gordon Wiltsie: When I was 17 I met a guy called Galen Rowell. He wasn’t even a famous photographer at that time, but he’d had stuff printed in various magazines, and I thought: ‘wow, if this guy can do it then so can I…’ To make that kind of assumption was a bit ridiculous.
NS: What was your first camera?
GW: I got a Brownie when I was 8 and I had some ancient Kodak bellows camera from the 1920s. But finally my parents bought me a Pentax Spotmatic and I’d say that was my first real camera which I had until I accidentally backed my car over it.
NS: What formal training do you have?
GW: I started off as a political science major and then I became a chemistry major and then I wanted to go to Nepal, which was a life dream. So I changed my major to creative writing and photography. But I’d say I’m largely self-taught.
NS: How important is it to specialise?
GW: It’s important to be known for something. For a long time I was known for ski, mountain and adventure photography. Going to really wild places that no one had ever really been before was my niche. If it was cold, miserable and dangerous, editors would send me.
NS: What is the best assignment you’ve been on?
GW: There are two actually. My assignment to Queen Maud Land in Antarctica was probably the best adventure because it worked so well for me as an expedition leader as well as photographer – it was my first cover story for National Geographic. The other one was a story I did of a migration in Mongolia. It was an unbelievable human story experience.
NS: What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?
GW: Uncertainty. Because I’m freelance my employer is me. Also, with the advent of digital photography and easy-to-use cameras the supply of photography outstrips the demand and as a result quality falls off as some magazines realise they don’t have to pay so much for photographs.
NS: Film or digital? Why?
GW: I used to always shoot film because I thought that it gave a better image in the long run. I do a lot of lecturing and I thought slide shows using real film looked better than digital. Bt the latitude you can get out of digital compared with film is astonishing.
NS: What’s the most important thing you’re learned from another photographer?
GW: I went on to assist Galen Rowell and he became a bit of a mentor. I learned a lot from him, but the most important thing was always ‘be ready with your camera set to go’. Other photographers who really inspire me are Steve McCurry, Reza, Bill Allard. They’re all trying to capture a moment in time with their own different way of seeing things.
NS: What does photography mean to you?
GW: For me it is a means of communicating a human relationship with a natural world that is beyond description in words. People sometimes call me a landscape photographer, but I’m not. I’m a people photographer.
NS: What makes a great travel photograph?
GW: Two things here: one is a travel story where there are ten different pictures that add up to something. But a single great photo needs a human element, it has to make you want to me there – or not want to be there – and it has to have some emotional component to it.
Gordon’s FIVE golden rules
1 Use the simplest lightest gear
2 Be prepared and ready for action
3 Simplify things – home in on what is important
4 Patience is important – wait for the shot
5 Build trust rust is important in cultural photography
Cameras: Nikon FM-2, Nikon D200
Lenses: Nikkor 12-24mm f/4, 35-70mm f/2.8, 80-200mm f/2.8, 400mm
Accessories: remote switch, monopod, polarising filter, split ND filter, flash
To the Ends of the Earth: Adventures of an Expedition Photographer by Gordon Wiltsie is available on Amazon