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Mountain Photographer Hits a Peak After 30 Years

January 02, 1986|VICTOR M. VALLE | Times Staff Writer

A visit to a U.S. Forest Service office convinced Roy Murphy that he could capture the beauty of the San Gabriel Mountains better than the photographs on display.

"I saw blown-up, fuzzy pictures," Murphy said of the visit more than 30 years ago. "That's no way to sell the mountains."

Thus began his career as a photographer and a love affair with the mountains that culminated this year in an 80-page color photo album titled "The San Gabriel Mountains." The book, published by an Arcadia-based nonprofit group called the Big Santa Anita Historical Society, is available for $25 in San Gabriel Valley bookstores.

But for the 68-year-old Covina resident, the book fulfills more than a long-held personal dream. It also is a vehicle for building support for the society's efforts to preserve the history and beauty of the mountains.

Murphy's book is the fourth published by the society since 1981, when it was founded by a handful of photographers, naturalists and historians to create educational materials about the mountains.

Glen Owen, society president, said the group does not have dues-paying members, only a seven-member board on which Murphy also sits. The society depends on book sales to pay for its publishing and preservation projects, Owen said.

Although the latest sales figures were not available, Owen said Murphy's book has sold enough copies to pay for printing the first edition of 2,000 books and a second edition later this year.

Proceeds from the second edition also will help pay for the restoration of the abandoned Vetter Mountain lookout tower in Angeles National Forest, Owen said.

Located due north of Arcadia in the middle of the 690,000-acre forest off the Angeles Crest Highway, the lookout--built in the 1920s and closed in the 1970s--is a reminder of a time when such towers played a key role in the detection of forest fires, he said.

The society, he said, so far has set aside $1,000 for restoring the tower and moving it a few miles away to the U.S. Forest Service's Chilao Visitor Center, where it will be used as an educational display.

Abundance of Scenery

"The general feeling of the people I (work with) is that they genuinely appreciate his work," said Jeff Spectre, a Forest Service spokesman at the Glendora office where Murphy's book and posters are sold.

"There's a misperception of what the forest is about," Spectre said. "The people who never leave the city don't know that there's an abundance of scenic beauty in our mountains. If the book increases understanding of the forest, then that's great."

Murphy, who came to California from his native Toronto in 1953, said that two years after settling here, his explorations and photos of the mountains led him to shift his career from commercial art to photography.

He said a visit to the Forest Service office in Glendora a few years later sealed his fate. The Forest Service "took me in like an adopted son," he said, and began contracting him to photograph the national forests and parks of the Western United States.

His large black-and-white enlargements and color posters of the mountains hang in the Forest Service's offices in Glendora and throughout the country.

Photos Take Patience

Much of his time is now spent on nature photography, Murphy said.

Patience, an intimate knowledge of the mountains and an attempt to communicate a sense of emotional connection with his subject is essential to his work, he said.

"These are desert mountains. They're more subtle. You have to live with them a while to see their beauty. Here, you have to be at the right place, under the right conditions for (the photo) to be strong."

The silver-haired photographer said he plans his shots as much as a year in advance to catch an arroyo or smooth-barked sycamores or a stubborn, wind-gnarled Jeffrey pine in their most dramatic guises.

Winter, spring and fall are the best seasons to discover the San Gabriels, he says, and daybreak the best light in which to frame them.

Not Enough Respect

Unfortunately, Murphy said, the rugged mountains which form an often smoggy backdrop to the San Gabriel Valley still are too little understood and appreciated.

"There's no reverence for the mountains," he said. "People are looking without seeing. The road is good, so they fly right through."

Not enough of the 6 million people who visit Angeles National Forest each year see the best of what the mountains have to offer, he said. Too many stay on well-traveled roads, he added, only to converge on already crowded areas and damage the habitat.

Murphy, however, hopes his book will help others to look more deeply into the mountains.

"I hope (the book) will get people to have pride" in them, he said. "They are their mountains. They should take care of them."

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