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Gordon Wiltsie goes where the wild images are

In a retrospective at Mountain Light Gallery in Bishop, the photographer's arresting pictures from both poles and seemingly every wild place in between are displayed.

July 17, 2011|By Michael J. Ybarra, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Inuit hunter Jayko Apak waits for seals on ice floe on Baffin Island, Nunavut.
Inuit hunter Jayko Apak waits for seals on ice floe on Baffin Island, Nunavut. (Gordon Wiltsie )

Reporting from Bishop, Calif. —

Winds blowing high over the Sierra Nevadas sometimes form spectacular clouds called Sierra waves because of their fantastic, undulating shapes. Photographer Gordon Wiltsie, who was born and spent most of his life in sight of the Sierra, captured one especially breathtaking example of this formation. A black mountain peeks into the bottom of the vertical photo, twilight darkening one side of the image, while most of the frame is dominated by a sinuous cloud that appears to be on fire — and dancing in the sky like a giant flame.

It's the kind of magical moment that inspires poets — and turns out to be just another day on the job for Wiltsie, a magazine photographer who has roamed the world on assignment for publications such as National Geographic.

Wiltsie was born in Bishop, in the shadow of the Sierra. He took pictures for the local high school paper and around the same time discovered rock climbing. At 17 he became friends with Galen Rowell, a prolific climber who was just beginning a career as a highly regarded nature photographer.

While Wiltsie eventually moved to Bozeman, Mont., his enduring passion for the mountains of California is evident in a retrospective of his work (running through September) at the Mountain Light Gallery in Bishop. The gallery, which occupies a former bank building on Main Street, was established in 2001 by Rowell, who was killed with his wife, Barbara, in a small plane crash the following year.

The exhibit displays arresting images from both poles and seemingly every wild place in between. Wiltsie, an accomplished skier and mountaineer, has specialized in documenting expeditions to remote parts of the globe (he called a book of his work "To the Ends of the Earth"). "Inuit Hunter," for example, is a near-perfect parable of global warming: a spear-clutching Inuit stands on a floating chunk of ice barely as wide as his hips, the surrounding arctic water expanding in every direction.

But perhaps tellingly, some of the most dazzling landscapes in the show are from Wiltsie's former backyard in California. "Sunset Over the Palisades," in fact, almost resembles an Abstract Expressionist painting: two thin, parallel lines of clouds — one wispy and white, the other a fiery pink — float over the blue, jagged crest of the Sierra.

"Summer Thunderstorm," at the other extreme, captures nature at its most electric — a fork of lightning splits a deep purple sky over the mountains.

It looks as though it must have been a terrifying photo to take — until you learn that Wiltsie shot the image from the White Mountains across the Owens Valley.

Then it's merely beautiful.

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