After 20 years of climbs, photographer Derek Johnston unveils ‘Colorado’s Fourteeners’ at Anderson Ranch
Photographer Derek Johnston has spent more than two decades trekking up and down the 14,000-foot peaks of Colorado with a 60-pound pack of photo gear and a desire to find new ways of seeing these iconic mountains.
Johnston has shot all 54 of the state’s fourteeners. He recently unveiled a selection of 11 of his images in a solo exhibition at the Patton-Malott Gallery at Anderson Ranch Arts Center. The show will run through April 10.
“It’s been a labor of love for over 20 years,” he said at last week’s opening reception.
Johnston first came to Anderson Ranch as a resident artist in 1994. He stuck around and is now a faculty member there, teaching popular photography courses and also running the photography program at the Isaacson School for New Media at Colorado Mountain College.
The first fourteener he bagged was Mount Elbert in winter, during one of his first visits to Aspen. A ski patroller friend with backcountry skills, Johnston recalled, shepherded him to the summit. The experience gave the photographer the fourteener bug that led him on this long, artistic journey.
He sought to capture the mountains from a climber’s perspective and from vantages that most viewers have never seen before. For example, anyone who lives in Colorado has probably viewed countless photos of the Maroon Bells. But you’ve probably never seen them as Johnston captured them from on high. His Bells shot, included in the Anderson Ranch show, captures a full 4,000-foot relief of the mountains, dusted lightly with snow that seems to accentuate every wrinkle and cranny and curve of rock. Like all of his fourteener works, Johnston shot it on a 4×5 view camera on black-and-white film.
He spent seven years trying to get this one image of the Bells, returning regularly to the high, far-off-trail vantage point across the valley and hoping for just the right light. He had to begin climbing at 1 a.m. in order to be in place when the sun rose over the horizon.
“I wanted to see them in their most dramatic, iconic state,” he explained.
These works of art also are a feat of mountaineering. The Patton-Malott exhibition includes many color images documenting Johnston’s journeys over the years.
Most of his photographs were made in late spring, when snow is still on the ground but stable enough for ascents and descents. Most of his images are filled with spooky clouds and sometimes with an ominous darkness overhead.
Among the most arresting images is his photo of Ellingwood Point in the Sangre de Christo mountains from 2009, shot from the top of Blanca Peak. It’s an abstracted vision of the mountain, where thick clouds block out one whole side of the mountain — making it look as if it’s been sliced in half. The high-altitude shoot also was among the more dangerous in Johnston’s odyssey. Nearing the top of Blanca after sunrise, he recalled, the snow conditions shifted drastically to wet and slide-ready. He safely made a quick retreat, sinking in thigh-deep snow all the way down to his campsite. Johnston returned the following morning and got his shot.
The all-consuming desire to get his dreamed-of images, Johnston has realized, can be dangerous.
“It’s worse than summit fever,” he said. “I’m trying to make that photograph but to manage risk at the same time.”
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